With a rise in brands claiming to contribute to corporate social responsibility, it’s common for conscientious consumers to feel they’re “doing good” in their purchases, without actually knowing where their money is going.
Outdoor gear brand Cotopaxi is trying to reconnect the consumer and cause; each of its products is attached to a specific humanitarian cause, ranging from clean water provision in India to a child’s schooling in Peru. When you buy a product from Cotopaxi, you know what difference your purchase has made.
Cotopaxi backs every one of its products with a Human Lifespan Guarantee — they’re designed to last 61 years (the World Health Organization’s estimate of the average lifespan in the underdeveloped world). That’s an impressive claim of resource sustainability for a brand that produces gear for the outdoors, and all the wear and tear that comes with it.
I caught up with Cotopaxi CEO Davis Smith to learn more about the brand’s contribution to poverty alleviation and sustainability.
Davis, I understand you spent a lot of time traveling and visiting impoverished communities prior to founding Cotopaxi. What made you choose sustainable outdoor gear as the mode of helping poverty alleviation in these countries?
**Davis Smith:**After moving to Latin America when I was four, I spent my entire childhood and about half of my adult life living in the developing world. During this time, I saw lives destroyed by heartbreaking poverty and lack of opportunity. Having been exposed to this reality, I felt a responsibility to make a difference. After a few years of being an entrepreneur in Brazil, I moved to the U.S. and started Cotopaxi — the first startup to be incorporated as a Benefit Corporation from inception.
I chose to tackle the outdoor industry because my father was an adventurer, and growing up abroad, I swam and floated the Amazon River, hiked dozens of volcanos, camped on deserted islands and spearfished for food. I’ve always loved adventuring and the outdoors. Unfortunately, there was not an amazing outdoor brand catering towards the millennial generation. Patagonia and The North Face are great companies, but are both over 50 years old. Taking my passion and experience of growing up outdoors, I wanted to build a direct-to-consumer outdoor brand, a brand that is all about the experience.
Cotopaxi works with a range of partners, all associated with different products and development projects/communities — can you tell us about a couple of these and what they do?
DS: Cotopaxi partners with various humanitarian projects, including health, poverty and educational initiatives around the world. A few of the jackets are tied to Radiating Hope, which provides radiation equipment, training and cancer treatment in developing countries. A purchase of one jacket provides one cancer treatment for a patient in Senegal. Some other apparel is linked to Health & Ed 4 Nepal, a non-profit dedicated to supporting the people of Kumari, Nepal. A purchase of these products provides four weeks of schooling for a child at Shree Nepane Primary School. Meanwhile, some of the lifestyle bags partner with Brighten Your Corner, an organization that helps to provide educational facilities to children in Kpong, Ghana.
In addition to funding development projects, Cotopaxi also commits to ensuring fair manufacturing practices at its factories in the Philippines. How do you ensure that your workers get a respectable working wage and sustained good labor conditions? What’s life at these factories like for the workers?
DS: In both quality and worker satisfaction, our factory in Bataan, Philippines is quite unique. This particular factory is frequently audited by some of the largest outdoor companies, such as Patagonia, Camelbak and others. CJ Whittaker, Vice President of Product at Cotopaxi, has worked with the factory for more than seven years, getting to know and interviewing many sewers, managers and nurses to monitor the working conditions. We visit our factories between four and six times per year. Recently, Cotopaxi hired a photojournalist from Manila to interview the employees in their native language and have them share their individual stories.
Our factory has a great community. The employees move from all over the Philippines, speaking many languages and dialects. To appeal to the diverse, and potentially transient culture, the factory has created various clubs and sports leagues to provide a place for co-workers to bond.
Have you seen the benefits of any of the development projects in person? What have some of the key effects been?
DS: Over the past year, Whittaker has visited several of Cotopaxi’s non-profit partners in the developing world to see the grants fulfilled first hand. Recently, Whittaker visited an orphanage in Bolivia, one that is being supported with the Inca line of backpacks. He met a young boy in an orphanage named Deivy, whose mother had left him, and had not yet returned despite a promise to come back when her life situation improved. At 14, Deivy and all other fourteen-year-old boys will be forced to leave the orphanage. While these children are young, there are only a few years to make an impact and increase their chances of becoming a productive member of society in the little mountain village. Cotopaxi is working with this orphanage to hire a tutor who can work with these young students.
We’ve also just hired our Chief Impact Officer to start monitoring, measuring and managing these impact partnerships, so we hope to have more to share on that in the future.
Alongside the social development benefits that Cotopaxi is committed to, are you also committed to environmental or resource sustainability? Does the backing of a Human Lifespan Guarantee of 61 years for all your products mean that they’re designed specifically for durability (hence reducing the need for replacement)?
DS: Cotopaxi is dedicated to finding the top sustainable solutions for the materials used in our products. However, we consistently ensure that these materials will not compromise the quality and performance of the product. We have a number of products where we actually use upcycled materials left over from the manufacturing of other outdoor brands. These high-end fabrics, zippers, trims, thread and even content labels would have otherwise been discarded.
The Human Lifespan guarantees 61 years because according to the World Health Organization’s most recent statistics, this is the average lifespan of a person living in the underdeveloped world. This fact is an added testament to our quality and a reminder of our social mission.
What’s next for Cotopaxi?
DS: We’ll be releasing some new products and gear over the next few months, many made with upcycled materials. We will also soon be expanding to some additional categories, beyond packs and outerwear. New products will lead to newly expanded non-profit partnerships, furthering our mission to increase social impact around the world. We will also be expanding our 24-hour adventure scavenger race, the Cotopaxi Questival, to cities across North America in 2015.