“Social good” is a loaded term for a complicated field of work. After all, “good” is relative, and “social” gets confusing when an organization starts shipping resources or workers out to a foreign country without a full understanding of the people and their culture. Who is this work really for, anyways? So when I first started hearing about Cotopaxi—a buzzy gear company committed to doing social good—I wasn’t sure what to think. After all, they’re still trying to sell me something.
Specifically, Cotpaxi is selling vibrant outdoor gear, from windbreakers, long johns, and sweaters, to technical packs, tents, and sleeping bags. They’re also selling a story, much like Tom’s shoes or Patagonia. Every item you buy from Cotopaxi fuels a broad network of outreach and humanitarian work, both in their hometown of Salt Lake City and abroad. They’re gaining tons of traction, particularly among young people who like a little crossover in their outdoor gear and their urban, in-town life. In large part, this consumer base is drawn in by Cotopaxi’s trendy, streamlined design, but they’re also engaging with Cotopaxi’s mission and socially-aware and globally-concerned identity.
Remember when Patagonia donated all their Black Friday sales, and they ended up selling 10 times what they anticipated? That mentality is at play here, too. Buying something new often comes with a little bit of a guilt trip, whether that’s because of the spending, the environmental impact of consumer goods, or the ethics of the company you bought it through (we’re looking at you, Amazon). By telling customers they’re doing something bigger than buying a backpack by, well, buying a backpack, Cotopaxi has hit on something important: people, particularly the politically and globally engaged outdoor community, want to put their money where their mouth is. And thanks to their wide-ranging, carefully researched outreach programs, Cotopaxi lets customers do just that.
The young company launched in 2014 with $3 million in funding from investors willing to take a chance on something unheard of: a venture capitalist-backed benefit corporation. “It’s a new type of business entity where you incorporate to do good, to look beyond your bottom line, and make decisions based on your impact on people and on the planet,” says founder Davis Smith. “It was against the advice of my business attorneys. They said ‘Hey, why don’t you convert to a benefit corporation later on, once the business is working. No investors are going to want to invest in a business that is giving away money before they’ve had any returns.’ I just felt strongly that this was so core to our brand that I had to incorporate as a benefit corporation, even if it meant certain investors wouldn’t invest.”
Smith, a 38-year-old entrepreneur who spent most of his childhood in South America, had founded two companies before developing Cotopaxi. Both were online retailers, like Cotopaxi, and they gave Smith a chance to hone his business skills, learn about brand and culture-building, and land on what it is he wanted to do next. With a lifetime of outdoor adventure behind him, a heart for impoverished communities like those he grew up around in South America, and a desire to do something bigger than earn money, he landed on an idea that would let him apply his hard-earned skillset to that nebulous term, social good.
Cotopaxi’s outreach takes a few primary forms. First, they donate 2% of all sales to carefully-chosen grantees like Educate Girls, the International Rescue Committee, and Nothing But Nets. Second, Cotopaxi uses their production and materials sourcing as an opportunity for impact as well, taking great care to ensure excellent working conditions in their factories and source their materials ethically. They brought much-needed income to a farming community in Bolivia by purchasing their llama wool, built community gardens for workers in a China factory, and encouraged creative freedom among sewers in their Philippines factory, where the Luzon del Dia bag is made. Finally, they do state-side outreach too. In Salt Lake City, their computer engineers founded a 20-week coding program for refugees, 60,000 of whom live in Salt Lake. They’ve also developed a network of events called Questivals, 24-hour adventure races that bring their broad community together in cities across North America for community service and outdoor adventure.
None of these initiatives have been perfect from the get-go, as Smith himself is quick to point out. At first, Cotopaxi partnered with organizations Smith had worked with in person and whose missions he deeply believed in. But a year into things, when Smith hired Lindsey Kneuven as Chief Impact Officer (which happened before Cotopaxi hired a marketing manager, much to the chagrin of the profit-minded board), he learned that he’d been doing just about everything wrong. Kneuven radically re-configured how they choose partners and benefactors, carefully choosing organizations already proven to have major impact in their communities.
“It was really hard emotionally because I was so connected to these causes that we were helping,” says Smith. “But I really believed we needed to be at the forefront of giving and that we wanted to be an example to other companies about how to give in the right way. It is really easy to create dependencies and actually end up hurting people where you intended to help, and that’s where you have to be so careful and deliberate about how you create these impacts. And making sure you’re doing it in a sustainable way, and also in a way that’s very measurable, so you can report back on the impact that you’re having.”
The position of a benefit corporation is unique, because they’re committed to their impact but they are still trying to sell you something. And buying a Cotopaxi jacket also means buying the narrative Cotopaxi’s selling through their extensive community of brand ambassadors and expert guerilla marketing (which included, at the very beginning, toting llamas, their mascot, around to cities and college campuses).
But here’s the thing: the jacket you’re buying is a great jacket. I’ve been traipsing around in Cotopaxi gear for a few months now and am thoroughly pleased with everything I’ve tried out, from the Libre sweater to the Paray Jacket. The story you’re buying? It’s a great one too. If, as I shop for my next baselayer, day pack, or down jacket, I can buy something that I trust comes from healthy, happy workers, and that I know, in some small part, helps fuel a bigger effort towards, yes, “social good,” I’m stoked. Few businesses show this much accountability when it comes to their production, their giving, and their community. Cotopaxi’s mission and their products are the real deal.
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