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An in-depth look at Cotopaxi’s mission to fuel global change through sustainable, ethical products that encourage outdoor experiences and support nonprofits helping communities experiencing poverty.
We believe everyone has a role to play in the environmental movement. Whether an individual, an elected official, a company or a CEO, we all have the opportunity and responsibility to leave this world a better place than we found it.
Enter Cotopaxi: a B Corp, outdoor gear brand founded in 2014. A recent signatory of The Climate Pledge’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions, they’re taking corporate social responsibility seriously by expanding their mission to center environmental justice and investing in programs and organizations that support frontline communities.
Our conversation with Annie Agle, Cotopaxi’s Senior Director of Impact + Sustainability:
Intersectional Environmentalist: What is Cotopaxi?
Agle: We believe the products that get us exploring can make a positive impact in other people’s lives. That’s why we create sustainably designed outdoor gear that fuels both adventure and global change, by dedicating a percentage of our revenues to nonprofits working to improve the human condition. Our mission is to find sustainable means to eradicate poverty in our lifetimes.
Intersectional Environmentalist: Can you tell us a bit about the meaning behind your name?
Agle: One of the world's highest active volcanoes, Cotopaxi (pronounced koh-toh-PAHK-see) is a mountain in Ecuador sacred to native Quechuans. Growing up in its shadow, the volcano loomed large in our founder/CEO Davis Smith's life—even his school was named for it—and its glacial streams, wild llamas, and countless trails instilled the spirit of adventure and gratitude that would inspire his entrepreneurship. So when Davis needed a name to best represent his outdoor company’s aspirations, only one mountain came to mind.
Intersectional Environmentalist: Why is Cotopaxi invested in sustainability—what does it mean to you? How does your definition align with The Climate Pledge and what initiatives are you taking to follow through on that commitment?
Agle: At Cotopaxi, we treat sustainability—which we define as meeting the needs of today’s generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs—as a mandate and as an opportunity. As a company, we aim to leverage every aspect of our company to drive positive and sustainable change. This means designing products using circular principles, sourcing responsibly, ensuring a democratic and positive environment for all employees, and tying our growth to our giving. In 2020, we worked with Climate Neutral to measure, reduce, and offset the entirety of our carbon footprint. At present, 94% of our products are made using non-virgin materials. We aim to have 100% of our products consisting of recycled, repurposed, and certified responsible materials by 2025. We align strongly with The Climate Pledge’s commitment to net-zero carbon and the urgency of the 2040 deadline. As a B Corp, we feel that Cotopaxi can have the biggest impact by being a first mover and living case study to wider businesses. We want to be a living testament to the ability of companies to decouple their growth from their climate impacts. We know that to continue to reduce our footprint and increase our positive impact, we need to collaborate aggressively with stakeholders. The Climate Pledge has already built a living community of like-minded brands willing to work together to solve the greatest issues of our era.
Intersectional Environmentalist: How do you choose your grant/impact partners? What stood out about them and how do you ensure the longevity and sustainability of these projects?
Agle: Our mission centers on the United Nation’s first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG #1): No Poverty. As a 1% for the Planet member, we give at least 1% of our revenue every year to tackle global inequality and environmental social justice. To ensure that our philanthropy truly supports sustainable interventions proven to uplift individuals out of poverty, we use a variety of strategies. Studies around effective philanthropy emphasize that grants need to be long-term, semi-unrestricted, and measured carefully to deliver lasting change. Cotopaxi goes through a robust due diligence process that uses findings from MIT’s Poverty Action Lab to determine how effective proposed interventions are at solving this multidimensional problem. We also believe strongly that the organizations we support deserve to be treated with trust—this means that our grants are partially unrestricted, which allows organizations to make deeper investments in communities. Having flexible but targeted grants also allows us to measure our impact over time and ensure that we are having the positive impact we want. We also launched the Cotopaxi Foundation to allow other brands and customers to contribute to our philanthropy portfolio. 100% of donations go directly to our vetted organization partners.
In terms of climate, we recognize that climate change has become arguably the leading cause of extreme poverty. To take responsibility for our negative impacts on the planet and thus upon society, we offset the entirety of our footprint through machine-learning vetted offsets that offer societal returns on top of emissions reductions. To help communities on the front lines of climate injustice, Cotopaxi has also begun to incorporate climate justice into our giving portfolio, funding programs like CARE’s efforts to create climate resilience through community-led regenerative agriculture in Ecuador.
Intersectional Environmentalist: How do you navigate social corporate responsibility to ensure you follow through on commitments and aren’t greenwashing?
Agle: In general, we only sign on to pledges after we meet the intended goal, and we do this humbly as many companies that join us in pledges can be substantially larger in scale and scope. We recognize that often, larger companies, notably multinational corporations, must sign on to a vision first to mobilize organizational action for change that can require overhauling various dimensions of existing business practices. Although an SME today, as a high-growth consumer brand, Cotopaxi can be a leader and inspire change, early.
We also find that the best way to steer clear of greenwashing is to democratize your corporate social responsibility and your claims. Engaging with stakeholders during decision-making and reporting protects against making claims that cannot be supported. We also trust in collaboration and assurance, both with our suppliers and our employees and executive leaders who drive decisions across all elements of our business. For example, we feel that companies need to validate any carbon accounting with a third party certification. In addition, Climate Neutral, 1% for the Planet, and B Corporation hold us accountable across our enterprise in various social, environmental and governance dimensions. Companies must understand their own inherent biases and work with third parties to combat potential oversights.
Intersectional Environmentalist: How do you set prices for your gear keeping accessibility and outdoor equity in mind?
Agle: In terms of pricing, we’ve always felt strongly about using our gear as a way to break the intimidation factor that many experience when they want to get outdoors, and support a more inclusive and welcoming outdoors industry with a strong sense of belonging. Most people don’t want to climb Half Dome without ropes; many of our customers come from urban environments. We believe that everyone deserves equal access to our shared habitat. With that in mind, we try to offer products that are cost-friendly and can be used for everyday life but can still perform technically in off-the-beaten-path adventures. We continue to explore how we can internalize the true carbon cost of a product with our consumers as well as inspire our incredible team of designers to constantly improve the environmental performance and footprint of our entire product portfolio. This might result in strategies such as accounting for carbon in our product pricing, or other avenues, in the future. Effective in 2023, our consumers will have an option with EcoCart to allow them to credibly offset the footprint of the products they purchase through our e-commerce channel, based on science-based carbon estimates of our products.
Intersectional Environmentalist: Where do you see Cotopaxi 5 years down the line? Given you had unlimited resources, what major milestones and projects would you like to implement?
Agle: Challenge accepted. We love this kind of vision boarding. In our dream world, Cotopaxi would be climate positive, having reduced everything we could possibly reduce while simultaneously being at the forefront of a new chapter for business. In five years, we want to be able to demonstrate that growth can be decoupled from environmental and social degradation. In five years, we aim to have assisted 10 million in extreme poverty. We want at least 50% of our sales to come from resales and upcycled products. We want all our products to circulate in cradle-to-cradle loops that drive community improvement alongside environmental regeneration. We want everyone in our supply chain to make a living wage and have access to the services and livelihood they need and deserve to thrive. And we want all of our employees and customers to feel empowered and invited to contribute actively to these efforts. We want our employees to thrive in our workplace and experience a strong sense of belonging, inclusivity, and fairness. We hope that through Cotopaxi’s “Do Good” mission, and the activation of impact in our workplace, that our employees can live their best lives through the professional growth and development afforded to them by our company. This is our vision, and we’re humbled to be part of The Climate Pledge to help us achieve it.
Sabs Katz (she/her) is a Co-Founder and the Partnerships Lead at Intersectional Environmentalist (IE), a 501c3 climate justice collective radically imagining a more equitable and diverse future of environmentalism. She is also the content creator behind Sustainable Sabs, a platform dedicated to conscious living and practicing intersectional environmentalism. (author photo cred: Angelo dela Cruz)