**This story was originally published in BizWest Magazine**
Denver – Sustainability. It’s become a buzz word in business, and particularly in the outdoor gear and recreational products industries. Sustainability broadly means “the capacity to endure.” In business, the term refers to governance and manufacturing practices that seek to improve the environment, as well as human and animal welfare.
Companies that identify as sustainable often see increased credibility and customer loyalty, which leads to new markets, an expanded customer base, and increased sales. Some customers want visibly sustainable practices from the businesses they patronize, and more employees are embracing and even demanding it.
It’s not always easy for an existing company to step into sustainable practices. Sometimes they have to completely change their internal culture. Manufacturing firms have to reimagine and retool existing infrastructure. Vendors must be dropped in favor of new partners that also operate with sustainability practices.
It comes more naturally for other businesses. Colorado’s outdoor gear industry has led the way in adopting sustainable practices. According to Beth Jensen, Senior Director of Sustainable Business Innovation at the Outdoor Industry Association, sustainability is imperative for the industry.
“You’re using these products to play in the outdoors,” Jensen said. “If we’re not looking at how we’re protecting those places to play in terms of the impacts of making those products, we’re missing a critical link.”
The OIA’s member organizations have been collaborating on what’s known as the Sustainability Working Group, or SWG. Formed a decade ago, it includes some of the biggest names in the outdoor products industry.
“Patagonia, North Face, REI, and all of our companies are collaboratively determining what the best practices and standards should be in the supply chain,” explained Jensen. “We’re all sharing many of the same suppliers, and manufacturing in the same places, so it’s beneficial for us to combine forces.”
SWG priority issues include animal welfare, chemical management, materials traceability, and social responsibility.
Many recreational products businesses also cite a personal reason for founding a business that adheres to sustainable practices.
Nova Covington, CEO of Boulder-based Goddess Garden Organics, said the idea for her company came when she discovered her daughter Paige was allergic to the chemicals in traditional cosmetic products. That led her to start a company that manufactures organic skincare products such as sunscreen and lip balm. She sees the same level of personal concern with her customers.
“They ask thoughtful questions about everything from environmental impact, to allergens and skin reactions.”
Covington has hard numbers to demonstrate how her company is providing sustainable solutions for her customers. She pointed out that most sunscreen products contain the chemical oxybenzone, which can contaminate water. Goddess Garden Organics is helping to reduce its prevalence.
“So far this year,” she said, “we’ve displaced 4,837,890 ounces of chemicals, saving enough water to fill Puget Sound 19 times. By using organic, plant-based ingredients, we’re supporting sustainable farming practices and driving demand for products that are grown with the environment in mind.”
Water issues also come into play with the Sustainability Working Group, said Beth Jensen. One of its campaigns is to reduce micro-fiber pollution.
“All garments are shedding tiny fibers when you wash them in the washing machine,” explained Jensen. “Those fibers are going into oceans and waterways.”
The SWG is working with wastewater treatment plants and the washing machine industry to create better filtering technology, and with suppliers to design fabrics that shed little or no micro-fibers.
As outdoor products manufacturers look at whether their impact on the environment is bigger than the products they consume, they undertake projects to ‘green’ their supply chains and operations. They partner and share knowledge with environmentally innovative vendors. They enact internal practices such as using intelligent lighting and timed thermostats, and institute policies mandating the use of energy-efficient light bulbs and biodegradable paper towels. They asked their employees to buy in to such principles.
This way of thinking starts at the top, with the company’s founders. Many smaller outdoor product manufacturers went into business in part because their personal values include protecting the environment. They haven’t forgotten about profits, but they also want to contribute to society on a deeper level. Many who have children want to make sure they leave something for future generations.
This way of thinking is now extending to larger, more traditional businesses. One of OIA’s initiatives, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, now works with fashion brands such as Gap and Levi’s and sporting goods brands Nike and Puma.
But the outdoor industry forged the path. According to Beth Jensen, representatives from REI and Timberland were talking at a 2007 outdoor retail trade show. They decided to develop a standardized rating system and shared best practices to better define sustainability.
The result for many makers of outdoor gear and recreational products is increased profits, but not at the expense of their values.
“We have sustainability built into every aspect of our business,” said Green Goddess’s Nova Covington. “Sometimes that means we need to make tough decisions, but at the end of the day, those decisions aren’t all that difficult. From a strictly business view, we more than doubled the number of retailers that carried our products in 2017, so we believe doing the right thing is better in all ways.”
Even bankers are starting to take notice. Boulder’s New Resource Bank lends money only to businesses and organizations that identify as sustainable.
According to Susan Graf, the bank’s Vice President and Regional Development Manager, that includes organizations “that put people and planet first in their governance and operations.”
How did a bank decide on supporting sustainability?
“Our investors and early depositors saw money as an agent of positive social, environmental and economic change,” said Graf. “We believe that money and banking can transform the economy into one that serves all people and the planet.”
New Resource Bank will only lend money to a company after it takes a survey to measure its impact on the environment, their employees, and the community. It’s also queried on methods of governance. Companies aren’t assigned a minimum score but do have to show a good track record and commitment to operating in a sustainable manner.
Graf said the bank, which started in San Francisco, found it an easy decision to open a branch in Boulder.
“We’ve operated successfully in the Bay Area for 11 years, and looked to expand our impact in an area that had a density of companies operating in our key impact areas,” she explained. “Colorado’s Front Range rose to the top of the list.”
Beth Jensen echoed the region’s importance in leading the way on sustainable principles.
“It’s pretty unique that this effort is globally-leading, and the epicenter of it is in Colorado.”
For many makers of outdoor products, sustainability is also driven by customer demand. The people giving them money are curious and values-driven themselves.
“Our customers are amazing,” said Nova Covington. “They’re educated and want options that are safe and effective, but that won’t wreck the planet.”
“It’s all rolled up in being a good citizen,” agreed Jensen. “I think the outdoor consumer is particularly informed and wants to tread as lightly on the environment as they can.”