Sustainability and corporate responsibility have become overused buzzwords for businesses around the world. But for Cotopaxi, it’s the backbone of the brand and the foundation upon which the outdoor label was created.
Chief executive officer Davis Smith, who has an MBA from the Wharton School, an M.A. in international studies from the University of Pennsylvania’s Lauder Institute, and a B.A. from Brigham Young University, was described on BYU’s web site as a “serial e-commerce entrepreneur.”
Indeed. In 2004, he cofounded Pooltables.com, the largest pool table retailer in America, which he later sold. In 2012, he cocreated Baby.com.br, Brazil’s leading e-commerce company for baby products. After selling that business, Smith set out to “shake up the outdoor industry and build a brand with a better way to help those in need.”
So he created Cotopaxi, which strives to “alleviate poverty, move people to do good and inspire adventure.”
The brand, which is named after a volcano in Ecuador, was formed as a certified B Corp., a designation that ensures for-profit companies meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. It is committed to advancing education, health and livelihoods around the world. It is also a Benefit Corporation, which means it considers the impact it has on society and the environment in addition to returning profits to its investors.
Cotopaxi, whose motto is “Gear for Good,” meets those criteria by creating men’s and women’s apparel and accessories with classic designs that are manufactured overseas in factories that are committed to improving the lives of their employees.
Smith said that while Cotopaxi is ostensibly an outdoor brand, two-thirds of its products are lifestyle-oriented — as suitable in the city as in the Andes. Examples include a multicolor Teca half-zip windbreaker in reclaimed ripstop nylon that retails for $79.95; a Paray lightweight running jacket for $99.95, and an Ara jogger in a four-way stretch fabric for $79.95.
The brand’s “hero product,” Smith said, is its Del Dia collection of bags. Available in backpacks, dopp kits and duffels, the colorful bags are created in the Philippines by sewers who use remnant fabrics to create one-of-a-kind pieces. “They’re the unsung heroes of the outdoor industry,” Smith said of the factory workers. Some of them have worked in the facility for 12 years but never had creative control over the product — until now. “There’s so much waste in these factories, so we told them to use whatever colors they want. The only requirement is that no two bags can be the same.”
Cotopaxi also developed relationships with farmers in Bolivia to source llama fiber for its Libre sweater, which raised more than $300,000 on Kickstarter. That same wool is used to insulate the brand’s bomber jackets.
According to Smith, many of the farmers make only $200 a year and Cotopaxi wanted to be able to buy enough wool to better their lives.
Bettering the lives of people in developing countries is the primary mission for Cotopaxi and Smith. Born in Salt Lake City, his father was an engineer who traveled the world and Smith spent his childhood in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Ecuador, where he witnessed first-hand the poverty that the native people endure. It created within him “a deep sense of empathy” for those less fortunate, he said.
“My motivation is not money,” he said. “I want to build a nice, big brand, but I also see this as an opportunity to help empower people.”
That mission has attracted some high-profile investors including Toms founder Blake Mycoskie through his Toms Social Entrepreneurship Fund, as well as Smith’s former Wharton classmates, the cofounders of Warby Parker and Harry’s.
Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-ceo of Warby Parker, said: “Since we started Warby Parker over seven years ago, it’s been inspiring to find other entrepreneurs that are using the power of business to do good in the world. Davis and I met while students at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania when we were just getting Warby Parker off the ground. When Davis came up with the idea for Cotopaxi a few years later, I was excited to support a brand that uses supply chain to empower communities in need, while still offering a great product. I believe Cotopaxi has the opportunity to have a real global impact and am looking forward to what’s ahead.”
Today, nearly all of Cotopaxi’s sales are direct-to-consumer on its web site, although REI and Nordstrom have begun to carry the collection.
In addition to apparel and accessories, Cotopaxi has created Questival, a 24-hour adventure race series intended to promote travel, encourage adventure and inspire people to volunteer in their communities. This year, he said, the company will host 70 events in the U.S. and Canada intended to raise awareness and funds so the company can continue to advance its mission.
“It’s not just about donating a percentage of revenues — that’s obvious,” Smith said. “Businesses need to do more.”
His passion for bettering the world is infectious and Smith is committed to his goal. “This is my legacy. I’m dedicating my life to it.”