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Cotopaxi Details Carbon-Cutting Journey

Cotopaxi is tackling greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through a new partnership.

The B Corp‘s 2021 environmental impact report says the Utah outdoor company is offsetting its carbon emissions while it figures out how to cut carbon from its supply chain. With help from non-profit Climate Neutral, Cotopaxi measured last year’s supply chain output and created a framework to fully offset GHGs.

Now, the company is working toward long-term reduction targets across its supply chain, according to Annie Agle, Cotopaxi’s senior director of impact and sustainability. Most of the company’s impact stems from Scope 3 emissions, including finished goods production (36 percent) and material cultivation and manufacturing (43 percent), she added. The company pledged in 2020 to move to 100-percent non-virgin, responsible materials that are either third-party certified, recycled or repurposed. To date, it has achieved 94 percent of that goal—a 4 percent improvement.

“Our approach to that has always been to design in ways that eliminate waste or decrease our impacts,” she added, pointing to Cotopaxi’s Del Día line of backpacks, duffels and hip packs made in the Philippines using 800,000 yards of other firms’ fabric waste. “These are scraps, not just deadstock,” she said, noting that the pieces would normally end up in landfills. The Teca performance line uses upcycled materials to save about 250,000 yards from going to waste.

“We’re hesitant to just try to innovate around new materials, when we know we have enough old materials,” Agle said. “We feel very confident that what needs to be done right now is a lot more upcycling and scrap usage.”

Cotopaxi’s “next step” is investing in its supplier relationships to improve apparel production, Agle said, noting that it would be “unreasonable” to expect improvements without brand support. Cotopaxi’s Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers have been audited using the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, giving the company visibility into the areas that generate the most GHGs. This data will inform Cotopaxi’s reduction plan with Climate Neutral this year.

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Cotopaxi sustainability executive Annie Agle details the outdoor label's journey toward carbon reduction and climate neutrality.

Cotopaxi is offsetting carbon emissions that haven’t been addressed at the factory or material level through reforestation and renewable energy projects in South America. The company’s 3,311 ton carbon footprint employed 19,866 through offsetting projects and indirectly served 99,330 individuals, it claims.

Cotopaxi has forged partnerships with organizations including Mona Foundation, which received $27,098 to enroll 700 girls in school and train 54 teachers. It also continues to support United to Beat Malaria, which received $71,848 for medicines and tools to prevent and treat Malaria in Ecuador and other parts of Latin America, and more than a dozen other international programs and grants.

“We try not to make short term investments based on an immediate event or anything that’s reactionary,” Agle said, noting that most grants last three to five years. Cotopaxi aims to use the funding to reach 10 million people within the next 10 years, building on the 1 million individuals impacted last year. “Some of those events investments are smaller in nature,” while “some of them are much deeper interventions, such as committing to educate a girl through her entire high school year,” she said.

Strategic partners help Cotopaxi to take part in the circular economy and keep its products in use. Last year, the company teamed with major distributor REI and recommerce innovator Trove so that the outdoor retail giant now sells pre-owned Cotopaxi products through its Used Gear microsite.

“It’s going phenomenal,” Agle said, noting that the Cotopaxi aims to expand the program this year and could someday operate its own recommerce channel. “We’re so grateful to have collaborators in the space, because the back-end is really challenging,” from repairing, marketing, pricing and fulfilling orders.

“We want to democratize sustainability as much as we possibly can, because the future of capitalism must be collaborative, not competitive,” she said.

How Cotopaxi measures all carbon emissions

In a recent webinar hosted by digital freight forwarder Flexport, Agle reminded brands that “what is more simple is more sustainable” when determining how to accurately measure carbon emissions.

Measuring shipment emissions in general is a more simple than many might anticipate. Companies need three main inputs to assess metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) from the vehicles transporting goods. To calculate CO2e emissions, multiply weight carried by distance traveled by emission intensity.

“We just started measuring what was easy to measure,” Agle said, referring to Cotopaxi’s energy bills. Tier 1 and Tier 2 supplier audits facilitate the process as progress now is uploaded into the Higg Index.

“From that, we’re able to compile those measurements through Climate Neutral,” Agle said. “That really allows us to keep a running record of our emissions. Every year, we really just want to see reductions in what we can reduce, and then also just have the patience and sense of partnership and humility to look for alternative ways of doing that. My advice is: measure what you can measure, start with partners that are going to allow you to do that and then expand to frameworks from there.”

Beyond measurement, optimizing the freight transportation mix is pivotal to building out a successful emissions reduction strategy. Kathleen Hegyesi, senior manager, programs at Flexport, said that air freight releases 47 times the carbon emissions per ton-mile as ocean freight, illustrating the vast implications of quickly getting products to consumers.

“Obviously, we try whenever possible to ocean freight absolutely everything, and domestically we have a no air ever policy,” Agle said. “We’ve really tried to coordinate with last-mile shipments and have done some work around that about facilitating that in our distribution center. Transportation is a great place to start on a sustainability journey, because what is more sustainable? It does save you money.”

Cotopaxi has faced supply chain constraints over the past two years, making it difficult to rely on ocean freight alone. But Agle said the outdoor brand is aiming to counteract that with other initiatives such as carbon footprint offsets through Flexport and its partner

Agle also highlighted the importance of educating Cotopaxi’s wholesale partners on actions to ensure more sustainable planning and timelines are implemented throughout the supply chain.

“Most of the time, pressure for production timelines is not coming through our own e-commerce operation, because we can adjust that. We’ve had a more patient model and our e-commerce team has been great about making adjustments,” Agle said. “But with wholesale partners such as Nordstrom or REI, that’s where there is a certain pressure from that go-to-market team of having a certain product in warehouse by a certain date.”

Agle suggested educating buyers by asking questions including, “What does more sustainable logistics look like? What does a more sustainable planning timeline look like? And how are we going to have to adjust our calendars knowing that frankly, this is going to be the new normal for a while?'”

“Do what you can to take the pressure just off of yourself and know you’re not an actor in a vacuum,” she said.

Agle said the Del Dia collection is an example of how a brand can get creative in sustainable design, while at the same time building a customer base that could turn into a cult following in the blink of an eye.

“Let’s be honest, you don’t need 18 backpacks,” Agle said. “You really only need one. So how do you think about function first, and then from there, it’s thinking about materials. Materials is where we see the biggest reductions that can happen overnight.”