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Customers who order one of Cotopaxi’s $49.95 Luzon del Día backpacks don’t know what they’re going to get. That’s because the outdoor gear company lets workers making the packs at a factory in the Philippines select the combination of colors used, so no two are the same. Besides injecting some creativity into what is typically mind-numbingly repetitive work, the strategy helps cut down on the amount of fabric that goes to waste.
The $646 billion outdoor recreation industry is filled with companies that have staked their brands on green ideals, Patagonia being among the most prominent. Fewer of these businesses, though, have embraced a humanitarian mission, says Davis Smith, Cotopaxi’s founder and chief executive officer. “When I looked at a lot of the work other outdoor brands do around the environment, it’s amazing work,” he says. “Sometimes it’s around preservation of land or national parks. The sad thing is, really, it’s the elites that go to those things.”
A Wharton graduate whose previous startup was a baby products e-tailer in Brazil, Smith draws inspiration from his itinerant childhood. Cotopaxi, which he founded in 2013, is named after the volcano that looms over Quito, the capital of Ecuador—a city where he once lived. Its logo is a silhouette of a llama’s head.
Smith initially set out to model his Salt Lake City-based company on shoemaker Toms Shoes and eyeglass e-tailer Warby Parker, whose buy- one, give- one formula has helped turn them into household names. When Cotopaxi introduced its first backpacks, a portion of the sales of each design was earmarked for a particular nonprofit.
It made for a nice story: Buy a Cusco pack and help fund a shelter for street children in the Peruvian city of the same name. But as the company’s range expanded to include almost 100 products, from water bottles to tents, its do- good mandate became cumbersome to administer. It also left Cotopaxi’s beneficiaries exposed to the vagaries of consumer tastes: If a new backpack cannibalized sales of an earlier model, a charity could see its donations dwindle.
“I know nothing about the nonprofit world, other than that I’m passionate about it,” Smith says. “That’s why I needed Lindsey to come in and fix everything.” That would be Lindsey Kneuven, who joined the company in June of last year to fill the newly created post of chief impact officer. Kneuven, whose résumé includes stints at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Salesforce Foundation, has revamped the giving strategy so five grantee organizations, down from nine previously, receive a steady 2 percent of the company’s revenue. “We are working on building a sort of endowment with those
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