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Cotopaxi: Utah’s Mission-Driven Brand

When COVID-19 reached the United States back in March, some businesses froze in a state of inertia, unsure of how to proceed in the wake of forced closures, while others immediately went to work figuring out ways to assess and overcome the various challenges. Among the latter was Cotopaxi, a Salt Lake City-based maker of activewear and outdoor gear. Founder and CEO Davis Smith made a series of early moves designed to get input from stakeholders and his network with other businesses, all with the purpose of drumming up sales during the crucial first weeks of the pandemic.

Smith crowdsourced with staff to discuss ideas on how best to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, including how to overcome lost sales at a pair of brick-and-mortar stores. He also contacted another company in the industry – Uncharted Supply, a supplier of emergency and survival kits. Smith learned that while Uncharted had plenty of demand for its gear, it lacked the production and staffing capacity to fill all the orders. The two companies struck a deal: Cotopaxi would use its resources to help Uncharted meet demand, helping to generate revenue while much of the rest of the business world struggled.

That kind of innovation, quick thinking, and problem-solving has become one of Cotopaxi’s trademarks – not only in terms of its highly-regarded lineup of outerwear, packs, camping gear, and other accessories, but also in terms of its commitment to giving, community, and advocacy. In fact, “doing good” is just as important to the company as earning a profit. The company started out donating part of its profits for specific products to specific causes. That strategy has changed over the years. Today, through its Cotopaxi Foundation, the company puts 1% of its revenue toward addressing poverty and supporting community development. Meanwhile, its grant program promotes organizations dedicated to “successfully improving the human condition.” As of August 2020, Cotopaxi has awarded forty-two grants in six focus countries.

One organization that has received Cotopaxi grant money is the International Rescue Committee, which offers emergency aid and long-term assistance to refugees and others displaced by war, persecution, or natural disaster. Another grant recipient is Fundación Escuela Nueva, or FEN, a Colombia-based group that works to improve the lives of children and their families through education, reduced inequality, and programs to fight poverty. FEN is one of a pair of Latin American organizations that have received grant money.

The Latin America connection is no coincidence. Cotopaxi itself is named after an active stratovolcano in the Ecuadorian region of the Andes. Company founder Davis Smith grew up in Latin America, lived in Ecuador for several years, and spent part of his time there exploring and camping in Cotopaxi National Park. He later moved to the U.S., where he pursued advanced degrees in business and international studies. He started several e-commerce businesses, including a couple in Brazil. Cotopaxi was launched to merge Smith’s love of travel with a poverty-fighting business model. The company was named Cotopaxi to represent “the spirit of adventure, optimism and determination” that Smith discovered while in Ecuador.

In addition to contributing part of its revenue to various social causes, Cotopaxi also aims to take responsibility for the environmental impact its products have throughout their lifecycle, from the sourcing of materials to the end-user. The company spends a lot of time researching the materials and processes that go into the products it makes. It uses remnant fabrics that might otherwise be discarded and ensures that the factories it partners with offer fair and sustainable working conditions. Cotopaxi also has quality control systems in place to ensure the longevity, function, and sustainability of its products.

To help market its brand and build its customer base of adventure sports and nature enthusiasts, Cotopaxi holds an annual event called Questival, which is basically a 24-hour outdoor scavenger hunt that attracts thousands of attendees each year. The 2020 outdoor Questival had to be canceled due to the coronavirus, so Cotopaxi created a virtual program called Questival Quaranteam. Participants were given tasks and challenges they could complete in their own yards or homes while also engaging with the company and each other. The Questival Quaranteam was a success, drawing thousands of virtual participants.

The coronavirus also inspired Cotopaxi to produce a T-shirt printed with “#OneUtah,” which is a popular social media rallying cry in the state. The shirt racked up thousands of sales, and Cotopaxi donated all profits to Utah’s COVID-19 relief effort. While the thought behind the shirt was philanthropic, it also served an important business function.

“It builds our brand,” Smith recently told Forbes, later adding,  “Customers come to our site to buy the shirt and end up buying other things. And they have a great feeling about our brand and the way we give back.”

Cotopaxi likewise puts a great deal of thought into its outreach programs. The company has developed a skills-based volunteering initiative that leverages the time and talent of its employees to respond to various community needs. One initiative, called the card-writing program, provides a paid “first job” for refugees in Salt Lake City. Youth involved in this program are provided with professional development, work experience, competitive wages, and the opportunity to practice their English language skills.

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