Wed. Sep 28th, 2022

Once you notice a jacket or bag from Cotopaxi, it’s hard to un-see it. I remember my first Cotopaxi sighting in Park City at the outdoor brand’s retail shop on Main Street. The men’s and women’s outerwear and packs and gear look like someone designed them not by committee or obligation but out of joy. Imagine Patagonia on happy pills and you start to get the idea.

That feel-good vibe tracks with the larger brand story. Based in Salt Lake City, Cotopaxi is known for giving a minimum of 1% of all revenues to charitable causes, with particular emphasis on fighting poverty and ethical sustainability. Their mission is that outdoor gear can lead the way to both adventure and global change, and that’s a path to improving the human condition. I respect that.

I also like the products, especially the packs from Cotopaxi’s Del Dia collection, which all use fabric left over from other companies’ large production runs as a way to keep usable materials out of landfills and give them a new lease on life. All those second-life swatches come together in rainbow patterns that means no two Del Dia bags are exactly alike. When ordering, you can even hit the “surprise me” button and get whatever color configuration you can’t (spoiler: you won’t be upset).

That goes for the streamlined, no frills Tarak 20L Del Dia ($105) for climbing and backcountry skiing, and the do-it-all duffle-style Luzon 24L Del Dia pack ($80) that’s nice whether you’re hiking or stashing dirty clothes after a weekend; all the way up to the Allpa 35L ($195), with its removable hip belt and air-mesh back panel and padded inner compartments for clothes and laptops. With its lash points and hidden organizing pockets, that bag is versatile enough for a hut-to-hut adventure or a week in Manhattan. I’m also a sucker for fanny packs — er, hip packs — and the Kapai 3L Hip Pack, with its Everlasting Gobstopper color scheme and secure zip pockets and padded sleeves, is a fashion ‘yes’ even if you’re using it to hold your phone and keys at the kids’ soccer practice.

I love speaking with the passionate founders behind inspired brands I love, and here’s part of my conversation with Cotopaxi founder and CEO Davis Smith about a brand with social responsibility at its core. He grew up in Latin America, where his father did construction projects for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Davis used that time to camp and hike and fish for piranhas in the Amazon River. It also gave him some ideas on how to run an engaged company.

How does your background play into what you’re doing with Cotopaxi?

Davis Smith: The reason we started the brand was the “why” we had even before we knew what we’d sell, and I think that’s pretty unique. Other brands, they first create the product and then perhaps find a way to have impact in some way. But for us, we knew that our purpose was to fight poverty. You know, 700 million people are living in poverty right now. Given my background and early life experiences, I needed to figure out what brand or business I could build that would allow me to be part of a movement to help address that. We’ve helped over 80,000 refugees and most of that is happening overseas. It’s happening in countries, far away from here with people that we’ll never meet and that will likely never become customers. And so that’s maybe the first thing that really sets it apart. The second thing is that I care deeply about taking care of the planet, and about being a responsible steward of our planet. That shapes everything about how we think about how we make our product. At Cotopaxi, 94 percent of our product is made of remnant or recycled or responsible materials. And we’ve committed to making that 100 percent by 2025.

What’s the story behind the splashy colors on your products?

Davis Smith: We’ve always had really bright, fun colors. But we introduced early on, in the Del Dia line, a collection of bags that are one-of-a-kind because we’re using remnant material. They’re made with random colors put together but it kind of matches and looks great no matter what combination you see. Behind the scenes, the sewers at our factory were choosing colors they loved, and they told us it was the first time they had creative choice in what they were doing. They got to be part of the creative process, which was really fun and fulfilling for us. At first I wondered, would people even want this stuff? Or like, is the return rate gonna be higher? But the return rate was lower than we’d ever seen for any product ever.

If the fun colors of your gear is any indication, I’m guessing you prioritize fun in the Cotopaxi workplace. True?

Davis Smith: So true. Even during the pandemic, we had fun. Like, we started a virtual hike that we do every Friday morning at 9:00 AM. It’s in everyone’s calendar and you dial into Zoom, and wherever you’re at, you can go on a walk around the block or go on a nearby trail. We’ll even walk your dog at the park with you. We have someone in the team do what we call a “lifeline,” which is basically sharing their life story, in a few minutes, from childhood until today. Hearing these amazing stories, you get to know people at a new level. And it’s become my favorite part of the week.

What’s next? What’s are you most looking forward to?

Davis Smith: We have some big things happening, including some new products and launches. But what’s making me happiest is that we just hired a company president named Damien Huang, who had been the CEO of Eddie Bauer, which is many times bigger than us. Before that he was an executive at Patagonia and at the North Face. He’s just an amazing people-focused leader who understands our mission. He came from immigrant parents. He did study abroad in Ecuador where the name Cotopaxi comes from. He is deeply connected to our purpose and is just incredibly talented.

Okay, last question’s tough. What’s your favorite Cotopaxi product? Go.

Davis Smith: Yeah. Wow. Okay. Let’s see. One? I’d say the ALPA Duffle ($140) is my favorite. It comes in three different sizes, and it’s essentially a backpack that kind of unzips like a suitcase. What I love is that it’s got a few unique features that I’ve never seen in another product, including a zipper at the very bottom of the bag zips all the way around. You have a place to stash dirty clothes or shoes. It’s got straps to carry the bag on your back. It also just looks really cool.

But really? Just one product? Come on!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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