I have just finished interviewing Ollie Milliner, the Sustainability Coordinator for Kathmandu (an outdoor adventure clothing chain with stores in NZ, Australia, and the UK). Yes, they have a full time position for such a role.
I had contacted him as research I am conducting for my next book, but wanted to share what I discovered with you here first…
The first point he made was simply, that in his opinion, companies like Kathmandu have to have a sustainability program. The PR risk is too great not to.
This is, in many ways, good news. It means public perception is changing and starting to put pressure on bigger businesses to do the right thing. In Kathmandu’s case, the fact that the CEO is also passionate about sustainability, means their efforts are more than just a token gesture.
Far more than just a PR stunt or risk management, they are working to overhaul their entire business.
Ollie identified four key areas for the company’s sustainability objectives.
Human Rights: Here core objectives include looking after the wellbeing of their staff, and the staff of companies further up the supply chain. Kathmandu work with a range of companies (directly and indirectly) from the production of the raw materials, to the manufacturing and transportation of their products.
It is important that all people involved in this supply chain be treated fairly, and are not subject to dangerous working condition, or forms of abuse. If anyone in the supply chain is caught breaking their strict ethical policies, Kathmandu will work with that company to try and change their practices. Only if they see no progress will they end the relationship with that supplier.
While they remain a customer they can influence change. If they simply dropped the contract they would lose their ability to help those people being wronged.
As Ollie pointed out, when you look after the wellbeing of the people, many of the other issues take care of themselves. Environmental issues are automatically addressed, as they are integral to human health and safety. Product quality also improves because people take pride in their work when they feel they are being cared for, which helps minimize waste.
Product Stewardship: For a company to become more sustainable it must of course source its materials in sustainable and ethical ways. For Kathmandu this includes using sustainable and organic cotton, responsibly sourced down, and even using recycled plastic bottles to make their clothing.At present they have not quite reached their goal for 100% sustainably sourced materials, but they are working hard to reach this objective. For example, 100% of their cotton will be sourced from sustainable farms by 2020.
Another objective is to make products longer lasting to avoid the need to replace them as often. This is counter to many companies who design their products for ‘planned obsolescence’ (intentionally making them fall apart quickly, so you need to replace them sooner and buy more).
To reduce the environmental impact of their products, Kathmandu understand this industry practice must stop. Even if products are made from sustainable resources, they still contain embodied energy through the manufacturing, packaging, transportation, and storage processes. Reducing the frequency with which products need to be replaced dramatically reduces overall impact.
Environmental Footprint: Making products last longer is just the start in reducing their environmental impact. Other initiatives include a zero waste objective and reducing its carbon footprint.To avoid waste ending up in landfill sites, Kathmandu have a threefold approach… Firstly eliminate unnecessary packaging, or other waste, from within the system wherever possible. Secondly to reuse or repair as much as possible. Finally to recycle everything else.One way they are reducing their carbon footprint is by upgrading stores to become more energy efficient, and use recycled materials wherever possible.
I visited their newly built head office and store in Christchurch NZ. Here they have used recycled concrete and wood for most of its construction, are using only LED bulbs, and have designed the entire building to be energy efficient.
Community Engagement: Kathmandu do not see themselves as separate from the rest of the world. They understand they are a part of it.This has led to a range of programs and sponsorships to give back, and become more involved with the community.This includes various wildlife efforts, sponsoring the Outward bound program, and assisting in the devastating earthquake in their namesake, Kathmandu city.
One of the aspects that impressed me most about their sustainability initiatives was their level of transparency. They understand and are the first to admit, they are not perfect. But, they have a plan to fix that. They realize for that for long term financial success they must embrace sustainability in all senses of the word.
I believe it is companies like Kathmandu that set an example to others. Sustainability and profitability do not always need to be in conflict with each other. With the right attitude and a clear plan, companies big and small can move in the right direction, making the world a better place.
With this in mind the Sustainable Apparel Coalition created the Higgs Index, a free self-assessment tool. It enables clothing and footwear companies to assess their level of impact, and help them identify areas for improvement.
For a more detailed understanding of how company wide change is possible, I highly recommend checking out the Kathmandu Sustainability Report. I for one, am now that much happier to call myself a Kathmandu customer.