Today, entrepreneurs are increasingly recognizing the allure of conscious consumerism and the power of merging profit and purpose. Often those businesses are in the clothing and accessory sector, whether it’s the fashionable eyewear of Warby Parker (recently crowned most innovative company by Fast Company), the ever popular TOMS shoes, or stylish handbags by FEED.
Rarely, however, have I come across a company whose product is entirely in the service of its social mission. Simply put, Sitka, a Victoria-based outdoor clothing and gear company, seeks to create a world in balance. The company says it’s in the business of “wilderness activism,” and has a mission to “engage our communities through inspiration, conservation and the provision of purposeful goods for exploring the natural world.”
Before you assume this is just another one of those West Coast, “feel good businesses” that isn’t really profitable and can’t scale, consider this: in 2013, the company generated almost $4 million in revenue and was on a steady growth trajectory. It has two flagship stores (Victoria and Vancouver), a pop up store in Auckland, and its clothing is retailed in 200 stores across Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, South Korea and Indonesia.
Even more remarkable is that despite being on track to triple its bottom line, the founders sat down in January 2014 to look at the business and asked themselves what Sitka’s purpose was. The answer led to a complete overhaul in how they run their business.
Driven by a love of nature and the desire to make good on their vision, the founders pledged to use the sale of outdoor clothing and gear to engage customers in conservation. The shift in focus gave the company a platform to convert its customers into advocates “who give a shit about protecting the environment,” Sitka co-founder Rene Gauthier told me in a recent interview.
So with the conviction that comes with believing you are headed down the right (and in this case sustainable) path, the founders took the road less travelled and changed their operations as follows:
Purchase on Demand
By shifting their sales process, wholesalers can now purchase on demand like a consumer, which reduces waste. It’s not an easy path, but Sitka is committed to making it happen.
North American Production
The company is moving toward having 100% of its clothing produced in Canada and the U.S. by fall 2016. “We want our products to be produced as close to where we sell them as possible to support the local economy and reduce the environmental footprint,” Gauthier said.
Store as Community Centre
Sitka wants its stores to be “places to learn about the natural world, engage with knowledgeable activists and find the purposeful goods necessary to explore.” The cool clothing sold in the stores is the honey that attracts the customers, Gauthier said. Once people are shopping, he hopes to engage them in a conversation about Sitka’s conservation work. “If they didn’t know about these issues, we have the advantage of slowly planting seeds and converting them into being someone who cares,” he added.
To advance its mission, the company created a non-profit arm. At least 1% of sales are donated to the SSC (Sitka Society for Conservation) to support initiatives such as turning a portion of the Great Bear Sea into a marine acoustic sanctuary, strengthening and protecting First Nations’ culture and rights and funding an advocacy initiative called ‘Vote Together’ to ensure Stephen Harper is not re-elected because of his poor record on the environment.
Sitka’s story is still being written so it’s hard to know if the radical changes the company has made will generate both the social impact and increased revenues they seek. What is certain is that when social change is your driving goal, every product you sell has the potential to become a conversation piece.
This article was originally published in the Financial Post
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Phillip Haid is co-founder and chief executive of PUBLIC, a social purpose marketing agency and innovation lab that designs social impact campaigns and businesses through the merger of profit and purpose.