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Sustainably Attired

Balancing Commerce, Idealism and Yoga Pants: Q&A with prAna CEO

sustainable cotton

An early adopter of organic cotton and the first major brand to bring Fair Trade apparel to market, prAna has now joined the growing list of beloved green brands (think Annie’s Homegrown, Burt’s Bees, Tom’s of Maine) to be gobbled up by the big guys. The California-based lifestyle brand best known for its climbing and yoga apparel was recently acquired by Columbia Sportswear – a move that will not only help the parent company, a historically cold-weather sports brand, expand its offering, but will also fortify the smaller brand with an operations platform that can help its sustainability mantra reach new global markets.

PrAna’s commitment to sustainability has set it apart from the rest from the start. In its early days, prAna’s founders would cut and sew clothing in their garage, craft hangtags made with homemade recycled paper, and ship orders to customers in boxes gathered from the local grocery store. The company was also an early proponent of renewable energy within the apparel industry, pioneering wind power through its Natural Power Initiative, for which it was recognized as an EPA Green Power Partner. PrAna has come a long way from making its garments in garages and delivering clothes in fruit boxes – today the company's products are sold at 1,400 specialty retailers across the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia and its sales are expected to hit more than $100 million this year. All of this is expected to continue to grow in the wake of Columbia’s acquisition. The question on everybody’s minds is: “Will this acquisition change the company’s commitment to sustainability?”

In an age when more and more socially and environmentally responsible companies are being bought to help diversify big corporate portfolios, what can we learn from a company that has woven sustainability into its business from day one and has consistently sought to strike a fine balance between commerce and idealism? I spoke with prAna CEO Scott Kerslake to hear more about what this new corporate partnership will mean to a company named after the ancient Sanskrit word for “life force,” and how the brand has set its intention to keep it real.

TriplePundit: PrAna has grown at an annual rate of more than 30 percent since 2010, and during that time the company has also been able to amplify its commitment to sustainability – making such strides as increasing its use of organic cotton from 27 percent to 63 percent in two years, and changing its product packaging to avoid using low density polyethylene plastic bags, which has helped the brand save over 31,000 lbs of plastic in three years. Why do you think prAna has been able to successfully embed sustainability into its corporate strategy, while still being able to continue to grow its business?

Scott Kerslake: When I came to prAna [in 2009], the company was already known for sustainability, but there was no real game plan. I got together with our director of sustainability and we created a strategic plan that we still follow to this day. Our framework focuses on three areas: 1) the materials that go into making our products, 2) the materials that we need to do business every day, and 3) the human angle, working conditions. These three buckets have been our guiding principles. Beyond having this framework, though, it’s the people at prAna who are making [sustainability] happen here.

At prAna, we’re attracting people who have it in their being to make decisions based on their values. As a business, you have to hire those types of people and empower them. That’s where the rubber meets the road. There’s always going to be tension between wanting to use a certain textile because it’s less expensive or more attractive, and choosing something that’s more sustainable. But people at prAna are already dialed into sustainability from a day-to-day perspective. That’s a huge advantage.

One thing that is important at prAna is the concept of seva – service without the expectation of return. People treat each other exceptionally well here. People ask themselves, “How can we be of service to our community?” Sustainability is a natural extension of that. It’s something that connects people back to the idea of service, and it’s a normal part of our business.

3p: PrAna’s focus on environmental and social consciousness has been a critical differentiator in the marketplace and has perhaps helped bolster the company’s growth. Yet, there still remain many business leaders across the country – from local, mom-and-pop shops to Fortune 500s – who view sustainability as a “nice to have” and not as something that will fundamentally benefit their company’s bottom line. What do you think will help move the needle among those skeptics?

SK: It’s not surprising that some are skeptical of what sustainability can contribute to a business. I can see both sides of this, especially in an industry that focuses on nickels and dimes. Sustainability has a huge impact. If you want to have better working conditions, you have to pay people more. If you want to have sustainably sourced textiles, you have to pay more. Cotton is a great example of this. At the end of the day, it’s about what the company stands for. Many companies view their sole purpose is to grow profits; to me, that’s a narrow view. When you think that there are a finite amount of resources on the planet, you realize that it’s a race to the bottom.

It’s hard to convince skeptics, though the only way to do it is to go to the facts. You say, “Here’s the finite resources, and if everyone keeps going in this direction, here’s what will happen.” It’s not a sustainable model. It’s like trying to convince people about global warming. Once you look at the evidence, there’s no disputing it.

…Once there’s that understanding of the limited resources, there are three things you need to ensure that sustainability is embedded within your company and doesn’t become a silo. First, you have to have support from the top; if it’s not, people will shoot down things in a heartbeat. You have to have full-on support from the top, otherwise it’s never going to fly. Second, you have to have internal evangelists who are passionate about sustainability and want to see change and help move things forward. And third, you have to have a game plan.

3p: There are many stories we hear about CEO sustainability “aha” moments (i.e. Interface’s Ray Anderson and Wal-Mart’s Lee Scott). Was there a turning point for you when the link between sustainability and corporate strategy became more evident?

SK: There was never a sexy moment in time like that for me. I wish I could tell you that I was on top of a mountain, riding my bike, and then “aha” – it wasn’t like that. The outdoors has always been a sacred place for me, and that connection was always intuitive for me. It was not an intellectual thing, it was a values-based, intuitive thing. I’m connected to my internal compass, to my values. To me sustainability is an extension of that. There was never an “aha” moment for me because I try to connect my day-to-day living to my values. Not living your values seems incongruous to me. I appreciate the beauty of nature, and I think you’d have to be like a complete ostrich to not acknowledge that we need to help save some of that beauty.

3p: How did sustainability factor into the Columbia deal? And how do you envision that prAna could influence how Columbia approaches its own corporate sustainability strategy?

SK: One of the reasons Columbia acquired us is because they know we’re tapping into the conscious consumer, and that segment is wising up to the fact that sustainability matters. The people at Columbia were smart to see that. And that’s a huge reason why they partnered with us, and we partnered with them. PrAna has always been ahead of its time, and we’re now meeting with the evolution of that culture.

With this partnership, prAna has the opportunity to influence the broader culture on sustainability issues, and be a platform for change. My goal is to shift Columbia’s view of sustainability so we can influence change there. That’s the subversive, fun part for me. It’s about educating and shifting. There’s nobody that brings quality product and technology to market for accessible prices like Columbia. They’ve been successful at that. So the way we see it’s, “How can we move Columbia to Fair Trade?”

3p: When a cherished, green brand is acquired by a multinational corporation, there’s inevitably some concern that the brand will alter its commitment to sustainability. We’ve seen this public backlash surface with the acquisitions of the likes of Honest Tea, Tom’s of Maine, and most recently Annie’s Homegrown. Now that prAna is owned by Columbia, do you think there are some loyal consumers who might be worried about the company shifting its stance on sustainability?

SK: General Mills recently bought Annie’s, and I bet people are worried. I can understand that reaction. When people are passionate about a brand, and that brand is acquired by a company they’re not passionate about, the question becomes “Where’s the compass? How do you keep connecting to that compass?” Right now, prAna is a brand that has the power to influence. I want to get it out there to people who would never find us if they don’t shop at REI or certain places. My vision is to open the aperture [of the company] without compromising the integrity and culture of this family, and continue to make progress in sustainability.

The proof [will be] in the pudding. Two years from now, if we have gone to all conventional cotton and we don’t use hemp and we don’t use recycled poly, the skeptics will be right. So my job is to prove them wrong, and keep leading a company that’s aligned with its values. Give me five years at Columbia and I’ll give you a better answer.

Image credit: Pixabay

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Nayelli is the Founder & CEO of CreatorsCircle, a resource hub that connects diverse youth with opportunities to create a life of purpose and impact. A trained journalist with an MBA, she also keeps the pulse on sustainable business and social impact trends and has covered these topics for a variety of publications over the past 15 years. She’s a systems thinker who loves to learn, share knowledge and help others connect the dots. 

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