Cotopaxi’s Mission to Improve the Human Condition


CHICAGO, Illinois — Cotopaxi is an outdoor apparel and equipment company. It not only focuses on creating quality products but also on improving the quality of life of the world’s poor. Davis Smith, the founder of Cotopaxi, decided he wanted to come back to the United States and make some real changes in the country where he grew up. Rather than forming his company around a product, Smith states that he created Cotopaxi with three core values in mind.

One of these values is “people.” Cotopaxi determined to have real people at the center of the brand. The company would be about more than a product; it would be about giving back. Davis Smith grew up in Ecuador and saw firsthand the poverty that millions experience in developing countries. This worldview has driven Cotopaxi’s mission since its founding. Additionally, it created a people-centric company that seeks to offer help worldwide and lift individuals out of poverty globally.

Gabriella Fier, a former management professional at Cotopaxi, spoke to The Borgen Project. She describes the organization as “very intentional with supporting community development, sustainability, poverty relief and the overall improvement of the human condition across the world.” Fier also noted that the company focuses on its relationships with its workers around the world. It makes ethical work practices the standard and creates opportunities for employees in these developing nations to take creative liberties.

Ensuring An Ethical Supply Chain

With “people” being one of the core values of Cotopaxi, Smith knew the “where” and “how” the company manufactured its goods was vital to the success of its mission. He wanted to create a working environment that employees wanted to return to. He envisioned a place where they were not only making a living wage but learning valuable skills in the design and manufacturing industry. For example, backpack makers in the Phillippines participate in the design process of the backpacks and add their own customized design features to make each backpack unique.

With this in mind, Smith set out to reimagine what corporate charity looks like. He utilized what is now called “product design, supply chain philanthropy.” Central to the philanthropic aspect of Cotopaxi is the idea that corporations that are simply donating money at the end of the year are not doing enough. The concept also operates on the belief that changing the world and making an impact requires companies to go deeper than that. These companies need to make meaningful human connections.

An example of this ethical supply chain ideology is the Kusa Collection at Cotopaxi. This line uses an insulating fiber from llamas in Altiplano, Bolivia’s high desert. Cotopaxi partners with local communities to ensure they are maintaining their traditional ways of llama farming. It also creates financial opportunities for small farmers in this region who would normally “make less than $100 a year.”

Grantees of The Cotopaxi Foundation

Cotopaxi allocated 1% of its annual revenues to the Cotopaxi Foundation, which in turn distributes this funding to various nonprofits alleviating poverty worldwide. Gabriella Fier expressed how important the Cotopaxi Foundation is to the company as a whole because “it sets a successful example of how consumers can be involved in the giving process and that retail consumption can lead to quality of life improvements and satisfaction across the board.” Listed below are current grantees of the Cotopaxi Foundation.

  1. International Rescue Committee (IRC) distributes emergency aid and long-term funding to refugee communities displaced in the Salt Lake City area. The International Rescue Committee helps support youth through employment support and a scholarship fund.
  2. The Fundación Escuela Nueva seeks to provide high-quality education to all children, regardless of where they were born. In the past two years, the Fundacion has worked in more than 1,000 total schools in Colombia. It trained teachers there to provide quality learning opportunities.
  3. Nothing But Nets, a U.N. foundation created in 2006, has since administered more than 13 million bed nets to families along with malaria diagnosis and treatment. Cotopaxi has helped Nothing But Nets expand into Ecuador and train healthcare workers in malaria care.
  4. Mercy Corps works to meet the emergency needs of refugees in Colombia and Venezuela. It accomplishes this by providing small business grants and medical care. The Corps plans to provide monetary assistance to approximately 90,000 refugees in Venezuela in the next 18 months.

A Culture of Caring

Cotopaxi is part of a growing movement of millennial-run companies who are using supply chain philanthropy to fundamentally change the relationship between profit and charity. Cotopaxi is showing that this way of business can benefit both the company itself and the world’s poor. Davis Smith states, “Using your supply chain and the products you make to affect change rather than just your profits creates a culture that transforms how we look fundamentally at how we do business.” Smith is hopeful that such a fundamental shift can help to eradicate poverty globally.

Tatiana Nelson
Photo: Pixabay


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