Starting a business is easy. You can do it in a day.
Building a successful business is a lot harder, especially when you enter an extremely competitive industry like clothing, filled with legacy brands. Cash flow is poor, especially at first. Money, time, and resources are in short supply.
Factor in the cost -- in capital, focus, and time -- of a mission like environmental consciousness and sustainability, and success can seem almost impossible.
Unless you take a smart -- read long-term -- approach.
Like the activewear and performance brand Vuori, the clothing startup founded by Joe Kudla (and makers of my favorite sweatpants) that landed a $45 million equity investment from Norwest Venture Partners last year.
"Sustainability has always been important to the brand," Joe says. "While it's something we led with in terms of top communications, it has been integral to how we built the company."
In fact, sustainability helped inspire the brand. "We're outdoorsy people," Joe says. "We love surfing. We love the ocean. We love the mountains. We love all the areas in between. It's only natural to want to our best to protect the earth. But when you first start a business, it's hard."
Like most startups, Vuori was underfunded. Just keeping the lights on and making payroll often seemed like insurmountable goals.
"But where we could make sustainable choices, whether with fabrics or internal waste," Joe says, "we always tried to make the most environmentally conscious decision we could. As we've grown and our resources have expanded, we've had time to focus more on sustainability: While it's always been there on the periphery, now we're fully organized."
"Fully organized" led to achieving Climate Neutral Certified status through Climate Neutral, an independent nonprofit organization working to decrease global carbon emissions.
The process isn't easy. First, companies must estimate all carbon emissions from making and delivering products and services. (Vuori's 2019 carbon footprint was over 14 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.) Then they follow standards to buy verified credits to offset their entire footprint and commit to a reduction plan to reduce future emissions.
For Vuori, that means converting impactful fabrics to certified sustainable materials, reducing the use of plastic garment bags, working to improve mill and vendor standards for chemical use, dyeing, and processing.
Yet Joe clearly feels the end justifies the effort.
"Once you go down the path of understanding how much carbon you're responsible for," Joe says, "it gets a lot harder to sleep at night. You want to make the right decisions and do what you can. When we knew we had the ability to make those decisions, the only thing standing in our way would be greed."
To start the process, Vuori created a sustainability committee including representatives from every department -- and then started digging. (Organization like Carbon Neutral help with calculations, but collecting data on large and small inputs is up to you.) For Vuori, that involved materials, manufacturing, inbound and outbound product, inventory and fulfillment, as well as day-to-day operations, power usage, travel, etc.
"It's not just about buying carbon offsets," Joe says. "You must have solid initiatives in place to significantly reduce your overall environmental waste. While we were already doing many of those things internally, still: You have to look under the hood of your entire business."
And while customers care about environmental consciousness -- in most surveys, sustainability ranks in the top three along with quality and affordability -- Joe doesn't view the company's Carbon Neutral certification as a competitive advantage.
"Building a company of scale," Joe says, "one that has staying power and influence. The reality is, you now have the resources to make a significant impact in the world.
"That's why we hope many other brands decide to do the same. We don't want it to set us apart. We want to be one of many companies who can put their hands up and say, 'Sustainability really does matter to us, and we can prove it.'"
Because that's the kind of competition no one wins -- unless we all win.