Building a Model for Change

United States, December 12, 2007

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Every new company starts building from the ground up, but there aren't many that begin by questioning what a corporation is and how a corporation should contribute to society.

When it was founded in 2005, the outdoor and lifestyle apparel company Nau made a point to ask those questions. "We came together, not because we thought the world necessarily needed another brand of outdoor clothing but because we thought the world needed another way of doing business," explains Jil Zilligen, Nau's Chief Sustainability Officer. "We really set out to challenge the nature of capitalism. We believed that every single element of the business was an opportunity to turn traditional notions of business upside down."

As a result, each of Nau's business practices has a sense of purpose and intentionality behind it. Whether developing a new clothing line or building a new store, Nau looks for the most environmentally and socially responsible way to conduct their business. During the product design process, they consider the environmental and humanitarian impacts of every part of a garment's lifecycle. Designers choose fabrics made from recycled, renewable and organic fibers, and build garments that can be recycled at the end of their life.

Nau's headquarters in Portland, Oregon, is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certified, and each of their retail stores was built using low-impact, energy-efficient building materials, to meet the company's commitment to environmental sustainability.

Partnering for Positive Change

From the beginning, Nau was committed to weaving philanthropy into the fabric of the company or as Zilligen says, "getting money into the hands of organizations doing great work." That commitment led them to create the Partners for Change program as an integral aspect of their business model. Through this program, Nau gives five percent of every sale to one of their environmental, social, or humanitarian community partners. Mercy Corps is one of Nau's Partners for Change.

The way that Partners for Change works is also intentional. At the time of every transaction, either online or in person, customers are asked to decide which community partner they would like to receive five percent of the sale. "One of the reasons we made it part of the transaction itself was that we wanted to give people pause," Zilligen says. "We wanted to involve our customers, in an effort to get them to stop and think in a commercial environment about the role of corporations, and what we expect and begin to demand of corporations in terms of corporate responsibility and giving back to communities."

Currently, Nau works with 25 Partners for Change. They include global and national organizations, like Mercy Corps, and organizations local to each Nau location in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Illinois. "In all the partners," Zilligen says, "we seek organizations that are working toward systemic change, addressing critical issues at the root cause. Obviously, we think that Mercy Corps does a great job with that aspect."

"One of the things that really drew Nau to Mercy Corps, and continues to be true, is the philosophy and approach that Mercy Corps takes to development," says Nau's Director of Community Partnership Bob Speltz. "It's working on the ground, working in coalitions and in partnerships and really giving people the tools and resources to solve their own problems and to create their own destiny and the kind of world that they want to see for their own families."

It's important to Nau to make sure a partner is really aligned to their values, because the main point of the Partners for Change program is "to bring a new audience to the organization," Zilligen says, "that maybe the organization wouldn't necessarily reach on their own." That can mean helping turn a customer into a donor, a volunteer or even an employee of that organization.

Putting a Vision into Practice

The Partners for Change program is written into a section of Nau's incorporation documents called the "Rules of Corporate Responsibility," ensuring that it will always be a fundamental part of their business model — and they've given five percent of sales from day one, without having yet made a profit. Working to revolutionize business isn't easy; there are definitely times when employees feel the weight of working against the grain. Each season, Nau has needed to develop more than 80 percent of the fabrics in their line, simply because the quality of fabric they needed to meet their sustainability, performance and beauty standards was not currently available.

Pursing a new way of doing business, "is fun and it's frustrating," Zilligen admits, "because we know as a world we have so far to go." She can't help but return to Nau's inspiration though. "We believe that changing the way business is done is a powerful tool in creating social change. That really is what drew many of us to this endeavor."