Cotopaxi: Green or Greenwashing

Is it green or greenwashing? This series looks at the sustainability practices of reader-nominated brands. For more details on the project and a bit about my background, the project page is here. This piece focuses on Cotopaxi.

Here’s how they stack up against my 5 main tenets of sustainability:

They use more sustainable fiber types: recycled synthetics, closed-loop semi-synthetics, and regenerative natural fibers.

Cotopaxi’s efforts in fabric sustainability are noticeable, but not as consistent compared to a brand like Patagonia, where every garment seems to have renewable or recycled fibers, with the occasional virgin fiber blended in. The cotton is almost always organic. The polyester is almost always recycled. Nylon’s a mixed bag. It’s not best in class, but given the cost upcharges for recycled nylon and organic cotton, they’re not far behind at all.

However, they also use a lot of “repurposed” fabric. The “repurposed” claim has no legal meaning. Other claims – like recycled, organic, biodegradable – have a lot of legal direction around when and how they’re used. I assume they mean “deadstock,” which also isn’t a regulated term either. Deadstock means that another company made fabric that they don’t plan to use. Some of those brands over-ordered. Some ran into business problems like they had to cancel orders, went out of business, or stopped paying for orders. Sometimes the production fabric doesn’t match the approved lab dip or strike off. Other brands purchase the fabric and make clothing.

Is there a sustainability angle to it? It kind of depends. I technically used deadstock at one point. Another brand in my group had fabric made for t-shirts, but they decided part way through fabric production that it was too thin. Their designer offered to make some styles for my team’s sleepwear brand and they happened to be our bestselling summer weight jammies that we reordered several times. We never marketed it as a green thing since it was mainly based on financials. Now, I’ve also made deadstock. I had swimwear where I let a trusted vendor approve pattern strike offs. They showed me artwork with a white-ground pattern (white base with color on top). In the strike off they approved, the white looked more like “empty bowl of Lucky Charms milk.” This wasn’t yardage that would resell with a modest discount. Anyone willing to give it a shot definitely earns the title of environmental activist. So overall, the ”green-ness” of deadstock can really vary.

My experience with deadstock really resembles brands like Altar Houseline. They only use deadstock fabric, and they work off of a few core patterns. That’s where the similarities from garment to garment stop. There’s no cohesion between patterns and colors. Some things on their site look off-season based on when they happen to get certain fabrics. A few item pages include notes that there is very limited yardage to work with.

Cotopaxi, on the other hand, has some really strange things going on with repurposed fabric and aren’t nearly transparent enough about the original purpose for me to look past it. I noticed that their entire Teca line was made with “repurposed” fabric. Most of it is polyester taffeta. The non-insulated versions have some polyester ripstop. All of these styles have reviews going back multiple years. I also noticed that the insulated Calido line shares the same colors. So for example, the Hoodie, the Jacket, and the Hooded Vest all come in Honeybee, which is a lavender colorblock that reverses to an all-yellow jacket.

I was like “this is a lot of yellow deadstock to have on hand.” And the other 4 colors had the same story – same colorblock outside, same solid fabric across all 3 styles, all polyester taffeta. And supposedly Cotopaxi has been getting 3 silhouettes worth of solid, brand-right polyester taffeta on repeat for years.

So I’m like “they say their Tecas are limited edition. Maybe they have very limited quantities.” But I saw the Honeybee hoodie stocked at REI, which isn’t a normal move for a small quantity, limited time offer. So y’all – I did something outrageous. I wanted to see how many units they made, so I started adding things to cart. Almost every website will tell you when your order quantity exceeds their stock. So I added 100 units of every size. When most sizes had that coverage, I upped it to 300. Then 600. Then 1,000. I cannot begin to tell you the level of anxiety I felt having a higher total in my Cotopaxi cart than the value of my house. I was so paranoid about accidentally checking out that I’ll be sweating for the next 6 years. I digress. They have 3,285 units of the Honeybee hoodie in their warehouse. That doesn’t count REI (about 70 units) or other retail accounts. That also doesn’t count the vest or un-hooded jacket. In my past, color minimums were 1000 units. I don’t work in sourcing. I’ve barely dabbled in deadstock. But I can’t really see how a brand just finds a shit ton of the perfect fabric, around 8 times a year (men’s, women’s kids), for years in a row.

It’s also a vastly different customer experience than their Del Dia bags collection, where factory sewers pull any fabric from scrap and remnant rolls and make unique colorblocks for every unit. They have video assets that walk viewers through the process with interviews of the sewers. Unlike the Teca apparel line, the legal requirements for bags are much more compatible with scrap & deadstock. In apparel, every item needs a hangtag label with the fabrics used and their percentages. Those labels are almost always made by third parties, who take 1-2 weeks to deliver and usually have minimum order quantities. It would be insanely expensive and tedious to make the Teca line the same custom way that they make the Del Dia bags, but for that reason, I imagine the bags business is “greener” – making use of smaller scraps with fewer uses vs. buying slightly off-priced stock from another brand.

What I also find interesting is this verbiage on some of their pieces with Repurposed fabric:

“Might” seems to be doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.

To be clear, this isn’t an accusation. This is an invitation for Cotopaxi to be more transparent about their supply chain. 88% of America Gen Zers don’t trust sustainability claims. When brands don’t tell a complete story, consumers have to fill in the blanks. And given the number of greenwashing scandals we’ve seen in our lives, we generally err on the side of skepticism.

They follow regulations on how to market green initiatives. They don’t rely on generalized, debatable terms like “eco-friendly” or “sustainable,” and instead use fact-based language that’s reflective of their actions.

Cotopaxi clearly lacks strong leadership when it comes to compliance. I reached out to Cotopaxi on Thursday night about a few cases of non-compliance and will report back if I hear anything within their business SLA (1-3 business days). Let’s go one-by-one through the regulations and issues:

Recycled claims regulations: “Marketers can make unqualified claims of recycled content if the entire product or package, excluding minor, incidental components, is made from recycled material.”

What it means: Don’t call something a blanket “recycled polyester” or “recycled fabric” unless it’s 100% recycled. If it’s not 100% recycled, use those qualifiers, like a “partially recycled polyester blend” or “this fleece is polyester (70% recycled.”

Examples of non-compliance: The Abrazo fleece line says that it’s “100% recycled fleece” or “fully recycled fleece” 3 times on their marketing copy, but when you look at the specs, the woven overlay (featured below in blue) and the chest pocket (bright orange) are all virgin nylon-spandex blend. Is this kosher because they always specify it’s the fleece? Brands frequently tout 100% recycled insulation on puffy coats, even when the exterior is made of virgin fibers. But I think that customers know that every puffy has face fabric and fill content, and they know the difference between the two. I don’t think the average customer taking a quick look at the Abrazo knows which parts are fleece and which aren’t. I think they want customers to see “100% recycled” and assume it applies to the whole garment. Misrepresenting an item as recycled, whether directly or by implication both violates Green Guide requirements. Example 4 on the Green Guides (top of page 29) calls a very similar example using virgin and recycled packaging as an example of non-compliance. Cotopaxi has similar unqualified recycled claim on the Vuelta Windbreaker (it’s 86% recycled nylon, 14% spandex), Otero Fleece line (virgin nylon-span pocket), Sombra Sun Hoody (has a virgin nylon-span pocket), Subo Pant (90/10 recycled nylon-poly blend)

Biodegradable claims regulations: It is deceptive to make an unqualified degradable claim for items entering the solid waste stream if the items do not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal. Unqualified degradable claims for items that are customarily disposed in landfills, incinerators, and recycling facilities are deceptive because these locations do not present conditions in which complete decomposition will occur within one year.

What it means: Don’t market things as biodegradable unless you’re clear on how consumers dispose of the item and how long it takes to break down.

Examples of non-compliance: Cotopaxi’s Paseo Travel line is made of 80% polyester and 20% Tencel, which is a semi-synthetic made from dissolving wood product into cellulose, doing a bit of chemistry, and then pumping that into thread. They market Tencel as biodegradable, and for the fiber, that’s true. But there’s no way for the customer to really take advantage of that biodegradability. It’s blended with polyester. It can’t go to a commercial composter. It won’t break down in your home compost pile. If you ruin a product in the Paseo line, the only clear course of disposal is the landfill, where it’ll sit in a garbage bag for a long time before the garment even starts to break down.

A note on “organic” tees and sweats: “Organic” claims mean very different things when it comes to food and non-food products. Organic food is heavily regulated by the USDA. There’s a thorough application process that looks at every step of the supply chain: farms, processing centers, packaging centers, etc. All of those sites are inspected. They analyze years’ worth of business records. It’s very comprehensive. And for food, there’s also tight regulations on how things are marketed. Anything with a blanket “organic” label needs to be 95% organic. Anything marketed as “made with organic ____” has to be 70% organic.

That thorough supply chain certification program doesn’t exist for apparel. USDA keeps the standards for growing cotton, but once fiber is sold to a mill, made into fabric, and sewn into a garment, all that stuff downstream is out of their jurisdiction.

So third party certifiers stepped in to help customers navigate organic claims on apparel, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, and toiletries. In apparel, Global Organic Textile Standard got an endorsement from the USDA. The Organic Content Standard is also seen as reputable. And the Regenerative Organic Certification uses the USDA’s food requirements as a baseline and then layers even higher standards on top of that. (Note that Patagonia is using the latter).

GOTS, OCS, and ROC are all aligned that anything using a blanket “organic” label needs to be 95% organic, the same standard the USDA uses for food.

Which brings us to Cotopaxi’s “organic” line of 39 tees and sweats. The tee shirts are 60% organic cotton. The sweatshirts and sweatpants are 76.5% organic. Is this legal? Yes (for now, we’ll get to that below). Is it a sign they’re working with a trustworthy organic certifier? No.

The leaders in sustainable clothing don’t put “organic” in the title unless it’s 95% or more. The leaders in sustainable clothing use a certifying body has an inspection and testing process, and they’re transparent about who they are. A vendor may be selling Cotopaxi organic cotton, but how do they know for sure that nothing is getting greenwashed further up the supply chain? Truly sustainable brands want to be 100% sure of what they’re getting and they provide the same for their customers.

Going back to the “legal, for now” comment. In 2016, the FTC and USDA held a roundtable discussion on how to handle all the non-food items in this weird grey area. Overwhelmingly, customers want clear standards that are consistent across categories. For the past 5 months, the FTC has been soliciting public comments for an updated Green Guide, and they’re particularly interested in developing additional guidance around organic claims.  

A note on organic cotton vs. BCI Cotton: Cotopaxi’s Salto Ripstop Pants claim to be made of organic cotton, but the specs say that the pants are made of BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) cotton. As mentioned above, organically grown cotton is a rigorous process with inspections and certifications. BCI is a program for farmers that teaches them techniques to minimize pesticide use and improve soil health and water conservation. BCI is non-binding and non-traceable, so although there are some studies that BCI cotton is greener than conventional cotton, it’s a far cry from organic farming. The fact that Cotopaxi is using the two terms interchangeably is quite concerning to me.

Pieces are built for the long haul: not only are pieces physically durable, but they’re durable in the face of trend cycles. They’ll be relevant in your closet for years and capture strong resale value if they’re cycled out.

Cotopaxi seems built for the long haul. Reviews are strong. Negative reviews tend to focus more on fit. Pieces that show up on Poshmark all look like they’re in excellent condition, even if they’re older colors and styles that haven’t been in the assortment in recent years.

Aesthetically, Cotopaxi also has a lot of staying power. The brand was founded in 2014, when fashion was very bright and colorful. Lululemon was still making really intense patterns with vivid colors. J. Crew had us wearing poppy, preppy colors under our poppy, preppy bubble necklaces. We were obsessed with chevron prints in all colors of the rainbow. Even our denim had to be colorful. Then we all took a hard left into minimalist style, obsessed with grey. Our “pop” color was a subtle millennial pink. Now we’re on to warm organic colors and lush greens, reminiscent of nature. Throughout these fashion cycles, Cotopaxi’s stuck to their roots and developed a strong brand aesthetic.

Individuals consume much more sustainably when they fall in love with garments that transcend the trend cycle and that stay a part of their wardrobe for years. And that brings in brands too. When the 2025 line looks cohesive with the 2020 line, customers feel like their old clothes are still relevant. They aren’t prompted to replace perfectly good clothes with something different. And when brands stick to certain products over the long haul, it becomes easier to forecast and optimize inventory. They don’t put as much on clearance where they’re more likely to be an emotional impulse buy rather than a product that the customer truly loves.

They’re clear on how products are made and how to best dispose of them: transparency about the brand’s green claims builds trust with consumers.

Cotopaxi has a buy back program in conjunction with REI Used to keep product in use. They also have a robust repair program. In 2017, an intern (now the Director of CX) suggested that his mom could help fix repairable gear. Today, Mama Marge has fixed over 1,000 pieces sent in for repair.

They don’t play games with customer demand. Merchants have some tricks and gimmicks to manipulate customer demand: short term promotions, limited time offers, limited quantities and “a few units left” messaging. Sustainable brands give customers the time and space to decide whether they really want an item without creating pressure and mark down what’s left at the end of the season.

They do a few sales throughout the year (Black Friday, Memorial Day, etc.) but they’re used in moderation.

Bonus Points

Cotopaxi was founded with a strong philanthropy program. 1% of revenue (not profit, like some brands do) are given to humanitarian causes that alleviate poverty. They run their own Cotopaxi Foundation, which selects non-profits for multi-year grants. They focus a lot of efforts on Latin America since the CEO spent time growing up there and wanted to give back.

That doesn’t look so good…

When I offered Cotopaxi as an option for Green or Greenwashed, a reader reached out and let me know that they had written a review of their Teca Face Mask and it had gotten deleted. Deleting negative reviews would be a violation of section 5 of the FTC Act, so I asked if the reader had substantiation. I wanted to know for this piece, but I also wanted to help her file a report with the FTC. The reader did not have substantiation.

But I was curious, so I found the mask’s old link and looked it up in the Wayback Machine. I also looked up the Alpa 42 Travel Pack and Women’s Fuego Hoodie as comparison pages, since they have a large review count that goes back several years.

For the Alpa and Fuego, the Wayback pages from summer 2020 do not pull reviews. When I click into “inspect page,” both reference their customer review software (Yotpo) 6 times. Current webpages on site reference Yotpo in the source code 31 times. For the Teca mask, there are 406 reviews with an average of 4.4 stars. The source code for the Teca mask page references the Yotpo widget 3,226 times. So no, I can’t say for sure whether reviews were manipulated, but I can say that something different was happening with the Teca mask. I also think it’s odd that all the review dates on the Wayback page are from August 20, 2020 when I pulled the Wayback log from August 5th.

By August 27th, there was a note added from the CEO that was like “we think we made a really great mask that was aligned with CDC guidelines. Most people loved it. But if you are concerned, you can double up, wear it over a medical mask, or choose a different mask.” The 3,226 Yotpo references are gone and the widget doesn’t pull in any reviews on the Wayback page. They also put four references on the page that the mask follows the CDC recommendation that masks be made of tightly woven cotton. There is no formal definition for “tightly woven.”

Throughout September and October, the crawled Wayback pages sometimes have all the reviews with an 8/20 author date, 4.4 average, 406 reviews, and the 3,226 Yotpo references. (Note that you can find make reviews submitted between the July crawl and September crawl). Sometimes they don’t. They disappear by November.

In late 2022, they changed their review experience to add “Read all about the (Product name) below – we never hide low ratings.”

However, on the Cotopaxi’s general reviews page, I see a concrete example of review manipulation. The page lists a roughly 4.5 star rating with 3,163 reviews. The first page of text reviews are all 5 stars, so I went digging for a negative one. I clicked through 254 pages before I got to a large chunk of 4-star reviews. On page 277, you get to 3-star reviews; 2 stars on page 291; 1 stars on 300. The FTC clearly states: “Don’t display reviews in a misleading way. For example, it could be deceptive to feature the positive ones more prominently.” I’d say burying ratings below 5-stars behind 254 perfect scores would be considered less prominent. I also noticed that there were a high number of negative reviews from summer 2020 regarding the masks being thin and extremely long lead times / unclear delivery timelines for the masks when demand outpaced supply. I have a hard time seeing how this mask would average a 4.4 rating with 406 reviews. I also checked all negative reviews for my reader’s name and none existed.

Yotpo was the software Fashion Nova was using to auto-publish positive reviews and keep negative reviews in a permanent pending status. In January 2022, Fashion Nova was fined $4.2M. Yotpo was investigated because they took quick action to auto-publish pending reviews after 14 days and they made efforts to educate their customers. But given that Montec’s fishy reviews also operate on Yotpo software, I’m starting to see a pattern.

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