Other cultural indicators have added up to a full on green moment--the PR phenomenon of the Toyota Prius, the launch of the quite covetable, design-forward Edun line, backed by best-selling activist Bono; and the recent launch of Good Magazine, whose content is dedicated to environmental and social giving a damn, and whose subscription fees will be entirely channeled to like-minded non profit organizations. But can you create a consumer products brand entirely on the core principle of sustainability? A group of entrepreneurs made up of creative and business luminaries with backgrounds at companies like Nike, Patagonia, Cole Haan and Adidas, is attempting to find out with a new venture called Nau.
The Portland-based company (whose name comes from a Maori word meaning "welcome") will make performance and casual sportswear while aiming to change fundamental things about the way clothing is made, distributed, marketed and thought about. The company was founded by adventurer and outdoor gear pioneer Eric Reynolds on three related values: performance, beauty and sustainability. A group of like-minded veterans of the sports and outdoor apparel scene, most of whom had worked together at points during their careers, "just coalesced around those ideas," says Nau VP/Marketing, Ian Yolles, who previously had held director of marketing roles at Nike and Patagonia. "We were very passionate about the idea of designing a company and a brand from scratch with this ethos of sustainability at the forefront of consciousness; that's a rare opportunity."
The group's primary mandate was to create a company "from the ground up and give it the kind of, frankly, moral character an individual should have," says VP/Product Design Mark Galbraith, who acknowledges the challenge in meeting the sustainability mandate while producing clothing without that "crunchy" look. "For me it was an incredibly interesting creative challenge to take these raw materials and do something high performance that was very stylish, that has great color and feel and at the same time steps out of the traditional paradigm of the outdoor uniform--to blend performance with a more style-driven urban sensibility so the product has a much broader use in your life."
Nau's approach to distribution and marketing are intended to be similarly paradigm-busting. First, the line won't be carried by existing retailers; instead Nau aims to sidestep the wholesale model that dominates the sports and outdoor apparel market and sell as much of its clothing as possible online. "Taking out that middle layer gives us a margin advantage," says Yolles. "But we also wanted to free ourselves from that constraint so we would have the capability to respond to emergent customer needs, to free up our thinking and creative juices." Nau's clothing will also be available through its new "Webfront" stores. The physical locations allow shoppers to check out and try on the product and though they can walk out of the stores with their booty, consumers are encouraged, via a 10 percent discount, to buy online by choosing a "Ship to You" option at checkout. Emphasizing online purchasing and the centralized distribution it entails allows Nau to reduce its own environmental impact and its costs by creating smaller stores with less inventory. Yolles says while the internet has, over the last several years, changed the way people learn about products and shop, it hasn't been integrated in a meaningful way with the bricks and mortar experience. "We've seen customer behavior change but the two channels have grown up in parallel to each other," he says. "This brings them together in a structural way." A comparatively huge five percent of each sale will go to a consumer-selected humanitarian or environmental charitable organization.
But while more people will certainly feel an initial ethical attraction to such an enterprise, the proof of a clothing line is in the wearing, and here too Nau is aiming high, with technical gear that is meant to perform as well on the slope or the cycle as in any other street-level facet of a consumer's life--gear "you can wear in an urban environment and not look like you should have a knapsack on and be yodeling," as Galbraith puts it. Nau will also use renewable materials like PLA, a synthetic derived from corn rather than oil, in the manufacturing of its line. Yolles says the company will also eschew "traditional" marketing tactics--i.e. the TV commercial--and will focus more energy on building the brand through word of mouth, grassroots engagement and third-party storytelling. Nau will cultivate relationships with influencers from its audience of multi-dimensional athletes, activists--those who take an interest in the issue of sustainability, whether that's by buying organic or getting involved in social and environmental causes in their communities--and artists. Yolles says the brand will also engage heavily with the non-profit community. "Our real heroes are the people who have chosen to live a purposeful life, who are working for these important non profit organizations," he says. The intention, says Yolles, is to transcend simply a check-writing relationship with these groups: "We have the capability to tell their story to an audience they might not have access to and we think they will be good storytelling partners for us over time." Overall, says Yolles, "We're thinking about the brand in a very multifaceted dimension; we are really interested in the brand as a convener, the brand as a participant in a community."
Working with Vancouver's Blast Radius, Nau has launched its web presence with a blog (see www.nau.com); the online store launches in January. Webfronts, designed by Portland's Skylab Design, are scheduled to open in spring '07. Beyond a compelling sustainability/profitability case study, Nau provides a fascinating look at the ground-up construction of a brand identity, and the role of design in bringing intention to life. "One of the underlying tenets when we started was we will try and be as intentional and conscientious as possible with every decision pertaining to the design of the company," says Galbraith. "We talk about the design of the product, but we're really thinking about this whole thing as a design challenge."