Nau Seeks to Prove Sustainability Is More Than Just a PR Gimmick

Outdoor Apparel Company Readies Launch of New Business Model

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"Climate change is no longer the purview of scientists only," said Yale's dean of environmental studies in a recent New York Times article that appeared on a day when an entire page of the paper's business section was devoted to environmentally focused stories.
The Portland, Ore.,-based Nau will make performance and casual sportswear while aiming to change fundamental things about the way clothing is made, distributed and marketed.
The Portland, Ore.,-based Nau will make performance and casual sportswear while aiming to change fundamental things about the way clothing is made, distributed and marketed.

Clearly the issue has become the purview of a growing number of marketers, which are assuming the green position with varying degrees of credibility while cultural indicators (such as the recent launch of Good Magazine, whose subscription proceeds go entirely to nonprofit organizations) point to wider mainstream awareness of sustainability issues.

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 including Nike, Patagonia, Cole Haan and Adidas, is attempting to find out with a venture called Nau.

The Portland, Ore.,-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. First, the line won't be carried by existing retailers; instead Nau aims to sell as much of its clothing as possible online and through its new "webfront" stores, which are physical locations that allow shoppers to check out the product firsthand. Though they can take the gear home with them, consumers are encouraged, via a 10% discount, to buy online instead -- at store kiosks or at home -- allowing Nau to reduce its own environmental impact and its costs by creating smaller stores with less inventory.

Nau VP-Marketing Ian Yolles says while the internet has 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 5% of each sale will go to a consumer-selected humanitarian or environmental 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 under the withering stare of your most design-conscious shopping companion. Nau will also use renewable materials such as PLA, a synthetic derived from corn rather than oil, into the manufacturing of its line.

In its marketing, Nau will work with influencers from its audience of "multidimensional athletes, activists and artists" and, according to Mr. Yolles, will engage heavily with the nonprofit community. "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," Mr. Yolles says. Working with Vancouver's Blast Radius, Nau has launched its web presence with a blog; the online store launches in January. Webfronts, designed by Portland's Skylab Design, are scheduled to open in spring 2007.

It's heartening to see more nonscientists moving beyond just talking green. If its efforts so far are any indication, Nau plans to walk the sustainability walk straight up a mountainside. Then it plans to walk down and go to dinner wearing the same outfit and look gorgeous while doing it.

Look for the full Nau story in the October Creative Marketers report in Creativity.

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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and AdCritic.com. E-mail your big ideas to her at tiezzi@crain.com.
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