This past Sunday I forewent a gorgeous afternoon in the sun, opting for the headquarters of frog, a global innovation firm (they design/re-design products and experiences for major companies). Frog and LRN, a consultancy, were hosting a weekend "hackathon." Unless you're a computer programmer or a geek of some other stripe, you might not immediately recognize this term, but hackathons are basically brainstorming sessions. People with similar interests and talents come together to re-imagine a product or service—or sometimes something broader—by hacking and rebuilding existing products or services.
This hackathon was, indeed, something much broader. The participants—designers, coders, business leaders, students, filmmakers, and many other thinkers—were handed this task: reinvent business. No big deal. Also, they had just 30 hours to do it.
I arrived just in time to hear about the products and services that the 20 teams at the hackathon came up with. Each team had three minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that two of these ideas are tied in an important way to the outdoor/adventure sports gear market.
Buycotts are the opposite of boycotts. They are campaigns aimed at promoting the purchase of a product or service based on the provider's positive social or environmental practices. But one of the hackathon teams proposed effectively transforming the buycott from a tactic into an application. Its idea was to create a Web-based platform, simply called Buycott (they even came up with a logo, above), that would formalize and scale up buycotting.
"We make decisions based on human values. But companies make decisions based on business values," explained the team in its pitch. "So Buycott connects consumers with businesses and lets consumers vote with their dollars."
While the hackers didn't specifically call out outdoor gear and the consumers thereof, their presentation made clear that Patagonia is an example of a company that they would hope might be an early user of this service.
To use the application, consumers would create online profiles with wish lists of the types of products they want to buy. Those wishes wouldn't just be about the end products, but also about how the products are made and what happens to them at the end of their useful lives. For example, my list might include backpacks that have been certified by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. Or I might want all the textiles used in the apparel I buy to be from factories certified by Bluesign, an agency that audits chemical use and checks up on worker safety measures at textile factories.
If a company's products don't meet my criteria, they would not show up on my product search results. But at the same time, the Buycott app would share with manufacturers the types of products and certifications that I (and other users) are requesting. This, the hackers surmised, "will challenge the companies to make the products that consumers want."
To ensure that companies live up to their promises, Buycott would partner with certification groups or other third parties that would audit the manufacturers.
Another team presented a similar idea, for a platform called RighTale. Essentially, RighTale would also put the consumer in the position of greater influence over what products are available to her. It would leverage existing social networks, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Like Buycott, users would input what they want from their products. But they could get even more granular—essentially writing the product's recipe from start to finish.
Think of a bespoke bike: the buyer picks the frame, the components, the configuration. Then, RighTale would let manufacturers get your business through a bidding process. In fact, its designers hope that it would actually spur entrepreneurs to start new ventures expressly to make products in the manner and with the materials that consumers clamor for.
Demand and Supply
"If you really want a business to do more than greenwash, you have to put a market mechanism in place," RighTale team member and Carnegie Mellon M.B.A. candidate Robert Morris told me. "RighTale makes consumers drive the supply chain. They get what they want, in the way they want it produced."
Great, but can it scale up? After all, efficiencies in manufacturing require scale. It's not really clear yet; remember, these are ideas that hackathon participants pulled together over a weekend. But even if these efforts were to fail, they've already succeeded in hacking conventional business-to-consumer models for supply and demand.
In some ways, Patagonia has already hacked this with its Don't Buy This Jacket campaign. But they're still in the driver's seat. Plus, Patagonia is already drinking (or making) the kool-aid when it comes to producing sustainably-made outdoor gear.
The real power that these hacks have would come from influencing other, larger corporations and convincing them to change their practices. What if consumers could really drive the supply chain decisions made by VF Corporation? This $7 billion apparel comglomerate owns more clothing and footware companies than I have room to list here, but they include The North Face, Timberland, Smart Wool, JanSport and many other outdoor-focused brands.
A couple of months ago I spoke with Adam Mott, The North Face's senior manager of corporate sustainability, about his efforts to shape the overall sustainability of The North Face products and supply chain operations. TNF has been working with Bluesign since 2009 to certify the textiles it uses, and in TNF's 2012 apparel line, 42 percent of total fabric volume is Bluesign certified. That's up from 27 percent for the Fall 2011 line.
TNF and Timberland are also active in a number of industry-wide programs, such as the Eco Index, to address the environmental impact of outdoor gear in a systemic way.
"The North Face has always been a kind of pilot program for sustainability under the VF Corp umbrella, and I've worked closely with the Timberland sustainability team," Mott told me. "VF formalized its sustainability strategy about two years ago. We in the sustainability program at TNF became part of VF's sustainability advisory committee. All the different brands get together to share what they've learned and also develop an overall strategy."
But in the end, TNF and other VF Corp brands are most beholden to their customers. Hacking the purchasing process—so that these companies know not just what you'd prefer but what you'll accept—seems a much more powerful driver than waiting for more sustainable products to emerge organically from with the companies.
Or am I just being naive?
Editor's note: in a former version of this post I'd written that nearly half of all the products in TNF's 2012 spring line are Bluesign certified. That was incorrect; it's nearly half of the total fabric volume in the line. I've fixed it above, but regret the error.
—Mary Catherine O'Connor