Why Ecologyst Co-founder Rene Gauthier Says Being “Sustainable” Is Not Enough Anymore
Can the fashion industry put the earth first and still thrive? Rene Gauthier, CEO and Co-founder of Ecologyst says, “yes.” His high-quality, eco-friendly clothing brand is proof.
“It’s so easy for me to get out of bed and go to work. And I feel that from our whole team as well; there’s just so much more purpose behind our business with that transformation.”
When it comes to building a business, build something you wholeheartedly believe in. For Rene Gauthier, CEO and Co-founder of Ecologyst (formerly called Sitka), it’s changing the way we think about the clothing industry. And he’s doing it one high-quality, eco-friendly garment at a time.
What began as a surf and skateboard apparel company 20 years ago, has blossomed into a leader for changing the narrative on what’s possible—and what we should expect—of the clothing industry. Focused on using all-natural fibres, crafting products in North America, and putting the planet above all else, Gauthier is building an antithesis of fast fashion.
Though his feet are firmly planted in the direction he wants to take Ecologyst now, it wasn’t always this way. After a near-death motorcycle accident, Gauthier couldn’t help but reflect on his previous business model.
“I was surrounded by the ambulance and fire crews, all asking me how I’m doing. And I could just see what I needed to change in my life, including what I needed to change in the business,” he said. “It was crystal clear. I saw that my values and the values of our company were not aligned with how we were making our products.”
The radical overhaul of how the company operates was a risky venture—it almost led to the brand going out of business—but by sticking to his new, clear purpose, Gauthier was able to steer Ecologyst back to success.
Catered to folks who live by a “less is more” mentality, Ecologyst serves as the go-to apparel company for garments that are built to last. Unlike seasonal trends you might find from other brands, Ecologyst focuses on well-made staple items that will never go out of style.
It’s the type of company that Gauthier believes consumers will increasingly demand: a conscientious one. Built by a way of thinking he believes more founders need to adopt.
“If that founder is a person who appreciates or understands their oneness with nature, and thus the importance and the dependence on clean air, clean water, clean soils, so forth, then they probably can’t sleep at night if their business isn’t putting that at the forefront,” said Gauthier. “If they’re not, because there’s plenty of people that don’t think that way, then I think they need to consider that that’s where we’re going.”
For this week’s Entrepreneur of the Week, Bay Street Bull spoke with Rene Gauthier, CEO and Co-founder of Ecologyst, about building a purposeful business, challenging the status quo of the fashion industry, and why being “sustainable” may not be enough.
Ecologyst has really evolved over time from surfboards to being a leader in sustainable apparel. How did it go from the business you started right out of university to what it is today?
Oh boy. How long do you have? [laughs] I think about the company that we started out of university, and partly who I was at that time, just a young Buckaroo, and it was more about creating a brand that represented the Pacific Northwest. And that was just by identifying a gap that, to me, didn’t exist at the time. Brands that were popular, or at least that I found popular, were Quicksilver, Volcom, Patagonia, and so forth. I was like, “Okay, there’s nothing in the Pacific Northwest that showcases the lifestyle here.” So we did that. We kind of followed how those other brands went about it, but instead of a Palm tree, it was a Sitka spruce tree.
As I grew as a human and things changed in the world and so forth, it had to be about more than that. Having that realization is when things shifted more towards Ecologyst from where it was when Sitka first started.
And for yourself, right out of university to where you are now leading Ecologyst, how has your own role within the brand evolved from those moments to today?
The obvious one, like any time you start a business, you’re doing everything. You’re wearing every single hat. So, you gotta be really great at doing. Then as things grow, you’ve got to become great at leading other people. You’ve got to become great at listening, coaching, managing, and delegating. You learn to help others with being okay to fail and trying new things. Though, I still get in the weeds. I talk about being 30,000 ft. up, and I like playing up there and envisioning things and so forth, but I have no problem going down to 3 ft. when needed. I love carrying the rolls of fabric into our factory with the team; I still really enjoy that side of it. I think that’s important for a leader. So I don’t think anything’s beneath me, you know?
Was there any big ‘aha!’ moment throughout your career or any big learning lesson that reshaped the way you were thinking or changed the course of your trajectory?
The one that really comes to mind is, and I kind of spoke to this in the first question, but in 2013, I was in a head-on motorcycle collision. I was knocked out on the ground for 20 minutes and had a very near-death experience. That was a very real ‘aha!’ moment in many areas of life, and business was one of them.
I was surrounded by the ambulance and fire crews, all asking me how I’m doing. And I could just see what I needed to change in my life, including what I needed to change in the business. It was crystal clear. I saw that my values and the values of our company were not aligned with how we were making our products. And lying on the ground, seeing if I could still feel my fingers and toes, I was like, “I’m done producing offshore. We’re going to bring everything back here. We’re gonna make the clothing ourselves. We’re not going to use petroleum-based fibers any longer.” So, that was an ‘aha!’ moment. One that I don’t recommend other people attempt though [laughs].
Oh wow! That definitely would have been a moment that makes you step back and reevaluate things.
Yeah. And completely rejigging our supply chain, as we did, was not easy to. There were some trying times when we almost went out of business in the process of that. But we just stayed true [to our mission] and I would say that I’ve never been more proud of where we’re at with the company and the work our team is doing now.
It’s so easy for me to get out of bed and go to work. And I feel that from our whole team as well; there’s just so much more purpose behind our business with that transformation.
In today’s day and age, many brands are trying to be more conscientious of their eco-footprint. They’re trying to have a more green outlook on what they do, although, to some degree, that can sometimes result in greenwashing and maybe not fulfilling what they say they’re doing. For you, what does it mean to be sustainable and eco-friendly, and to follow through on that?
That is such a trigger word now, I think people read sustainable and they’re just like “Oh, greenwashed.” We actually did a deep dive into our current customer base and the number one shared value across the whole set was that they don’t trust companies or brands. And to me, that was really telling. The people who don’t trust any brand or company, they’re choosing us!
I think about the word sustainable, and I guess I just don’t think it’s enough. Sustainable is sustaining, and it’s more of a balance, “We’re going to take this out and we’re going to give this back and then we even out, we’re sustainable.” Right? But I think we’ve made a pretty big mess here on this planet and I think we need to start thinking of it like, “How can we, as individuals and companies, be more regenerative? How can we give more back than we take?” So I’m just going to say it, I’m not down with that word [sustainable] anymore. And I think we need to start thinking of it differently.
You have this mindset of sustainability isn’t enough in today’s day and age, we need to be regenerative. Yet, there are still so many companies that aren’t even meeting the “sustainable” minimum. Especially in the apparel industry, where fast fashion is a huge contributor to global warming. As a founder, who’s been able to build Ecologyst with a core belief in putting the earth first, what would you say to other founders or companies about why they should be focusing on the environment with all of their business decisions?
If that founder is a person who appreciates or understands their oneness with nature, and thus the importance and the dependence on clean air, clean water, clean soils, so forth, then they probably can’t sleep at night if their business isn’t putting that at the forefront. If they’re not, because there’s plenty of people that don’t think that way, then I think they need to consider that that’s where we’re going. And that’s how many of their customers are either thinking today or will be soon. And if they want to stay in business, then they need to be thinking that as well. Otherwise, their business will cease to exist. So, you better evolve quickly. I don’t mind if that decision’s coming from an altruistic standpoint or it’s coming from a financial one—those two are coming together right now.
An interesting thing that I found out about you was the “uniform” you wear, typically the same outfit for a month or so. How did that begin? Is that part of your own kind of step towards being eco-friendly and not buying clothes in excess?
It’s walking the walk. I enjoy challenging the status quo and over the last however many years, marketers have been really great at convincing us of a lot of things. Including our habits around clothing, like that wearing an outfit two days in a row is taboo or that we must wash our clothes after every wear. However, it’s really not that long ago where the majority of people just had a few outfits; this is the one I wear to work and this is the one I wear on special occasions or going to church on Sunday or to temple or whatever it might be. That was not that long ago. And I feel like we can go back that way.
So, I’m just looking to walk the walk and be being an example for that. The bonus is it means fewer decisions, which means more time for me and the things that are most important. It just seems really unnecessary to have to do all of that work of buying all of these outfits, choosing what to wear each day, washing them, et cetera. It’s in the realm of simplifying.
Hand-in-hand with that, if you’re going to be wearing the same clothes over and over again, you need clothing that is high quality and that’s not going to deteriorate. One thing that Ecologyst has is a lifetime guarantee for its products. How did you come to that decision? And what has the response been from consumers? Do you see people follow up on it?
Firstly, how we decided to do that is I just think it’s the right thing to do. I think if companies are building things, they need to take responsibility for those things that they build. Do our products break down? I would say we build them at a quality level that it’s fairly rare that people are taking advantage of our lifetime guarantee. But you know, stuff happens. We’re fortunate in that we have our own factory, so it’s fairly easy for us to repair things. And again, I think thanks to some really great marketing, we’ve become a throw-away culture as opposed to repairing things. And that’s something that we’re trying to bring back, “Hey, this is great quality. And if it gets a snag in it, we can fix it. You don’t have to get another one.”
At the end of the day, how would you define success? At what point do you feel successful?
I suppose I do now. I mean, I’m healthy. My family is healthy. I get to do a job that I’m passionate about. I feel like if I died today, I would feel like I gave it my all for a worthy cause and purpose. I suppose those are key things that make it feel like I’m winning in life.
As far as Ecologyst goes, I think further into the future, I want to make a small dent in the universe, specifically in the clothing industry. As mentioned, I think the way that we’re doing things, or the majority of companies in our industry are doing things, is stuck in 1970 or something. Like, come on people, this is 2021. We already know what we need to do here; let’s just do it already. So, I’m hoping we can play a significant role in that change that’s needed for our industry.
For sure. Shifting that mindset on a wider scale.
Yeah. And whether I’m here for it or not, when our company succeeds in that, I don’t know, but that’s what I hope for it.
And if you were to look back at yourself, at the beginning of your career, when you’re selling Sitka surfboards, what do you know now that you wish you could tell yourself back then?
Part of me doesn’t want to tell him anything. I guess I might just say enjoy the ride. I think even if I gave 20-year-old Rene advice, he probably wouldn’t listen and he would just have to figure it out on his own. So, I’d just say, “Good luck with it, Rene. Enjoy it. You’re going to learn the lessons you need.”
That’s awesome. You kind of answered it already, but I was going to say that you live by the motto of “Leave it better than you found it.” What kind of impact do you hope to leave behind with Ecologyst? Is it that impact on the fashion industry?
Yeah, I think that’s fair. I guess more specifically, there are a couple of areas in the industry that we’re all fairly aware of now, but, to me, the change isn’t happening fast enough. I saw a stat the other day that in Vietnam, garment workers are paid $150 a month. That’s the average. That’s so messed up! When you think about what it takes to become skilled in building a piece of clothing, it’s so crazy that we’re okay to pay those people only $150 a month. We’ll pay a professional marketer $100,000/year, but you can always find another marketer. Finding someone that’s really skilled at making clothing, which is one of the few things that we actually need as human beings, is really hard.
Most of our clothing is made out of plastic and that’s just gross. Plus, it’s ending up everywhere. It’s in oceans, it’s in our food now—they’re finding it in apples. They even found it in the human placenta recently. That’s so messed up! So, I think that has to be cut out and probably needs a bit of government support on that as well. The Canadian government declared plastic a toxic substance, yet most of the clothing available out there is made out of plastic. I could go on for a while, but I think I’ve probably said enough [laughs].