With Benefits: Nau

With Benefits is a series featuring for-benefit companies — for-profit models that inherently benefit social causes — written by Janette Crawford, founder of the consistently excellent ethical fashion daily Fashion Loves People.

I’m told that the founding of Nau went something like this: a small group of do-gooders (some of them ex-Patagonians) got together to launch an endeavor that, whatever it might be, would be truly world-changing. They considered the many ways they might be able to “un-fuck the world” (their original working name was an acronym of this phrase). In the end they were most compelled by the positive change they could effect through the power of capital-B Business. They decided they would start an apparel company that would change the garment industry’s paradigms on environmental impact and social good from the inside out, and launched Nau in 2007.

Fast forward to today, and not everything has gone exactly as planned. The company declared bankruptcy in 2008, and has since been bought out and scaled-back by like-minded sportswear company Horny Toad. However, despite these changes, Nau’s unique perspectives continue to impact the world of sustainable apparel design.

Textile Innovation

I get a little bit giddy every time I talk to someone like Jamie Bainbridge, Nau’s director of product and textile development. I find myself trying to gather as many smart-shopping takeaways as possible from her vast amounts of garment industry knowledge.

She told me candidly about the ups and downs in Nau’s supply chain. The area in which the company can make its biggest impact right now is in the development of sustainable textiles. Working with textile manufacturer Teijin in Japan, Nau can source a 100% recycled polyester that is also recyclable at end-of-life (it costs more than its alternatives, but it best fits the company’s values, and is turning heads in the industry).

Product Manufacturing

The area that Bainbridge isn’t fully happy with is in manufacturing, although the issues she cited are system-wide, and not specific just to Nau. “The business of auditing factories has become controversial,” she told me. Now that Western consumers and corporations have become more conscientious of how their goods are made, factory auditing has become a business unto itself, costing factories lots of money and lots of time. “A lot of Asian factories will have 50 to 100 audits per year, which takes over their lives,” she said.

One way Bainbridge is helping the industry address this issue is through her role in the new Eco Index, a standard that will regulate the labeling of green garments. While the Index (which is still in beta) focuses on environmental impact, she said it will begin to incorporate a social responsibility component sometime next year. In the meantime, she said that Nau approaches labor by “working in factories we’ve worked with for many years, who we have relationships with and trust.”

Meaningful Work for Developmentally Challenged Adults

In addition to championing responsible labor abroad, Nau has also taken up a very worthwhile cause at home. Through its partnership with Horny Toad, Nau has been able to team up with Planet Access Company (PAC), a top-class fulfillment center in Chicago that provides meaningful work for adults with developmental disabilities. Horny Toad President Gordon Seabury helped found the facility in 1997.

“We’ve always wanted to be the best environmental citizen we could be,” Seabury told me about Horny Toad in the past. “Where we can be leaders is in the social space, and now more and more of our peer organizations are thinking about this. When our relationship with Nau started, I was most excited for PAC — this will really put their organization on the map.”

For more info about how Nau is changing the garment industry, and to check out the label’s excellent AW10 collection, visit the Nau website.

About the author:

Janette Crawford is a blogger, journalist and copywriter, focusing on stories about good design with a good backstory. She writes about ethical fashion (that loves you back) at FashionLovesPeople.com and supports indie artists of all kinds through her day job at Storenvy.com. If you sign up for Janette’s RSS feed and follow her on Twitter, Flickr and Vimeo, she’ll love you forever.