Exploring Corporate Social Responsibility with KÜHL

Many companies today have corporate social responsibility programs that aim to improve their social and environmental impacts—and their appeal for investors and consumers. But critics argue that some of these programs are merely cosmetic and allow companies to continue to pursue socially or environmentally harmful business practices around the world.

GlacierHub took a closer look at one CSR initiative that involves a glacier in South America.

Sponsoring a Glacier Expedition

The Utah-based outdoor clothing and gear company KÜHL, one of the largest outdoor gear companies in the U.S., states on its website that it is passionate about protecting the natural environment. As part of its mission, KÜHL, which is a play on the German word for “cool,” says that it aims to support the health of its employees, customers and beautiful open spaces. In late 2016, the company sponsored a research expedition for two Boise State University professors, a volcanologist and a geophysicist. The pair traveled to a glacier-covered volcano in Chile along with a photographer and filmmaker who documented the journey. The company provided the expedition with gear.

A KÜHL customer shows off her hiking gear (Source: KÜHL/Instagram).

Brittany Brand, co-author of a 2017 volcanic hazard study featured here, was one of the two professors from Boise State whose research was sponsored by KÜHL. Brand runs the Physical Volcanology group at Boise State University and is interested in volcanic eruption dynamics and hazard assessment. Jeffrey Johnson, the other professor on the expedition, used the opportunity to study the geophysics of volcanic eruptive processes.

The team visited one of Chile’s most active volcanoes, the Villarica. Due to glacial ice at the top, lahar events, or debris flows, were triggered during the eruptions of 1964 and 1971. The field data collected by the Boise State team at the Villarica helped the scientists develop experimental models after they returned to the United States.

Villarica Volcano in Chile (Source: Lain and Sarah/Flickr).

Johnson told GlacierHub that he was happy to accept corporate sponsorship of his environmental research. “Scientific researchers are always grateful for outside support when it is offered.” Matthew Wordell, the photographer for the trip, further explained to GlacierHub that the KÜHL Racr X Full Zip jacket was great help during their trek. They needed lightweight and breathable gear, and the jacket proved to be invaluable. Of course, by wearing the company’s clothing on the expedition, the team of four also promoted the KÜHL brand, as videos and photos from the trip were shared on the company’s blog and Instagram account.
“With sponsors on board, it was important to be hyper aware of how the environment and gear interacted to create compelling imagery, often with little more than a few seconds to compose and capture the moment before it was gone,” Wordell explained in a post on the KÜHL website. 

A Fuller View of Corporate Social Responsibility

Recent articles in the New York Times, The Guardian, and Forbes have highlighted cases in which corporations with poor environmental records use corporate social responsibility programs to promote images of themselves as leaders in environmental protection. But as noted in a study by Graeme Auld and others published in Annual Review of Environment and Resources, some companies do work to promote sustainability well beyond the requirements of environmental regulations, both from personal commitments of their leaders as well as a wish to attract customers who seek green products and services. 

So what is KÜHL’s environmental record like outside of this branding program? When questioned about the sponsorship, a marketing representative from KÜHL told GlacierHub that she was contacted directly by the film production crew that documented the trip. Both Johnson and Brand are affiliated with this production crew. KÜHL’s marketing representative was sent a proposal by the crew, and KÜHL was able to support the trip with clothing from their sample collection. The marketing representative noted that this type of sponsorship is on a “case by case basis” and “depends on what we have going on.” She is proud that KÜHL could offer their services and “honored to be able to associate with such great work.”

Climbers wearing KÜHL outerwear (Source: KÜHL/Instagram).

In addition to sponsorships, the company has put a number of environmentally friendly policies into place at the corporate headquarters to demonstrate its corporate social responsibility. For example, there are no paper towels in the headquarters, LED lighting is installed throughout the building, and the company is pet-friendly. KÜHL has also used sustainable materials, including organic cotton, for their clothing. KÜHL Coffeenna™ hoodie is made of a knit fabric which contains recycled coffee grounds. And founder Boyle’s commitment to the firm runs deep. When asked to “name his price” for the company, he told an interested venture capitalist that his company was not for sale at any price.

However, although the company mentions its behind-the-scenes financial donations that help promote environmental awareness and some of the sustainable materials it uses in clothing, it doesn’t have a comprehensive corporate social responsibility program detailed on its website, like some other outdoor gear companies. Nor does the company fully document its impacts on the environment.

Patagonia Powderbowl Men’s Ski Jacket Review (Source: A Better Ski/Wikimedia Commons).

Other firms provide fuller disclosure. Patagonia, for example, includes a history of its supply chains, how it works to protect migrant workers, and its fair-trade certifications on its website. In a recent online review, “Environmental & Social Responsibility: How Outdoor Gear Brands Perform,” David Evans ranked 20 firms in this sector. Patagonia was the only one which received the highest grade of an A. REI, a member-owned cooperative, was the second-highest ranked, with a B. The others all received Ds and Fs. It seems likely that KÜHL, which was not included in this survey, would have been ranked in third place, behind the two industry leaders in CSR but ahead of the majority of firms.

As Wim Dubbink and other researchers, writing in the Journal of Business Ethics, have indicated, companies should be as transparent as possible about their actions in order to be socially and environmentally responsible. While KÜHL has carried out a number of actions to care for the environment, fuller transparency would make it easier to assess the level of KÜHL’s commitment to corporate social responsibility.

Comments from an Expert

KÜHL headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah (Source: Google Maps).

Bruce Usher, co-director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at the Columbia Business School, discussed this case with GlacierHub. “CSR works best when the business plan of the company aligns with the social mission,” he said. “When there is good alignment (e.g., a clothing company that uses recycled materials in their products and promotes an environmental mission), the CSR initiative and the business plan fit nicely together. When there is not good alignment, the CSR initiative looks and feels either like philanthropy (e.g., when a bank supports an environmental initiative), which is absolutely fine but of limited value, or it’s ‘greenwashing’ (e.g ., when a coal company supports an environmental organization), which is, of course, not fine at all. Frankly, greenwashing initiatives tend to backfire on companies, as customers, employees and investors generally see through them, e.g. BP’s rebranding campaign several years ago titled ‘Beyond Petroleum’.”

Usher added, “The key point with Kühl is that there appears to be alignment. The fact that they market their CSR by promoting pics of scientists wearing their clothing may seem unseemly to some people, but I see it as actually being beneficial to both the company and the environmental mission. That being said, I do have a favorite sweater that’s made by Kühl, so perhaps I’m not entirely objective.”

“It’s almost impossible for the social mission and business plan to line up perfectly,” Usher noted. Even Patagonia did not receive a fully positive evaluation in the review mentioned above, since it doesn’t publish a full CSR report. In this sense, corporate social responsibility can remain a goal to which firms can aspire. And, as KÜHL has shown, glaciers are a positive setting in which firms can make contributions in this important area.