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Interview with Gordon Seabury

Gordon Seabury
Gordon Seabury

We have set extremely high standards for ourselves
Toad&Co creates socially and environmentally committed clothing that is versatile enough for work and play. The company sources the most sustainable materials and partners with the cleanest factories to make comfortable clothes that last forever. 100 per cent of Toad&Co clothing is made with a minimum of 80 per cent sustainable fibres and/or fabrics that have met earth-friendly bluesign or STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEK certifications. Every purchase supports the company’s mission to make the outdoors more accessible for everyone. In a chat with Fibre2Fashion, CEO Gordon Seabury talks about sustainability in terms of products, packaging and practices.

What are the main challenges currently facing the apparel industry, and how can they be addressed?

There are several but I believe over-consumption and waste are big challenges facing the industry, but can be addressed through more circular options, and consumer education. It seems that younger consumers today are becoming more educated and aware of the topic and are looking for solutions. So, it is up to us and other companies to further educate on sustainable options, and even more importantly, provide them.

How are companies within the apparel industry adapting to changing consumer preferences and demands, particularly concerning eco-friendly products?

The consumer is changing for the better – becoming more sustainably minded and educated about the environmental impact of the apparel industry. We have set aggressive sustainability targets to get better each season and are increasing the percentage of recycled fibres we use year after year. Brands are also realising transparency is key to build consumer trust and are setting and publishing their sustainability targets.

Can you discuss some innovative practices or materials that are emerging within the apparel industry to reduce environmental impact?

Something we have recently started doing is working with smaller farms who are not yet certified organic but are working towards it (it is a process that can take several years) to use organic cotton in conversion in our clothes. As we invest in these partners to support their transition to organic, we are helping to drive change in the industry as a whole.

How are brands navigating the balance between fast fashion trends and responsible, sustainable production?

Our designers really make an effort to engage in trends within the context of our own brand identity. If the product looks out of place while our customer is throwing the ball for her dog on the beach or if he looks too dressed up for an impromptu camp overnight, it is probably not for us. Using that kind of filter gives us some good guardrails to keep us focused and the product really timeless – but still leaves enough room to experiment with trend and colour.

What inspired you to start Toad&Co, and how did the name come about?

Horny Toad was started in the mid-1990s by Jessica Nordhaus, who was dating a college friend of mine, and she was making recycled winter toques out of her basement in Telluride. It was a true cottage operation, and the hats were all one of a kind. She was planning to move out of Telluride and was looking to sell the business as a retail concept. I loved the hats—the recycled elements, and she had all of the DNA of an ethically run business already. I mapped out the business plan on a napkin at my favourite bar in Chicago (The Cubby Bear) and convinced her to sell it to me, but as a wholesale brand.
Regarding the name, Jessica was looking for a rugged outdoor critter and grew up with horny toads as a child in New Mexico. The original name was great for many years, but as we grew beyond our outdoor roots and that word became difficult in the new world of the internet, we started exploring other options that would still carry forward the DNA and culture of the brand. When we rebranded as Toad&Co, the idea was: this is not a corporate company, but actually our partners, our vendors, our retailers, our customers, our non-for-profits are deep in our DNA and largely represented what was truly good in our world.

How do you ensure that 100 per cent of your products remain sustainable at all times?

Sustainability has been core to our business since day 1, so it is engrained in everything that we do. We have set extremely high standards for ourselves: 100 per cent of our line is made with at least 80 per cent sustainable fibres and/or fabrics that have met independent certifications. We have an amazing product team who diligently works to make sure we never cut corners on getting there – but sustainability goes beyond just the fabrics we use. We also carefully evaluate our sourcing and manufacturing processes, how we package and ship our products, and what happens with them at the end of their lives. We have long-standing factory relationships that have proved critical when it comes to having tough conversations or making hard choices to ensure that all our sustainability needs are met.

How has technology empowered Toad&Co to facilitate sustainable choices for its customers?

The ability to launch programmes like ToadAgain on our website with peer-to-peer selling opportunities is a great technological advancement. We love that technology has advanced to the point where Toad&Co customers can easily make sustainable choices by selling and purchasing previously loved items.

Can you explain the concept of ToadAgain and how it contributes to reducing waste in the apparel industry?

An ideal future state for the apparel industry is one in which no clothing ends up in a landfill. At the same time, we are finding that younger consumers are increasingly interested in unique clothing finds, thrifting, and sustainability in general. With our ToadAgain resale concept, we offer customers an easy way to sell their pre-loved Toad&Co clothes, or to buy someone else’s pre-loved clothes.
There are a few ways customers can go about this – they can shop and sell peer-to-peer online (the Poshmark model) or send us their old clothes to list for sale, and they will receive cash or Toad&Co credit in return. We also recently opened a new store and warehouse space in Portland, Maine, where we do all the processing – and they can come shop in person there, too. That store also has a repair centre where we can renew items that need some care before being resold. The general idea here is that the longer we can keep clothes in circulation and out of the landfills, the less waste we create and less resources are used to constantly produce new items.

Can you share some insights into The Conservation Alliance partnership and what it means for Toad&Co?

We have been members of The Conservation Alliance for 10+ years with a commitment to protecting wild spaces and conservation so that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. By supporting The Conservation Alliance, our dollars go to high impact projects across the country and Canada. The team gets to vote on the projects they want to see funded twice per year and have a personal connection with where our dollars are going. As an alliance of hundreds of brands, we also have the opportunity to work with and collaborate with like-minded organisations to make industry wide impact.

How do you select and collaborate with various local non-profits and environmental partners?

We have three pillars of giving that help us ensure we are partnering with non-profits that align with our organisation and values. The pillars are: Conservation for Human Enjoyment, Accessibility and Equity in the Outdoors, and a pillar for doing the right thing when our community is in need (for example, this recently allowed us to donate to the Maui wildfire relief efforts). Our focused giving strategy allows us to ensure a higher impact on the areas that are most important to us.

How do you balance profitability with social responsibility, and what advice do you have for other companies looking to do the same?

From the early days, I wanted to pinpoint our brand’s mission and I knew I wanted the social mission and the environmental mission to be part of our triple-bottom-line approach.
When we first started out, companies like Patagonia were already centred around the environmental mission, but when we co-founded our Planet Access social venture with Search, Inc., no one was focused on social causes in the same way. Though we got pushback from both of our boards when we wanted to open the Planet Access Warehouse – a warehouse that employed adults with developmental disabilities – we convinced them to let us try it for a year and it was a big success. My advice to other companies is that if ‘doing good’ in your company feels like a risk, you are probably doing the right thing – take the risk.
Now, our Planet Access venture is in its next chapter, with a variety of programmes geared towards making the outdoors more accessible and providing opportunities to people with disabilities – and our vision is to build a case study so that we can export our partnership ideas and learnings and hopefully inspire others to follow a similar path. So, we can say, ‘here are the components that will work to build a for-profit, not-for-profit.’

How do you maintain a strong connection with your local communities, especially in places where you have retail locations?

We do our very best to support our retail ambassadors, so they are inspired to share our brand with their customers. Our retail outposts, both those we own and our wholesale partners, are a direct line to customers. We take these relationships very seriously and are always looking for creative ways to do the right thing. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, we set up a profit-sharing programme with our brick-and-mortar retailers. Each of our wholesale partners had a unique code to share with their customers which generated revenue for them even while their doors were shut.

What are your thoughts on the global apparel industry’s environmental challenges, and how is Toad&Co setting an example?

The apparel industry has a serious environmental problem, and that is one of the main reasons I got into this work in the first place. I believe that a shift in the industry is only possible when we all work together to solve the challenges we face, and that if we are able to share the innovative things we are doing – rather than guard them – we will all benefit. At Toad&Co, we consider ourselves to be a team full of optimists, and that helps us face these environmental problems with hope and optimism – and the true belief that we are all in it together.

Can you describe the thought process behind your sustainable packaging choices and how they contribute to reducing your brand’s environmental footprint?

Packaging is one of the biggest sustainability hurdles that we face, but in the past several years, we have made big strides.
In 2018, we were the first to partner with LimeLoop to start offering a reusable shipping option to our customers. These shippers are made from upcycled billboards and they stay in circulation for 10 years. By giving our customers an easy (and free) option to choose our reusable shipping at checkout, we are able to greatly reduce our e-commerce packaging footprint.
We have also begun to swap out our plastic polybags for a widely recyclable paper version and are on track to deliver 100 per cent of our products in these new paper bags by Spring 2024, which contributes to reducing our footprint when it comes to both our wholesale and direct to consumer orders.
We are a founding member of the Responsible Packaging Movement, a coalition of brands working together to push the industry towards more sustainable packaging (as a mentioned earlier – we are better when we work together) and have committed to removing all plastic-based product packaging by 2026.
Lastly, it is important to note that little changes matter just as much as the big ones do. We have also done things like reducing the size of our hangtags to create less waste during printing, and we attach them to clothes with twine and loop to eliminate plastic. The small choices add up and should not be overlooked.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for Toad&Co in terms of continued growth, innovative sustainability practices, and making a lasting difference in the world?

I try to live by the rocking chair test. That has always been a guiding principle as both an entrepreneur and as a person. I have always said that I want to retire to my porch rocking chair and as I look out and contemplate my life, I want to be successful professionally but having built something that mattered and lasted and that I am proud of personally. I want to have balanced that in a way that allowed me to have my deep quality relationships, whether it be with my wife and kids, our employees, industry peers etc. The third leg of the stool is at the end of my journey we hopefully contributed our part to make the world a better place, inspired people along the way to do good, and minimised the impact on Mother Earth.
We talk a lot about ‘good doers’ versus do-gooders. And the difference very specifically between a good-doer and a do-gooder is that a do-gooder wants recognition or credit for their deeds. A good doer just does it because it is the right thing to do even if no one is watching. I hope that we as a company can continue to be good doers in this world.
Interviewer: Shilpi Panjabi
Published on: 25/09/2023

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.