The wind blows. Tufts of hardy grasses sway in the gusts. In the distance, the corrugated spines of the Andes etch the horizon beneath a blue sky flecked with puffy white clouds. As the sun shines, the company’s seven founders climb between words of encouragement and rasping breaths; the wind blows a little less.
Not every company holds its board meetings up on mountains. Although these aren’t exactly board meetings (they’re more team-building exercises), they do tell us a lot about this organization’s DNA, and how the founders’ divergent strands have woven together to form a unique vision. Between good humor and a shared vision, mountain treks and over a year of hard work, the founders of Alta Andina are forging a company both singular and inspiring.
Make good shit
Their ultimate aim is to create an outdoor apparel brand that is both socially- and environmentally-responsible. It’s a social enterprise from tip to toe. To paraphrase the tattoo on creative Head of Design Jonathan Jamieson’s right hand, “to make good shit and make the world a better place in the process.”
How does this work in practice? Leather is a good illustration. It turns out that most of the world’s leather is tanned (the process of turning an animal hide into leather) using chromium, a contaminating heavy metal. Production inevitably results in chromium finding its way into rivers, ecosystems and humans. The alternative is to employ vegetable tannins. Most of the world’s best vegetable tannins are sourced from Andean tree species. Yet, unfortunately those tannins are exported as a raw material to the US and Europe where the profits from the industry are made. Alta Andina’s supply chain solves the environmental problem, sources cow hides from cattle raised in the appropriate environments – never at the cost of biodiverse ecosystems or forests – and adds value to the products in the Andean region.
Another material ripe for disruption is plastics.
“I was trying to get to sleep in Cayambe’s mountain refuge, shivering with cold in the night, with all this apparently high-tech gear on me,” recalls founding partner and CEO, Greg Krupa. “Thinking about the native animals sleeping outside, I thought, there has to be a better way, a natural way.”
Ironically for the outdoor apparel industry – whose customers are supposedly some of the most pro-environment of any segment out there – most of their clothes (puffy jackets, sleeping bags, outer shell jackets) are part of the plastic pandemic of our times.
“There’s a disconnect between the consumer’s values and the products they buy,” claims Greg. “As a new business in that space, we see that as a huge opportunity.”
The vicuñas are calling
Natural inputs like wool and vegetable tanned leather represent non-polluting, renewable alternatives to plastics and synthetics. The Andes are home to the camelid family – vicuña, alpaca, guanaco and llama – famous for their fine, world-renowned wool. In this context, the natural alternative takes on even more significance and resonance. Camelids thrive in the freezing temperatures of the high-altitude páramo, making their natural wool fibers the most insulating in the world. Not only that, the fine fibers of Andean camelids, native keystone species, can provide sustainable incomes for remote Andean communities who have herded them for generations. Plus, these wools and vegetable tanned leather don’t cause skin irritations, unlike many synthetics and chrome tanned leather.
“We all shared a Road to Damascus moment when we began analyzing the very clothes we ourselves wear in the mountains,” explains Greg. “Their global footprint is massive. We want to create a positive Andean footprint, leveraging the incomparable natural resources that we have right here, where we live.”
“We wanted to build something different, something radically transparent,” says Ryan Hood Taylor, the company’s VP of Supply, “something that we can be proud of and happy for people to question.” Natural products that last a lifetime and that have an ethical sense of place, would be one way to sum up the philosophy.
“We need to source everything from the Andean region,” explains Ryan. “We’ll never import from Asia which, admittedly, would be much easier. That means pounding the pavements to find the suppliers. Being a company that is based here in Ecuador, and not in the States, is the only way to ensure our success in this regard.”
This vision creates positive waves that ripple along to both ends of the supply and distribution chains. “Alta Andina provides a platform for artisans and craftspeople who, despite creating beautiful and ethically-sound items, can’t find a footing in the global marketplace. In this sense, we can play a part in maintaining traditions,” says Paúl Quiñonez, the company’s legal and administrative VP.
“By bringing these people into our chain, we believe young people in particular will change their value systems and appreciate their traditions, their roots more – as long as they can make a livelihood. Culture is connected with nature, with the land. Alta Andina connects these elements.”
Agents of change
At the other end of the chain, lies the fifth voice in the group, that of David Gamburd, VP of Global Sales. “Consumer knowledge is key. We have to educate and empower in order to sell,” claims the former Tesla Energy salesperson. “A great advantage is our transparency, but we also have to capitalize on one of our greatest strengths: our ability to story- tell from this Andean world.” Communicating Alta Andina’s philosophy of positive environmental and human impact is therefore fundamental.
“The average consumer might not know about the damaging impact of chromium, for instance. They might not know, and they might not care, even when they become aware. We have to convince our target market of the value of our products, not just the price. Consumers can be agents of change; it’s just that they don’t necessarily know how.”
Empowerment through mobility
As an outdoor apparel brand, the founders have come to regard both nature and mobility as a gift. They’ve therefore created an alliance with the Range of Motion Project (ROMP), which will see the building of the world’s highest altitude inclusive trail in the Cayambe-Coca Reserve for people living with disability. A percentage of Alta Andina’s sales will go directly to funding ROMP projects in Guatemala and Ecuador that have benefited thousands of amputees by fitting them with prosthetic limbs. The other co- founders, world record holders Karl Egloff and Tyler Andrews, both high-altitude, high-velocity athletes, play key roles in inspiring the team to work harder and go further.
The great teacher
The wind howls and deafens at times. The seven huddle on Imbabura’s summit at nearly 5,000 meters above sea level. It’s time to look around, to take in the magnificent views of the Andes. Time to reconnect with nature, to value her and find in her solutions to the challenges they all face, whether personal or organizational.
“Nature is the greatest teacher,” says Paúl. “Sometimes the simplest solutions – whether for improving our designs, our ‘ecosystem’ supply chain philosophy, or our value propositions – are right there in the natural world. We can find the answers, or at least formulate better questions, when we hike up the mountains as a team.”
More than just a “different” space for a corporate board meeting, the inspiration found high up in the Andes breathes life, creativity and passion into everything this diverse gang of innovators do. Long may the game-changing winds blow.
Meet the makers
Alta Andina has recently launched in Ecuador and products will soon be available online via www.altaandina.com and Amazon. In Ecuador, get a feel for their wonderful products and philosophy by visiting La Parada, a handsome workshop set in Otavalo’s historic train station. It’s best to call in advance, but all visitors are welcome.
“La Parada”, Calle Guayaquil & Juan Montalvo, Estación de Ferrocarriles, Otavalo.
+ (593 9) 9861 8470
+ (593 9) 5876 5438
Martes a domingo 9 a.m. a 7 p.m.