As a teenager, Eric Dayton sat in awe as famed polar explorer Will Steger rolled out a map of Antarctica to show him the route of an epic transcontinental expedition. The moment fueled Dayton’s love of the outdoors and exploration, gained during summers paddling through the Boundary Waters as a camper at Camp Widjiwagan in Ely, Minnesota.
So in 2004, when Steger invited Dayton to join an expedition into the Canadian Arctic to educate young people about climate change, he jumped at the opportunity. During six months of dog sledding through Canada, Dayton, a fresh college graduate, came face-to-face with the issue of climate change.
“We passed through Inuit villages along the way and heard from these Inuit elders, their first-hand accounts of the impact of climate change on their communities, on their culture,” says Dayton, co-founder of Askov Finlayson, a men’s clothing shop located in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood. “That was hugely influential for me and eye-opening.”
Still inspired by the experience when he opened Askov Finlayson in 2011, Dayton began considering how he as a business owner could make a positive impact on climate change. In 2015, Askov Finlayson launched the “Keep the North Cold” giving campaign, donating a portion of the proceeds from company’s “North” brand of products to Steger’s nonprofit organization, Climate Generation. But it didn’t feel like enough.
“We felt good about what we were doing, but could I really say that as a company, we were moving the needle on climate change, and actually having a net-positive impact on that issue? I didn’t feel like I could,” says Dayton. “As we looked to the years ahead, I wanted to really embed this idea further into the DNA of the company and really just make it central to what we do, and make sure that if we’re talking about keeping the North cold, then we’re really walking the walk, and backing that up with absolute credibility.”
Determined to come up with a program that would truly “move the needle” on climate change, Dayton brought on Minnesota native and the former director of global communications at Patagonia, Adam Fetcher, in the newly created position of vice president of environmental impact and policy for Askov Finlayson.
Tapping into his experience at Patagonia, which has donated over $89 million through its “1% for the Planet” initiative launched in 1985, Fetcher went to work developing a new environmental initiative for Askov Finlayson: Give 110%.
The initiative, which Fetcher calls a “first-of-its-kind program,” is essentially a self-imposed carbon tax that will fund a variety of organizations working on the climate change issue. This year, the company will measure the carbon footprint of the company’s entire supply chain for its Askov Finlayson brand products: from growing raw materials, to those materials being woven into fabrics, to the garment being created, to the transportation and sale of the product. Then that footprint will be translated into dollars and Askov will donate 110 percent of that amount starting in 2019.
“I think that idea of ‘net-positive impact’ is really key to our thinking,” says Fetcher. “[…] We knew that we could do work within our supply chain and our operations to reduce our climate impact. We knew that we could pick a percentage, somewhat arbitrary, to give away. But the idea of really tying those two things together, creating accountability, and then giving away more was where we landed to fulfill that idea of net benefit.”
To jumpstart their giving while the first measurement is calculated, Askov is pledging to donate $1 million in the next five years to the most innovative and effective efforts to address climate change they can find.
One of the first efforts this new Give 110% initiative will fund is the development and commercialization of perennial grains.
Dayton explains their decision to fund perennial grain research: “We’re a relatively small company. What gives us the biggest bang for our buck? How do we really punch above our weight on this issue [of climate change]? We were open to all ideas and all options, really focusing on what has the potential for the greatest impact ROI, and that led us to agriculture and Kernza.”
Kernza is a wheatgrass currently being grown and researched by The Land Institute. Kernza’s extremely-deep root system can help retain organic matter in the ground, decrease erosion, and provide habitat for wildlife.
“Agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, period, in terms of industries,” Fetcher says. “[…] Perennial grains, which Kernza is one, represents a way, not just to limit the impact of agriculture, but actually to reverse climate change.”
However, the potential for perennial grains, like Kernza, perennial wheat, perennial rice, perennial sorghum, and wild sunflower, will remain unrealized unless they become commercially viable crops for farmers to grow. Companies including Patagonia, Minneapolis’ Birchwood Cafe and St. Paul’s Bang Brewing are some of the first to make commercially-available products using Kernza, creating the beginnings of a market for the grain. Organizations like Green Lands Blue Waters are working to build supply chains to widen Kernza’s availability and fill the growing demand for the grain.
To support these efforts, Askov Finlayson is not only providing funding through Give 110%, but also teaming up with Northeast Minneapolis’ Fair State Brewing Cooperative to release a Kernza beer called “Keep the North Cold.” The beer will be on tap at Fair State’s taproom and at The Bachelor Farmer starting January 18, and a portion of the sales will be donated to further Kernza research.
“Everybody talks about craft beer being ‘local’ beer, and being local this and local that. We’re all guilty—and we’re even more guilty than other people—of using imported ingredients,” says Niko Tonks, head brewer at Fair State. “Basically we’re an industry process that sits on top of an enormous supply chain, so it has seemed incumbent upon us to try and do our best to get what we can locally.”
“It’s always exciting to be able to get to work with unique, new, and novel ingredients, particularly ones that, like Adam said, can actually have an impact on the world beyond the beer,” says Evan Sallee, Fair State’s president and CEO.
In May, Fair State plans to brew another batch of Kernza beer at its St. Paul production brewery, which will make the beer available for wider distribution. “Our hope is that we can kind of kickstart Kernza to be a self-sustaining commodity crop, that hopefully in the future won’t be special when we make a Kernza beer,” says Sallee.
For Askov Finlayson and Eric Dayton, the collaboration is just the first step on their way to creating a net-positive impact on the climate change issue through the Give 110% campaign.
Dayton feels that with Give 110%, he’ll be able to look his customers in the eye and say “we’re having a positive impact on this issue, and you’re helping us really move the needle on this.” But perhaps more importantly, he and Fetcher hope it will inspire bigger businesses in Minnesota to take a “net-positive” mindset.
“Frankly, business created climate change, and business is going to need to be part of the solution if we hope to fix it,” Fetcher says. “So if we don’t start thinking, not just in terms of doing less harm, but really providing that benefit to the planet, we’re in a lot of trouble.”