By Reed Fischer
December 19, 2019
Eric Dayton’s latest commitment to the climate crisis is an outerwear upgrade
Eric Dayton used to visit New York City every January to stock his North Loop boutique, Askov Finlayson, with high-end clothing for discerning and adventurous Minnesotans. This included third-party brands like Patagonia, as well as Askov originals, like the now-ubiquitous North winter hats. But as New York plans were developing for early 2019, “I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Dayton recalls. “My passion was not for bringing other peoples’ products here to Minneapolis to sell. It was in creating our own products that represent this place.”
So began an organizational pivot to turn Askov into a completely in-house brand vowing to “Keep the North Cold.” Also baked in: a pledge to donate 110% of Askov’s annual carbon footprint costs to support climate crisis organizations—including polar explorer Will Steger’s Climate Generation nonprofit—while minimizing the company’s long-term climate impact. As part of this mission, Askov helped facilitate August’s Al Gore-hosted 42nd Climate Reality Leadership Corps activist training at the Minneapolis Convention Center, which brought together 1,156 new trainees from 38 countries.
The storefront closed, and a new logo based upon the northern cardinal (a bird that sticks it out for Minnesota winters) emerged. Then, in November, a “climate positive” parka for men and women officially arrived. Designed by North Face vet John Ly, the parka has a shell, lining, and 3M Thinsulate featherless insulation that stays as warm as down—even when wet—that are all made with 100% recycled materials. It also comes with a mobile phone stow sleeve that blocks all cell service for an off-the-grid feeling literally anywhere. By focusing on sales online and at the newly reopened North Loop store, Askov can price the parka at $495, but it’s made to stack up against expedition wear twice as expensive. “I don’t like this idea that high quality should be a luxury,” says Dayton. “Especially when it’s clothing that you need to enjoy winter.”
How hard was it to close the Askov Finlayson store?
We had a lot of success as a store, but I think we all had more excitement for the opportunity as a brand. I realized we can’t be great at both of these things at the same time. We had hospitality, [the Bachelor Farmer restaurant and cafe], [Marvel Bar], and Askov with both a brand and a store. It was a desire to focus. It was still a difficult decision to close the store, but it was a clear choice.
How did your brand identity change?
When we looked at “What is Askov at its core?” a big part was our winter: embracing and protecting the cold that is so iconic to our part of the country. The North hat represented that. Some of the other categories felt less central. When we thought about what you need to go outside and embrace the winter season, we’d always known we weren’t making certain things that you needed, especially a great winter coat. I saw that as something we could work our way to. But the more we talked about it, we flipped that around and said, “What if we went right to that?”
How difficult is it to operate a “climate positive” company?
There’s no question that this is not the path of least resistance. This adds another layer, or another couple layers, to just about everything that we do. It makes everything we do require a little more effort, or a little more research. When we came up with this idea for Give 110%, we had to run the math and see if we could do that and be in business. We were really happy when we ran the numbers—that, yeah, we could do that. This issue, climate change, tends to be very nebulous. When you connect it to the things that people care about and value in their own lives, that’s when people feel really inspired.
What has joining the World Economic Forum’s Forum of Young Global Leaders brought to your climate awareness?
My first engagement with that program was a trip I took with about 20 other people this spring to Greenland. We went there both to get the latest information from scientists and experts on climate change, but also witness the impacts at a very alarming rate right in front of our eyes. It was just prior to Greenland having epic, record melts in June. I’ve been aware of it and focused on it since 2004, and we have been building this into our business for five-plus years, but there was something about being immersed in the information and the setting for five straight days that penetrated more deeply—the scale and urgency of the crisis.
What has it been like for you to come to terms with the mortality of the earth?
If you believe the science, which I certainly do, it stretches our ability to even imagine the world that we could be dealing with 25, 50, 100 years from now. I have three kids, and that’s part of it, too. I can’t tell them, “Everything’s going to be OK.” I don’t know if it will be. Forty years from now, when I’m an old guy, they’re going to ask, “What did you do when you had the chance?” I just want to be able to say, “I did everything that I could.”
What gives you hope?
[An article in The Guardian] said that 71% of the world’s emissions are caused by 100 companies. I think it’s going to have to be a problem that businesses solve or stop causing. There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic on this topic, but we are approaching a tipping point. Ten years ago, a lot of companies would’ve said it feels too risky to engage on the issue of climate change. Now, it feels risky not to engage. My personal belief is the lack of leadership in government on this issue is causing business leaders to realize, “This is on us.” The question is: Will it be enough, soon enough? You don’t get points for good intentions, or doing a little better than you were before, or not as bad. We’ll either get there, or we won’t.
How do you describe the parka’s aesthetic?
It’s 2019. I don’t want to be pretending it’s 1919, but I am also not trying to look like it’s 50 years in the future. We want a design for a forward-looking aesthetic. What makes something long-lasting is not just the quality, but its aesthetic durability.
What does Askov Finlayson’s future hold?
I could see, down the road, designing around this parka, like, a kit of parts. We’ll continue to sell the North hats but move beyond just things that say “North” to things that represent that idea and this place. We designed this parka—with the environmental stewardship built into every decision we make, and the value proposition of the price—as an expression of what this place represents. We don’t have to put the word “North” across the back.
Will this Askov Finlayson parka end up in Will Steger’s closet?
He has been a really helpful resource and a source of inspiration. It was good to be back up at his homestead in Ely to go through his expedition archives and ask him about different pieces of equipment—what he liked, what he didn’t like. He will definitely be getting one of the parkas, and if anyone can put it through the elements, it’s Will.