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Environmental Activist Refuses To Take Cold Shoulder From Athleta

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Kendra Arnold outside of the Morristown, N.J. Athleta store. Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Arnold

You know when you were a kid and you’d stand there with the refrigerator open, gawking slack-jawed to see if any tasty snacks had appeared since five minutes ago when you did the same thing? Then your mom would yell at you for the tenth time already to close the damn door and not waste electricity?

Well, imagine that on a global scale: A major chain store leaves its doors open to the big, wide world while it blasts Arctic air conditioning out to the sidewalk for hours on end, day after day.

An alert environmental activist, Kendra Arnold, noticed her local Athleta store in Morristown, New Jersey, doing just that, so on July 28, she asked the manager to close the doors. To her shock and dismay, she was told it’s company policy to keep the doors open, and they refused to shut them.

“I was really trying to figure out if this was policy,” Arnold said. “The manager told me it was policy for all the stores. I was trying to figure out if that was true.”

That seems blatantly stupid on the face of it, but Arnold was particularly miffed because Athleta, a brand of San Francisco-based company The Gap, is a certified B corporation—meaning they “are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.”

Right there on the Athleta website, the company touts its status as a B corp and claims, “We use business as a force for good. We’re proud to be recognized for putting people and planet right up there with profit.” One of its five core values is: “Our sustainability sustains us.”

So Arnold, who has lobbied Congress for cyclists’ rights and is the organizer of the successful New Jersey VegFest, tried to contact Athleta numerous times over a couple of days. No one seemed to take her concerns seriously. “It was kind of frustrating because you would message people and email and call them and not get any response,“ she said.

Though Arnold noted Athleta is not the only store that leaves its doors open with the A/C running, she added, “All their branding is about saving the earth.” And it had been a pet peeve of hers for a while—she found a Facebook post from three years ago complaining about the same thing with the same store.

Arnold then took it upon herself to start a one-woman protest on the sidewalk in front of the Athleta in her home town, complete with homemade signs saying 2.2 tons of carbon dioxide are released every year from every store that keeps its doors open while the A/C is running. (She said she got the numbers from Googling articles about a New York City law that forbids businesses from running air conditioning while the doors are open.)

One of Kendra Arnold’s protest signs. Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Arnold

Someone in charge relented and shut the doors the next day, but Arnold still demanded answers. On July 30, she emailed Athleta CEO Nancy Green and the chief marketing officer. She also started a Facebook event (now canceled) called, “That’s Not Cool, Athleta” to urge people to join her protest. “I felt like I had to keep throwing rocks at them until I got a response, so that’s what I did,” she said.

Just a few days after starting the protest, Arnold got a call from Valerie Ivey, senior director of store operations at The Gap, who told her Athleta would send out a directive to district managers letting them know that the doors should be closed when the air conditioning was on.

For what it’s worth, I walk by the Gap and Banana Republic almost daily and I’ve been by Athleta numerous times, and I’ve never noticed their doors open here in San Francisco. Then again, rarely do stores have the need here to blast air conditioning, even if their buildings have it, which most don’t.

So is it truly company policy to leave the doors open and air condition the outdoors? Was it a one-time shrug-off from an individual manager?

I contacted Ivey with these and a few other questions, and another rep sent the dreaded “statement” via email that touted Athleta’s commitment to sustainability and read in part, “While we haven’t previously had a specific policy to keep doors closed, we have now let our stores know they should be aware of closing doors when the air conditioning is on. We always welcome and appreciate hearing from our customers about ways we can do better as we all strive to do our part to help protect the planet.”

I asked Arnold how she felt about effecting such positive change so rapidly by getting the ear of a major corporation. “I feel pretty good only because people keep congratulating me,” she said. “While I feel it’s great that I got this done because it’s kind of my pet peeve, there’s so many more important things happening in the world. It makes me feel I have to be noisier about other things that are more important.”

Even though Arnold does more than the average bear to be sustainable—she eats a vegan diet, doesn’t drive and doesn’t use disposable items like paper towels or plastic wrap, for a few examples — she said this situation did make her take stock of her own behavior as well: “I did get some feedback that I need to concentrate on my own footprint a little bit more. I need to be a little more thoughtful for sure.”

In what way?

She admits sometimes she does stand in front of the fridge with the door open just a little too long.

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Geri Koeppel

Geri Koeppel

Geri Koeppel is a journalist, hedonist, gadfly and gal-about-town. She loves animals, despises hypocrites, and will do almost anything for good pierogis.