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Why Vans invested $3 million in solar panels at its new HQ

Vans Sustainability Manager Kim Matsoukas has seen a lot of positive change at the company in the past 5 and a half years since she was hired. Her role has allowed her to steer progress for the brand across its outward-facing events, alongside its internal culture.

Many of the programs she’s helped put in place — such as counteracting carbon omissions from the North Shore’s Triple Crown of Surfing by purchasing carbon offsets — are not tangible, she admits. But in June, when Matsoukas took her first steps into the newly renovated Vans headquarters in Costa Mesa, she finally had her moment of triumph in how far the business has come.

vans invests $3 million in solar panels
A look at the 4,000-panel, one-mega-watt solar array in Vans’ backyard. Photo: Vans

“I walked in that first day, and I was really proud,” she recalls, as we sit in the Commons area of the massive 180,000-square-foot building, and Vans employees bustle around, grabbing coffee from the in-house barista or enjoying lunch in the open-air courtyard. It’s hard to imagine the building without its polished present day look and feel.

Related: An insider’s look at Vans’ new Costa Mesa office space

But Matsoukas explains that the whole building received a complete facelift, and that the 4,000-panel, one-mega-watt solar array sitting in back of Vans’ new headquarters was not included in the property purchase. In fact, the building, which was formerly home to a pharmaceutical company, was equipped with outdated cooling and heating systems — and was not going to be sustainable for Vans moving into the future.

vans invested $3 million in solar panels
Kim Matsoukas, Vans sustainability manager. Photo: Gabi Aoun

Fortunately, parent company VF Corp, which supported Vans in purchasing the space, understood the value of setting up the brand up for success, said Matsoukas, adding that the two-year process of developing a sustainable infrastructure was still a time-consuming one: “I had to make that case; just doing that was a big project.”

And the price tag? An additional $3 million. But Vans estimates that the solar array will pay itself off within the next four years. “Southern California, as you can imagine, has a lot of sun, so you get a lot more production than other parts of the country — and we get a lot more incentives. Our state is quite progressive when it comes to renewables.”

When Matsoukas and team first began exploring the project, they assumed they would be able to power 50 percent of the building with solar, but were pleasantly surprised to learn that it was actually 100 percent. That’s also including 34 employee and four visitor electric vehicle chargers in the parking lots, Matsoukas adds.

While the building has been at the forefront of Vans’ sustainability focus — mainly because it was an opportunity they viewed as “once-in-a-brand’s lifetime” — that’s just one piece of the puzzle in Vans’ future plans.

vans invested $3 million in solar panels
Vans is making it easy for their employees to stick to an organized recycling program with these handy bins, with individual breakdowns of what goes where. Photo: Helms

In addition to solar power, the building has many other sustainable elements, including recycling bins throughout the office and reusable cup and mug stations set up to discourage single-use waste. Beyond the office space, with support from VF Corp and several industry organizations like Surfrider Foundation and WSL, Vans has been able to implement post-event beach clean-ups, and solid recycling programs that see every bag of trash sorted with a 90 percent diversion rate. Even massive structures like the US Open of Surfing’s concrete skate bowl get recycled each year.

Internally, employees can volunteer for several “Green Teams” and participate in clean up projects, sustainability workshops and lectures. For the past three years, Vans has run contests for its employees who participate in these activities, with end of-the-year winners scoring a trip to the Vans Triple Crown. Not too shabby.

vans invested $3 million in solar panels
A look inside Vans Commons area, which features a daily barista serving up coffee in real mugs. Photo: Helms

Alongside their in-house sustainability efforts, Vans is also working to outfit consumers in more sustainable product as well. The brand has goals of using 100 percent “Better Cotton,a sustainably sourced material and industry standard. Right now, the brand is at 60 percent Better Cotton, but as Matsoukas explains, “In 2012, we were using 0 percent.” Across all of these efforts, Vans’ main focus for the future is engaging its employees and the Vans community to create the most good

“There is the human element; I think that is a big benefit that is often overlooked in sustainability,” said Matsoukas. “Young people want to work somewhere that has a purpose and is doing things for their community.”

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