A lifestyle brand isn’t the first thing you’d associate with respected explorer and environmentalist David de Rothschild. Before most people graduate college, de Rothschild — the youngest heir of the famed banking family — had already sold his own music merchandising business. After receiving degrees in Political Science and Information Systems, he earned an advanced Diploma in Natural Medicine from the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London.
The years that followed were quite prolific: he became youngest British person to reach both geographical poles, he became one of 14 people to cross the continent of Antarctica and was part of a team that broke the world record for the fastest crossing of the Greenland ice cap. He founded the Sculpt the Future Foundation in 2006 to grow environmental education through adventure ecology. In 2010, he sailed from San Francisco to Sydney in a boat built from 12,500 recycled plastic bottles to raise awareness of the Great Pacific garbage patch. Then, in 2015 de Rothschild founded the Lost Explorer, a brand offering clothing, accessories, alcohol and wellness products.
Not surprisingly, the Lost Explorer puts nature at the forefront of everything it does. Clothing is made from organic material and features natural dyes. The alcohol is small-batch mezcal from Mexico. The skin-care products use a range all-natural ingredients including adaptogenic herbs, which help to reduce stress inside the body. Before starting the Lost Explorer, de Rothschild helped Levi’s with their WaterLess campaign and Deutsche Telecom with their sustainability platform, among other projects. But with his own brand, he wanted to see if he could do things differently.
By analyzing the preexisting system and trying to create better practices, the Lost Explorer has quietly built a diverse array of products. Like his activist expeditions, de Rothschild’s brand draws attention to problems in the current consumer system and offers a strong point of view with possible solutions. As the Lost Explorer expands further into the wellness space, we talked with de Rothschild about sustainability, wellness and what it takes to truly change a culture.
Q: After starting the Lost Explorer in 2015, what have you learned?
A: Ultimately, if you’re creating products, then you are having an impact. No matter who you are, no matter how you do it, no matter how good you want to be, no matter how sustainably you plan, there is an impact on the process. Whether that’s the milling of the fibers, whether that’s the shipping of the product, whether that’s the returns of the product — these are all things I’ve been learning and understanding and trying to figure out while asking, “How do we minimize our impact in that process?”
I feel like I’m landing on a place where the next stage of the business is going to be more about a testament to what we say and how we present products. I think there’s going to be a shift towards wellness in terms of skin care and ingestables. I feel like that, as a product category, has a little bit more interest in terms of bringing the story of nature to you.
The thing I’m realizing more and more is that as we move into high specialization, we’re also moving into an age of anxiety and stress. And some it’s conscious stress and some of its unconscious stress. The way I look at the Lost Explorer is really as an antidote to that, but the antidote really is nature.
I’ve realized over my time as an environmentalist, we’ve kind of failed. We’ve failed because we’ve told stories that are all about the demise of nature and what’s wrong with nature and that if you’re not doing something, you’re part of this problem. And I think that is an intimidating, alienating and sometimes debilitating story for a lot of people, myself included. What we want to do is try and encourage people to travel and explore. We want to try and encourage people to look at nature through a different lens — look at it through the lens of excitement and look at it with a sense of awe and wonder.
People say, “Why did you start the company in the first place?” It’s exactly this: to start this conversation, to try and understand the system, to try and see if we can shift the culture — and to do that a company has to become a community and to do that, I think it has to do more than just create profit for a few people. Something that I’m really focused on is how to use our products to put money back into society. We can use the brand to create mini-campaigns that can affect positive change.
Q: Would you rather affect change on a grassroots level, creating a community with people, or would you rather affect big companies that can cause industries to change, or are they one in the same?
A: I think they’re symbiotic, for sure. What’s interesting is that big companies look for influence outside of their own sphere, and they look at small startups like us. So, I think you can affect the minds of people who are part-controlling these bigger corporations. I hope that actually what they’re looking at is not just pictures and can we replicate this but can we shift our culture internally?
But then, I also think that it has to come from the consumer because if the consumer’s not interested in what we’re doing, and we’re not creating content that allows people to understand and be part of something [then we fail]. I do think that it’s very easy to become worthy, like our products are better than your products. And it’s not ever meant to come across as that in any way shape or form. I see a lot of that worthy-ness, and I always say, “Worthy-ness is the death of the cause.” When you start trying to present yourself in a certain light, it can be very alienating to people. We’re trying to build a company that can hopefully become a brand and that can influence culture along the way.
Q: The Lost Explorer has a range of categories. What ties them all together?
A: When you look at all the products, hopefully, you feel they’ve been considered. There’s a sense of integrity to how we’ve approached things. We’re trying to work in partnership with nature in everything we do. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to actually make something that was truly natural on every level: all the ingredients, how they were harvested, the welfare and livelihoods of the communities and cultivators who actually compile the ingredients, figuring out how to make things without parabens and phthalates and sulfates or any synthetic fragrances and colors — and that are a lot of brands in our space that present themselves as [natural] and are full of parabens and sulfates and parabens and phthalates and sulfates and synthetic fragrances.
Hopefully, when people discover us, they realize there’s integrity behind what we’re trying to do, and that we are trying to do it correctly. That means that some things may take longer and not everything’s going to come out exactly the same. When you do natural dyes, not every t-shirt is going to be exactly the same color. Separation may occur in some of the skin care products — just shake it. The reasons that separation occurs is because we’re not using agents that are chemicals to bind it. Why would you rub more toxicity on your skin? We’re already living in a world that’s full of toxicity.
So it’s that kind of realignment. If you’re going to source your ingredients sustainably, then you to need to pay people good prices for their ingredients. You can’t say, “We’re a sustainable brand” if your cultivators are being short-changed.
Q: There is a systemic problem disconnecting people with nature and how products are made. How do we connect people back to the real world?
A: It’s got to be a combination of top-down and bottom-up — it can’t be one or the other, it’s got to be everybody or nobody. If you’re just thinking with the emphasis on one part of society or one part of the supply chain, you’re missing the system. And we know the system is not working. The problem is, the system today has so much momentum still because we are creatures of habit.
There’s a great Sufi saying that says, “Our pain is the breaking of the shell that encompasses our understanding.” We understand this way, and it’s going to be painful to break that shell and to move into another system. The frustration for me, as someone who thinks a lot about this, is that we’re living in a time like no other. And the reason is: we have all the information about where and what our problems are. We have all the information where and what our solutions are. And, we have all the capabilities and technology to apply those solutions today — not tomorrow. Today. We can completely replace dirty fuel with clean energy, we can completely change the way we trade around the world, we can completely change the way that we interact with each other, we can completely change diagnostics in terms of how the medical industry works so that we’re not prescription-based, but we’re preventative. We’ve got all these tools. The problem is that we have vested interest in this old system, and it has become apparent that too many organization are amassing way too much money. And that addiction to that capital, and the fact that those companies, not always dirty oil companies or big pharmaceutical companies — they’re consumer brands that are making gross profit at the cost of people and the planet — are not putting things back.
To me, what is extraordinary about this time is that we have hyper-transparency. You can’t say or do things now without somebody seeing or watching. So brands can’t operate behind murky fronts anymore, and I think honesty and transparency are some of the greatest tools that we have. But the flipside is that we’re all focused on ourselves, and we’re all busy, and we can’t get out of this rat-race. We’re all just trying to do things, so we don’t collaborate well. We’ve had all these movements that just are just moments: they come, they get all the headlines, there are marches, then they seem to fizzle out because we can’t coordinate and we can’t remain open.
We’re at that stage where we’re starting to scratch the surface, we’re starting to articulate the problems more eloquently and inclusively. Now we’ve got a choice: do we get up and do something different or do we just operate in a field of ignorance and denial and despair and anger? I would rather move out of those stages and into acceptance and adaption and solutions. That to me is way more resilient. That’s where we can start to draw inspiration from nature; nature has these inbuilt checks and balances. It’s a beautifully intricate system. Unfortunately with the digitization of our world is that everything becomes hyper-linear, it becomes 1s and 0s — on-off, yes-no, black-white. And it’s not that.
At the end of Albert Einstein’s life, he came up with this theory called Quantum Entanglement. Very simply put it’s: you can not describe one without describing the other, and the idea that every molecule that exists can only be viewed in the context of all the other molecules and pieces of the puzzle it makes up. I feel that we are becoming more entangled than ever, yet we’re trying to view ourselves as isolationary. And I think that entanglement is important because when you pull on a string, we see others more than ever now. That ripple effect is right back in our face. So that entanglement, I think, is what’s in our favor, but I also feel the antagonistic relationship with digitization — this very linear, single approach where if I don’t like something I just turn it off — [represents] the flip side.
If you think about humanity from an evolutionary standpoint, we’re just coming out of our baby years and we’re moving into our teens. In an ironic way, it’s kind of like we’re a teenager who’s starting to go, “Who am I?” Right now, humanity is starting to self-express because of digital devices, and we’re trying to figure out who we are. What group do we want to belong to? Do we want to belong to that group where it’s like inequality, inefficiency, dirty polluted air, more toxicity, more disparity? Or do we want to belong to a group where we can have more equality, we can have a world that is fair and just? We’re so capable of doing it.
Q: What company is a success story in terms of culture?
A: You look at something like Tesla — it’s a great example of shifting culture. Here you have the electric car that no one cared about because everyone was like electric cars are never going to take off, they’re ganky, they don’t look cool, blah blah blah. And Tesla comes along and built a dream and sold a vision that suddenly awoke the beast of the automotive industry. And now, I don’t know if Tesla will [continue to] exist in its current form because you’ve got companies like Volvo saying our entire fleet will be electric by 2020. You’ve got other companies moving everything over to electric. What Elon [Musk] and Tesla did was shift the culture.
Culture can change really quickly, and that’s what’s exciting. As soon as a couple big consumer companies say, “You know what? It’s not cool for us to create design obsolescence so that we throw our products away so that we can make more money that we don’t do anything with or put back into society. We need to start contributing to society.” There’re companies that are sitting on billions of dollars in cash — multi-billions of dollars — and they’re having an impact. If we can find ways to shift the consumer consciousness to say, “Hey, there’s a problem here. This doesn’t feel right. We want something different.” Those businesses need to respond, and those businesses need to take some ownership. Inside every business and every corporation are individuals. We need to not just value companies on gross profit and what they can take, but rather what they can give. And in my tiny little way, I hope, maybe rather naively but with a lot of optimism, that we can affect that culture change. That’s really what this is about.
Q: Other than Tesla, what other brands inspire you?
A: I think that Patagonia has been doing an amazing job at shifting culture. They’re way more creative, in some ways more than their with products, with what they’ve been doing in the background with creating campaigns around dams and supporting environmental networks, basically recognizing that our playground is at risk. From a shifting-culture standpoint, Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are really interesting because they’ve recognized that people aren’t going to give up on burgers. So it’s like I am going to create a burger that is incredible but doesn’t have any meat, but it will taste the same and look the same, and that could be huge.
I think DJI, the drone company, is interesting. As a tool to observe our planet, it gives us another perspective that helps us to see things differently. How it’s being used for conservation has revolutionized how we keep an eye on our planet. How quickly it’s gone into the market shows that if you have a decent product, people want it. And I think it’s allowed people to create some really compelling content that’s inspired people to think differently about our planet.
Q: How do you pack when you travel?
A: For me with travel, the main thing is to try and keep it light and modular with things that are multi-purpose. And that was a lot of the design input around the Lost Explorer. I’ll take a jacket that looks smart enough to wear to a restaurant but it can also repel water. And really be strict with yourself: give yourself a much smaller bag. The reality is, when you’re traveling, you can wear the same stuff every day and no one sees you. You don’t need a lot of stuff. The most important thing to have is my camera because I’m always trying to take photographs, and my computer so that I can download [photos] and write. Generally, keeping things small and light is important — less shit to lose and look after.
Q: What cameras do you pack?
A: My go-to camera is the Canon 5D. I got a Mark IV recently after years of just having the Mark II. I also use the Olympus OM-D E-M10. It’s little and you can swap the lenses out — that one I’m really enjoying. And you can pick them up for $300 or $400 which is an amazing value. I sometimes use a film camera. I’ve an old Leica R4 that I use, which is kind of nice. If I’m going somewhere and know I’m going to be taking a shit-load of photos, I’ll lean on my 5D — that’s my go-to workhorse. But if I’m coming to New York or just going somewhere quick, I just take something smaller, so I love that little Olympus.