• Transform magazine
  • November 19, 2017

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Sustainable futures: REI

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Gaining the support of 475 organisations from all sectors and taking a stand on a day when no other brand will, REI has put its commitment to people and the environment at the heart of its business. How does its #OptOutside campaign support this? Brittany Golob reports

In 2015, American outdoor retail co-op REI chose to do something other major retailers wouldn’t even dream of. It chose to close its doors and e-commerce site for one day. Not just any day, but the biggest shopping day of the year – Black Friday. Now, after two successful years of the #OptOutside campaign, REI has become a poster-child for commitment to its stewardship ideals, in the face of overwhelming pressure among its peers to convert sales.

For REI, success is measured not just in numbers, but in the ongoing stewardship role the brand plays for its people, the environment and the outdoor lifestyle. Its sustainability and stewardship programmes reflect this ethos, but its business model is also built upon that foundation.
The #OptOutside campaign was not designed as a communications campaign. It wasn’t intended to achieve clicks and likes and shares and media coverage. The only metric placed on its success, said VP of brand stewardship & impact Alex Thompson at the June 2016 Sustainable Brands Summit in San Diego, was take up by employees. “We did know that it would ruffle feathers and we did know that it would make a dent, and we wanted it to make a dent, but we did not anticipate the level of participation or the sustained dialogue,” he said.

REI has always focused on its employees and its members. The co-op model allows it the flexibility to look beyond profit and take a long term approach to business development, as it doesn’t have shareholders to answer to. But, as a co-op it must ensure it treats its people right. #OptOutside was one of many ways REI has achieved that. By giving employees the day off – for some the first Black Friday they’d had off in decades – to be outside or with friends and family, the company was showing a level of respect for its partners.

Other programmes, like its commitment to fair labour standards throughout its supply chain, two days of paid leave to spend outside and a commitment to women in leadership, among other things, have led to its inclusion on Fortune’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ for the 19th consecutive, and 20th overall, year. In 2014, REI rebranded to include the word ‘co-op’ in its brand name and on its logos, emphasising its commitment to its members.

One of REI’s key stewardship objectives has been to work in partnership wherever possible. For that reason, #OptOutside was not kept a closely-guarded brand asset. It was designed to be shared. Millions of people took part, including REI’s 12,000 or so employees. But it also encouraged other companies to follow suit, including a number of outdoor brands. In its first year, 170 corporate or governmental partners joined REI, a number that rose to 475 in 2016. It also encouraged 22 states to waive entry fees to their parks on Black Friday. This extends to the company’s committment to sustainable manufacturing and transparency throughout its supply chain. To that effect, it has a partnership in place with Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op to jointly uphold standards in their overlapping supply chains.

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Vik Sahney, divisional vice president of sustainability at REI, says, “Partnerships are essential.  While in the past nearly 80 years, we’ve grown from 23 members to 16 million members, REI is still a relatively small organisation compared to larger retail stores. So when we look at how we can have real impact in the world, it is clearly about going beyond our four walls. Reducing our own impact to zero wouldn’t be meaningful enough. It also would ignore some of our greatest assets such as our co-op structure, our unique position in the value chain with brands and manufacturers, and with our co-op members."

REI has partnered with the US National Parks Service to increase awareness and access to the country’s national parks. In a year when national monuments are being targeted by President Donald Trump, partnerships between business and public sector organisations, like this one, may become increasingly valuable to protecting the US’ environmental treasures. With former first ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush as honourary co-chairs and a public education and awareness campaign, Find Your Park, REI helped create a successful partnership with brands like Disney, Budweiser and American Express.

That commitment to the environment doesn’t just stop at partnerships, though. It is part of the heart of the REI brand. The outdoor retailer is not only founded by, but employs and serves people who love nature. But, as a business, sustainable practices also have a business value. That was at the heart of #OptOutside. “It was drawing on nearly 70 years of heritage,” Thompson said. “This was a business decision first and foremost. It was a business decision to dig deep into the values of the co-op and to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do to build the character of this organisation and to share what we stand for and inspire others?’”

Sahney adds, “The values of our founders set us on that course which we track today through continuously asking a few simple questions.  First, ‘What is in the best interests of the co-op membership?’ second, ‘What actions would make our members most proud?’ and third, ‘How does this enable an outdoor life?’.”

And it has paid off. Despite not having any business objectives and despite closing the doors to potentially millions of dollars in sales on Black Friday, REI has seen a 31% increase in visitors to its site on Black Friday. Last year, it recorded a 5.5% increase in annual revenue as well.
But, REI also reinvests almost three-quarters of its profits into the outdoor community, to reinforce its commitment to its people, its communities and the natural world. The initiatives and projects it has in place now are all designed to serve the business, and its communities, better in the long term. Sahney says, “A number of recent studies have shown that businesses that focus on the long term deliver better financial results, are better places to work, and are more sustainable.”

REI’s projects and programmes all individually set a high standard for environmental and social stewardship. However, without its long term focus, that’s all they would do. REI’s commitments all stem back to its main value – a life lived outdoors. That is reflected by #OptOutside  and the bold statement it makes about the responsibilities of a modern business.  As Thompson said, “We think beyond profit. I think that’s profound because the people who built REI created the organisation not imagining what it would become, but they made profound decisions about how you would measure impact over the long range.”

Staying true to that founding ethos has allowed it to build a successful business that reaches 36 states. But  it has also allowed REI to blaze a trail – not only through the great outdoors – but in a new approach to sustainability and stewardship.