Organizational Change
As REI Prepares to #OptOutside for 5th Year, CEO Says It’s Not Enough

Outdoor retailer unveils aggressive, new sustainability commitments around waste and eliminating unnecessary packaging; urges employees, business leaders and consumers to “opt to act” on waste.

For the fifth time this Black Friday, REI Co-op will close all its stores, process no online payments and pay all 13,000 employees to #OptOutside with friends and family. 

But this year, under the leadership of a new CEO and the spectre of a global environmental crisis, the co-op is going a step further: asking its 13,000 employees and 18 million members to join in the fight for life outdoors — and life on this planet.

The co-op is asking members and employees to “opt to act” — by joining a nationwide clean-up effort, to leave the outdoors better than they found it when they #OptOutside on Black Friday. REI employees have created 52-week action plan to take small steps throughout the year to reduce their environmental footprint.

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Employees have already started, so far collecting more than 3.4 tons of trash in clean-up efforts around the country.

At the same time, REI is stepping up its own fight for life outdoors — starting with rethinking its core business model in favor of more mindful consumption, tackling waste and pledging to eliminate unnecessary packaging in the outdoor industry — beginning with poly bags (the clear plastic bags used to protect apparel).

“My job is to steward the co-op, and the outdoors, on your behalf — and on behalf of the generations who follow us. Today, that future is at risk,” REI CEO Eric Artz wrote in a letter to co-op members this week. “We are in the throes of an environmental crisis that threatens not only the next 81 years of the co-op, but the incredible outdoor places that we love.”

The co-op first launched #OptOutside in 2015, inviting employees and members to look at Black Friday in a new light. Five years later, that decision — the choice to close every REI store on the biggest shopping day of the year, pay employees to spend the day outdoors with friends and family and encourage US consumers to think more deliberately about their consumption habits — has grown into a movement. But in 2019, Artz says, that’s no longer enough.

“As a single company, our impact is limited; but as a community, we can drive change that powers meaningful action beyond our walls. As a co-op, we know that many people taking many small steps together can add up to big changes. Collective intention will drive collective impact.”REI CEO Eric Artz

To power that change, the co-op is committing to a future based around a circular economy, working toward zero-waste operations and challenging the outdoor industry to eliminate unnecessary packaging.

Commitment to circularity

This spring, REI announced a major expansion of its rentals and used gear businesses — both in service of today’s consumers, who are increasingly looking for alternatives to owning; and the co-op’s belief that one of the most impactful ways to lower a product’s environmental footprint is to maximize the numbers of times it can be used. By the end of 2019, an estimated 300,000 REI members will have shopped for used gear.

This fall, REI will continue to invest in its commitment to circularity by inviting 5,000 members to pilot a used gear buy-back program — in which members receive REI gift cards when they trade in gently used outdoor items for resale at REI.com/used; debuting a seasonal ski rental offering for kids and adults; and testing out a new online rental reservations system — making it much easier for customers to reserve the gear they need for their outdoor adventures.

Achieving zero-waste operations

For many years, the co-op has been working toward a 2020 goal of operating at zero waste (diverting at least 90 percent of waste from landfill). While REI has made significant progress, challenges such as changing recycling markets and variable infrastructure from city to city mean the company will not meet its 2020 goal in every store.

The co-op has worked hard to increase its recycling rate to 76 percent across its operations — in headquarters, distribution centers and stores. The remaining 24 percent of waste is a challenging mix of everything from the silica packets that come with apparel items, to the plastic poly bags they’re inevitably wrapped in, to the paper towels in some buildings’ restrooms. Waste is currently created at virtually every touchpoint; and to-date, no US retailer has figured out how to achieve zero-waste operations in all its stores.

Despite this, REI continues working a goal of zero waste across its total operations by the end of 2020; and by the end of 2021, REI will certify its headquarters, its distribution centers and at least 10 REI stores as TRUE Zero Waste facilities. The co-op has committed to sharing what it learns on its journey to zero waste, to help other retailers figure it out, too.

The co-op is also working with Subaru of America to help members recycle hard-to-recycle items such as snack wrappers, bike tires/tubes, yoga mats and tents; and is partnering with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and United By Blue on 11 clean-ups around the country taking place throughout November. REI will also solicit member feedback for what else it should take on, via REI’s digital community, Conversations.

Challenging the outdoor industry to eliminate unnecessary packaging — for good

Of REI’s current waste stream, over 20 percent is made up of thin-film plastic such as poly bags. REI brand apparel has transitioned away from the use of individual poly bags for most items, but many brands still use them for each item. These bags are rarely recyclable at the stores, and contribute to the generation of more than 7 tons of thin-film plastic waste per week that REI is determined to eliminate.

By the end of 2020, REI pledges a substantial reduction in poly bags. The co-op will hold its own brand to the continued avoidance of poly bags, and work with its brand partners to reduce the use of unnecessary plastic packaging.

“At REI, our purpose is clear — to awaken a lifelong love of the outdoors, for all. We believe that if we get millions of people to love the outdoors, they will leave it better than they found it,” Artz says. “Because when the next generation asks us what we did when the outdoors and the world needed us most, I want to be able to say, ‘we did our best.’”

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