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Walking the Talk
Third Year of REI's #OptOutside Movement Gives the Power to the People

With the launch of its #OptOutside campaign in 2015, REI set a new precedent in retail, shuttering its stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, giving its employees a paid day off and – on a day that has come to represent consumerism at its most extreme – encouraging staff and consumers alike to forgo the shopping frenzy in favor of the great outdoors. The move epitomized the company’s ethos and kickstarted a movement to drive positive behavior change and impacts.

While most retailers would find forgoing Black Friday risky business, the move has only bolstered REI’s reputation: In a time when consumers are increasingly expecting more from brands, the #OptOutside movement underscores REI’s commitment to both redefine “The Good Life” — one in which environment, people and time spent with family and friends are highly valued — and enable its members and customers to pursue it.

Now, for the third year running, REI will close its 151 stores, process no online sales and pay all 12,000 employees to #OptOutside with family and friends on Black Friday. But as VP of Brand Stewardship and Impact Alex Thompson explained in an interview on Wednesday, this year the truly viral initiative (roughly 170 organizations/1.5 million people got involved in 2015; year two, it ballooned to 700 organizations/6 million people) has evolved to include new partnerships and tools aimed at connecting those with limited experience or access to the outdoors; and to diversify experiences for avid nature lovers.

New partnerships

As Thompson said of the first new partnership: “Lyft approached us last week and said, ‘Can we help take away some of the barriers to people getting to the outdoors on Black Friday?' And we said, sure!”

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To help more people #OptOutside this year, the ride-sharing service is offering $10 off of rides to local parks and nearby state parks in 12 US markets – including Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; Denver; Atlanta and Washington, DC. In one of the new, curated aspects of #OptOutside 2017, REI put together a set of staff picks for parks that qualify for the Lyft promotion.

Another new partnership is with employee engagement platform WeSpire, which has launched a portal that enables any of WeSpire’s 30+ member companies – which include Unilever, Timberland, Cisco and GM – to give their employees an easy way to engage with #OptOutside through a set of challenges.

Empowering individuals

But above all, Thompson emphasized, this year’s incarnation of #OptOutside marks its evolution beyond a primarily organizationally focused initiative to being aimed at individuals.

One new tool for this is an ‘experiential search engine,’ which features images from #OptOutside user-generated content on Instagram, augmented with real-time information about locations and experiences across the country. Users can enter an area or activity of interest and find curated content tagged to their geography; clicking on an image of a hiker will generate the name of the specific trail featured, the trail’s difficulty rating, directions to the trailhead, recent reviews and related expert advice from REI. Users can also enter activity-specific terms and find, for example, beautiful places to view sunsets, dog-friendly walks or stewardship opportunities nearby.

Along with the launch of the #OptOutside search engine, REI has released 20 short films featuring this community-created imagery to connect people through their shared #OptOutside experiences.

“The long march indoors” – are we too late to change course?

This year, REI is also diving deeper into the conversation about the future of the outdoors – and the urgency with which we, as humans, must examine its role in our future, as the vast majority of the population moves to cities in the coming decades.

“We’ve published a 50-page document called The Path Ahead, which is built around the notion that humanity has been on what can be described as ‘the long march indoors,’ particularly in the US – the unconscious walk towards human beings becoming an indoor species, which happened around the year 2010,” Thompson said. “We open with the statistic that the average American spends 95 percent of their life indoors, which translates into ~70 years! So, that’s why we’re leading with so much content about what’s inspiring in nature – there are so many people who are enjoying this lifestyle and so many choices you can make in a day-to-day context.

“It is important for thought leaders – like the Sustainable Brands community, policymakers, our nonprofit network and people who dedicate their life to the outdoors – to go deeper into the question of ‘what does the future of life outdoors look like?’ To tie it back to Sustainable Brands’ focus on ‘The Good Life,’ it’s in exactly the same space.”

The Path Ahead examines nine “brutal truths” – macro trends that are affecting life outdoors today – that REI has curated into a single publication; the way it’s structured, Thompson says, you can explore the brutal truths, and then the beautiful possibilities, in order to help steer us in a healthier direction.

“If we can build a more positive future in which an outdoor life is built into the ethos, then we have a fighting chance of addressing some of the broader sustainability issues that modern society faces as we urbanize,” he said.

A challenge to companies: Embody your purpose

The co-op’s efforts to get more people outside do not begin and end with #OptOutside. Year-round, the co-op partners with hundreds of local and national organizations, nonprofits and governmental agencies, championing outdoor life by implementing and encouraging others to adopt the highest sustainability standards and working to increase access to the outdoors for everyone. Thompson said he hopes this example of embedded purpose will be the first of many for mission-driven businesses going forward.

“As I was driving to work this morning, I asked myself: What next? And why have we done this for a third year – what’s the real, long-term benefit?” Thompson said. “[In terms of] companies that are addressing the SDGs and looking long-range to shift the center of business’ role in civic society – #OptOutside is our way, as a $2.5 billion retailer that happens to be structured as a co-operative, to create permission for companies to think differently about their role. Specifically, I hope that by getting millions of people in the US to pause and think about family, friends, being connected with nature at a time that was originally created to stop work, to pause and reflect and celebrate, that we can drive a deeper level of consciousness – of the choices we make, when to consume and how to participate in the shopping culture, and being connected to the natural world.

“If we don’t get more connected to the natural world, our opportunity to address bigger issues like climate change, urbanization and so on is going to be limited. That’s the question that we ask ourselves – and we are interested in anyone who’s keen to contribute to that discussion.”