This post is generously sponsored by REI. As always, EcoCult only works with companies we believe are doing good things. Support EcoCult editorial by supporting them!
You might think that any outdoor apparel or gear company would be much more likely to operate sustainably, since its key customers are passionate about respecting and preserving the natural world.
But we also know that turning a large apparel brand sustainable is a difficult journey in today’s global capitalist system. Even some of the sustainable outdoor trailblazers have been surprised to find modern-day slavery in their supply chains. And there are in fact some other large outdoor apparel brands that are falling even further behind.
Still, no brand is doing things 100% “right.” So how do we decide between a brand that we can trust, and a brand we should ignore? It has to do with effort and transparency.
When a brand is up-front, honest, and clear about aspects like what materials are used in their products, where their goods are made, the ways in which they’re offsetting their carbon footprint, and their plans to improve the areas that still need work, it builds trust with consumers – and us. I’m much more likely to trust and shop from a company (especially a large retailer) that isn’t trying to gussy up its supply chain with vague commitments and peppy misleading marketing slogans.
So that’s why, just in time for you to finish up your holiday shopping, we’ve decided to dig into REI’s sustainability initiatives and summarize them for you here. When you’re finished reading, be sure to check our their curated gift guides that make it much easier to find gifts based on interest or price point.
REI’s #OptOutside campaign (which originally launched on Black Friday in 2015 but was updated this year) is one of the ways REI is not only upping the ante on their own commitments to circularity but also helping their members and customers do the same. They’re dramatically expanding their used gear and rental offerings (planning on doing any skiing this winter?!), working toward a goal of zero-waste operations across all of their operations by the end of 2020, substantially reducing their packaging wherever possible, and more. Not only that, but they’re committed to sharing everything they learn along the way so that other retailers can do the same, in the hope that retail as a whole will become much more circular in nature.
If you want to join in the fun, you can download the checklist or sign up to get weekly notifications with a simple action step you can take each week in 2020 to make your own life more sustainable, too.
In an era where corporations reign, REI’s co-op model not only gives its customers ownership of the company, but has also allowed the brand to survive and thrive in an age where other retailers have struggled. What do you get as a member? With a $20 lifetime membership (yes, really), you get 10% back as an annual member dividend, access to member-only special offers and in-store garage sales, plus adventure opportunities, local experiences, expert advice, and more. EcoCult founder Alden’s husband is a long-time member and has nothing but great things to say about it.
Product and Manufacturing Sustainability
I imagine this can be a tough one since REI carries not only their own REI Co-op branded products, but a host of other brands as well. Even though they might sell The North Face products, for example, there is only so much control they have over The North Face’s supply chain. To help begin to bridge this gap, REI launched their Product Sustainability Standards in 2018, which apply to every brand and product sold in their stores or online. I can see how an initiative like this could create some great ripple effects, so let’s hope they continue to strengthen these standards as time goes on, raising the bar for the entire outdoor retail industry.
Of course, there is no shortage of barriers when it comes to making products that can not only be considered sustainable (responsibly-sourced, recycled, etc.), but also high performing (as outdoor goods must be) and available at an accessible price point (another one of the company’s priorities). So although you won’t find perfection in all of the products they make and/or carry, you will most definitely find a lot of progress and positive initiatives. They use responsibly-sourced natural materials whenever possible and have eliminated the use of certain materials like toxic PVC from REI Co-op products. They have a restricted substances list that’s guided by the bluesign certification standards, they proceed with great caution when it comes to chemicals used in things like fire retardants and water repellants, and they prioritize third-party certifications whenever they can. Lastly, REI does a lot when it comes to lowering their manufacturing impact throughout their supply chain, from increasing energy efficiency (they have a goal to be climate-neutral by 2020), reducing waste, and more.
Fair and Equitable Labor
REI’s Partner Factory List is publicly available, so you can see exactly where everything the company produces is made (this is for REI Co-Op branded products, not for other brands they sell). They adhere to several different codes of ethics in order to ensure the people making their goods are being treated and paid fairly, and also work with other third party programs like Fair Trade USA the ILO, and more.
Not only that, but REI is committed to treating their in-store and corporate employees well too, making sure they have access to affordable healthcare and retirement, parental leave, and paid vacations and “Yay Days”—two days per year that employees get paid to go outside. They’re also committed to continually improving opportunity, inclusion, and safety for all genders, races, orientations, and abilities.
We all know by now that sustainable fashion has a plus-sized problem. It has improved, however, in the last couple of years, and REI is here for it. In 2019, the company increased the availability of extended sizing in several of its brick and mortar stores, while their website offers the co-op’s widest selection of gear and apparel not only in plus sizes, but also in petite, tall, and wide shoe sizes. With each season, the REI product team works with their co-brands (like The North Face and Marmot) to steadily increase the availability of inclusive sizing available both in stores and online.
Durability, Repairs, and Product Guarantees
We told The New York Times this holiday season that one of the most sustainable gifts you can get is one that is high-quality, repairable, and with a guarantee. And REI’s 100% product satisfaction guarantee is unlike any other I’ve seen: with the exception of outdoor electronics, you can return your products within a year of buying if you don’t like it! Plus, if your item has a manufacturing defect in its materials or workmanship, you can return it at any time (even after a year). That really speaks not only to their commitment to customer service but also to the quality of products they carry.
Rewilding Projects and Land Stewardship
Unfortunately, nature and all of her benefits are not easily accessible to everyone. REI wants to help bring greener spaces to people in urban areas while protecting the lands our current administration has put in danger. So far, they’ve been working on five key projects in places like San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington D.C. to make it easier for people to hike, bike, climb, and more. This work can also help to offset the negative impact that operating a business inherently has, like emissions from shipping, etc.
Investing in Research
REI is an active investor in the growing body of research establishing the link between health and nature. Over the past couple of years, it has invested at least $2 million in research and programming that study how time outside impacts things like anxiety levels, ability to focus, PTSD, childhood development, happiness, and other health factors. If we can’t get our leaders to take climate change seriously for the sake of respecting nature, then maybe they will do it for their own quality of life!
Inclusivity for the Outdoors
A thread I noticed throughout REI’s literature is their dedication to doing what they can to make being outdoors accessible to anyone and everyone. They go beyond making sure they showcase diversity in their marketing campaigns and extending their sizing options. They work hard to keep their pricing accessible, build events and experiences that are specifically geared toward women, make Outside with Pride products lines that benefit nonprofits working toward LGBTQ+ equality, and frequently partner with organizations like Black Girls RUN and LatinXHikers to support outdoor participation in multicultural communities.
If you start digging into REI’s website, you’ll find a ton of information. For every year since 2006, they’ve published a Stewardship Report, going into detail about the progress they’ve made that year, and what their goals are for the next.
So there are all the reasons you can feel good about shopping from REI this holiday. To really drive home the sustainability, we recommend you pair something from this outdoor retailer with an IOU for a hike or camping trip sometime soon, or a donation to a park on their behalf. Because it’s not the thing itself – it’s what they’ll do with it that will create the best memories.