Environmental Sustainability: A Way of Life at REI

Businesses, government, and community work together to attain sustainability for all 


July, 2009
By Monica Gray & Heidi White

As both consumers and the government demand higher sustainable business standards, a diverse mix of companies strive to uphold the eco-friendly reputation they’ve developed. Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) believes that sustainability is a team sport. They don’t practice it because it gives them a competitive advantage, but rather because they “want to create a market for green products.” (Ethix, 11)

Massive documents outlining numerous sustainability goals and self-proclaimed environmental awareness have historically been a leading environmental business practice. Unfortunately, such blanket public statements often produced little more than a mere “green” PR initiative. Highlighting goals too broad and/or mutually exclusive from the business’s profit-driven initiatives, the generally defined, short-term eco-driven plans tend to fall short of linking strategies from long-term, widespread environmental practices to bottom-line business necessities. REI demonstrates that successful sustainability is possible, particularly in collaboration with other businesses.

Outdoor equipment retailers are one type of company whose consumers tend to give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to exercising sustainable business practices. Despite this luxury, REI has taken on the responsibility of crafting strategic steps to reduce its ecological footprint. By shifting away from what REI President and CEO Sally Jewell describes as the “random acts of kindness” approach to environmental business practice, REI has moved to a calculated “way we do business” plan. Jewell says her vision is based on a belief that placing the environment at the top of REI’s business agenda “is important to the long-term health of the planet, and therefore, the long-term health of our business” (Schultz, 29).

In addition to reducing its carbon emissions and setting a bold goal to bring landfill waste to zero by 2020, REI joined with other businesses to create the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) Fair Labor Toolkit. The Toolkit is intended to provide a resource for companies as they look for ways to ensure proper conditions for supplier factories. (OIA Website)

Specifically, REI joined with Timberland to address how manufactured products affect the environment. “What we are really looking for,” said Kevin Hagen, REI Manager of Corporate Responsibility, “is collaboration across the industry to have enough clout and resources and background to make substantive change.” (Schultz, 33) In 2006, REI and Timberland collaborated with Center Stone, Nalgene, Yellow, RBC Capital Markets, and Kenco Logistic Services to present the “2006 Outdoor Industry Rendezvous.” The OIA website describes the OIA Rendezvous as “the only Outdoor Industry conference that gives attendees the opportunity to “network and make new industry colleagues,” attend a forum to “learn best practices from your peers,” and find “practical, easy to implement ideas that will help you work differently.” (OIA Website)

Protecting the environment and placing it first benefits society, as well as satisfies the needs and desires of all REI’s stakeholders. Practicing sustainability in conjunction with government and other businesses is how REI chooses to operate. It’s also a tremendous part of the voluntary environmental initiatives that Dr.Bruce Paton,  Associate Professor at San Francisco State University’s College of Business, addresses in his research paper “Voluntary Environmental Initiatives and Sustainable Industry.” Paton offers a combination of voluntary initiatives and academic research to help businesses achieve sustainable industrial systems. 

REI also collaborated with Forest Ethics, a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect endangered forests by exposing corporations that destroy them. (Forest Ethics Website) In December 2006, REI collaborated with Forest Ethics after its paper purchasing policies received a “D+” grade. REI took the poor review seriously and is working with Forest Ethics to turn the low grade into a form of constructive criticism. Aaron Sanger, Director of Forest Ethics’s Corporate Action Program, says, “In terms of engagement with stakeholders and transparency, REI has really distinguished themselves.” (Schultz, 32)

According to Jewell, “We believe it is in the long-term interests of REI to preserve natural spaces, engaging people in playing outdoors and taking care of the environment.” (Ethix, 7) Companies like REI combine outdoor product salability with environmental sustainability; it’s their way of life. Environmental sustainability is a big part of the corporate culture at REI; it attracts employees and customers alike because it’s important to them.

To refocus on the long-term benefits of environmental sustainability, perhaps companies should ask themselves the following: “What environmental issues are important to our stakeholders? How must we incorporate them to be successful over the long term?” In REI’s case, Jewell determined that “to be serving outdoor enthusiasts for 100 years from now and beyond, you have to have outdoor enthusiasts, and you have to have the outdoors as well.” (Ethix, 7)


“The Ethix Conversation: When Customers and Shareholders Align,” Ethix (January/February 2009): 6–14.

Abby Schultz, “The REI-ght Stuff,” CRO, (May/June 2007): 28–33.

Bruce Paton, “Voluntary Environmental Initiatives and Sustainable Industry,” Business Strategy and the Environment 9, no. 5 (September/October 2000): 328–338,http://www.greeningofindustry.org/gin1999/Paton.pdf.

OIA Website: http://www.outdoorindustry.org/about.html.

Forest Ethics Website: http://www.forestethics.org/index.php.

Keywords: environmental business practice, ecological footprint, voluntary environmental initiatives, OIA Fair Labor Toolkit, OIA Rendezvous, best practices, stakeholders, transparency, environmental sustainability, corporate culture, sustainable industrial systems

Organizations: Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI); Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), Timberland, Center Stone, Nalgene, Yellow, RBC Capital Markets, Kenco Logistic Services, Forest Ethics

People: Sally Jewell, REI President and CEO; Kevin Hagen, REI Manager of Corporate Responsibility; Bruce Paton, Associate Professor at San Francisco State University’s College of Business; Aaron Sanger, Forest Ethics Senior US Energy Campaigner and US Campaign Strategy Advisor