While sustainability has become an increasing focus of the broader footwear industry, REI Co-op has long made it a pillar of its business.
“Climate is the organizing ethos of all the work we do when we think about sustainability,” REI Co-op director of sustainability Matt Thurston told FN. “Within our corporate strategy, we think strategically across the enterprise to incorporate climate considerations into every aspect of the co-op’s work within our own four walls and beyond.”
It’s so important to REI that in September 2019, CEO and president Eric Artz sent a letter to employees that was later shared publicly, declaring climate change as the greatest threat to the future of the outdoors and its business.
Below, Thurston shares insights into multiple ways REI’s ecosystem is designed to create change for the better.
BALANCING SALES GOALS WITH SUSTAINABILITY
“That’s a conundrum every business needs to be solving over the next few decades. It’s critical from a climate perspective. In 2020, we committed to climate neutrality across our own brands, our outdoor experiences and the operations we own and control for our business. We take the cost of carbon and integrate that into how we run our business, so it’s part of our financials. Then we have this longer-range component, which is how do we actually reduce emissions while growing the business? We set a target to reduce emissions by more than 55% between our 2019 baseline and 2030, and that’s in line with the best available science in the U.N. and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That’s fundamentally what every business needs to be doing over the course of the next decade.”
CO-OP MEMBERS FUELING CHANGE
“We have 20 million lifetime members, and one thing we try to figure out is how to best support our members and 15,000 employees in speaking on issues they care about, and how to equip them in a way that allows them to act as one. We launched Cooperative Action [in October 2021], a platform for helping employees, customers and members speak with a shared voice, particularly around legislation that has the ability to create a more sustainable future.”
PRIORITIES FOR 2022 & BEYOND
“One is how do we expand Cooperative Action and give our members more ways to have a meaningful impact on policy and dialogue around the climate crisis. The second is continuing to decarbonize the value chain. For us, it’s about focusing on every step of product creation and influencing solutions at each stage of the value chain to reduce the impact of creating a product. Part of that, too, is how do we activate more ways for product to remain in circulation past what previously would have been the end of its life. A lot of products get retired out of people’s closets before they reach the end of their functional life. A huge part of what we’re trying to do is leverage the power of the co-op to keep products in circulation through multiple users.”
USED GEAR IS CRITICAL
“It’s about maximizing the value we can get out of our products. There’s also a human component of it — how are you creating more entry points to the outdoors for larger, more diverse groups of people? When we sell a pair of boots through our used gear program, we know there is a significant reduction in the environmental impact of that product over its lifetime. I also think it speaks to the DNA of what it means to be a cooperative. Having the ability to exchange products with other members of that cooperative is incredibly impactful and allows you to access more activities, more sports than you might not otherwise have tried because it lowers the barrier to entry.”
HOLDING BRANDS TO ACCOUNT
“In the latest edition of our Product Impact Standards [updated in December 2020], we heightened our expectations around brands setting robust climate targets. We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of brands setting climate targets and showing up in conversations around what it will take to decarbonize their value chain. No brand, for the most part, owns its value chain — we’re all sourcing from the same national and global value chain. For us to have an impact, it will take multiple players coming to the table, having tough conversations. We’ve seen brands say, ‘We’re willing to set robust climate targets before we even know how we’re going to achieve it,’ recognizing that we must hit these marks from a total emissions reduction perspective. That’s one big shift I’ve seen, and it gives me a lot of hope.”