Today, in an increasingly competitive retail landscape, many brands are making the shift to become more transparent, ramping up their sustainable business stories, and educating the consumer on exactly what they’re purchasing—and what they are giving back to.
Not too many of those companies can trace their efforts back through the past decade, but REI has a clear advantage there. The retailer has been producing its annual stewardship reports since the early 2000’s.
At the forefront of their efforts is the REI Co-op, which has helped make a collective impact on everything from the products sold at REI stores, to giving back to the outdoor community through nonprofit outreach and building the US’s most sustainable distribution center.
Under the program, REI recently announced its Rewilding Projects, joining forces with nonprofits and organizations in local communities to bring much-needed resources to the table and build upon outside-inspired initiatives.
The latest example of these efforts are reflected in a trail revitalization in the Washington D.C. area—a project that will connect more than 360 miles of bike and walking trails throughout the city, breathing new life into the area’s transportation system, outdoor community, and the surrounding businesses, according to those closest to the program.
“The DC region is rich in multi-use trails, but they don't connect with one another,” said Matt Liddle, REI Outdoor Programs and Outreach Manager for the Washington, D.C., region. “Most cyclists and pedestrians who live near a trail stick to the trail they know best, and when the trail ends they turn around. The connected regional network that the Capital Trails Coalition is leading us toward will mean miles and miles of options, which is a fundamental transformation to the local infrastructure.”
REI and its partners’ vision for the project is to create what they have dubbed the “bicycle beltway,” resulting in a spike in its cycling community and giving residents a chance to reconnect with the outdoors. “With this connected trail network, DC will be known as the best biking city in the country–the Copenhagen of America,” Liddle adds.
For Katie Harris, trails coalition coordinator for the Washington Area Bicycle Association, the project means more than just additional time in the outdoors.
“REI’s investment in the DC region will change how people get around the city and beyond,” she said. “But we also know that trails are economic drivers for local communities. Whether it’s a trailside cafe in Prince George’s County or a local bike shop along an urban pathway in DC, a connected trail network means great things for businesses throughout the Washington DC region.”
While these programs are impressive, and a huge help to the outdoor community as a whole, many customers are just looking at ways their purchases are going to make an immediate impact.
With that said, we dug into the structure of the co-op to define what it actually means to be a part of REI’s community of 16 million, and growing.
REI Divisional Vice President, Sustainability Vik Sahney talks with us about what it means to join a co-op, and some of the ways the company has seen success through supporting local brands and communities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you provide a brief background of how REI Co-op got its start and its significance in how the company does business?
REI began in 1938 as a community of climbers in search of quality outdoor gear. Mary and Lloyd Anderson founded it as a co-op because they valued helping people get outside over profits.
This idea of purpose over profits remains the backbone of the co-op today. We're committed to getting people outdoors and supporting the places that we all love. Our co-op business model allows us to take a long-term view and act in the best interest of our members, employees, and outdoor community.
What are some of the benefits of becoming an REI co-op member—and what exactly does that mean?
You are literally becoming an owner of the co-op and joining a community of 16 million other like-minded people who believe a life outdoors is a life well lived.
We love and care for the outdoors and come together to support local trails, parks and waterways, and enjoy exploring outdoor possibilities. To become a co-op member, you pay a $20 lifetime membership fee and in turn receive 10% back on all your purchases in an annual dividend.
Members also receive exclusive member-only products and coupons, and access to Garage Sales, classes, and programs. When you shop at REI you're also supporting our mission of creating greater access to the outdoors for all people and advancing sustainable business operations.
How and when did your stewardship program get started, and what about this initiative are you most proud of as a company?
We formalized our community investment program in 1976 and since then we have invested more than $77 million to benefit thousands of outdoor places. A decade ago, we began communicating our work to our community in an annual Stewardship Report, and we continue to report key learnings and progress updates today.
We are most proud of being a convener of communities to create greater impact. Bringing people together is essential to our role as a co-op and we feel it's an effective way to continue to drive progress. One of the recent projects where we convened groups to make a great impact is our new distribution center in Arizona.
We challenged ourselves and our partners to rethink how our supply chain impacts the outdoors, so we built one of the world's most sustainable facilities. It's the first distribution center in the country to achieve LEED Platinum certification and Net Zero Energy, meaning that the building produces all of the energy that it consumes.
We also partnered with local nonprofits to restore water flow and recreational access at the Verde River, high in the Phoenix watershed. It's just one example of how we bring communities together to push the boundaries of sustainable operations, and we've opened the doors to the facility and shared our learnings with industry peers so that they can leverage our work to drive impact in their operations.
Another example that we're proud of is our role in the Outdoor Industry Association's Sustainability Working Group (OIA-SWG), which we co-founded and use to drive product sustainability across the industry. Through the OIA-SWG, we co-founded the Higg Index—a self-assessment tool that helps brands measure the environmental, social and labor impacts throughout their supply chain, and identify areas for improvement. This tool is now the standard across not just the Outdoor Industry, but the much larger Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
Which brands are your closest partners? What makes them great to work with?
We're very deliberate about partnering with brands that make it easier for our members and customers to enjoy the outdoors. With over 1,400 brands, we have a lot of relationships throughout the industry and feel that each of them bring something unique to the table.
From a sustainability standpoint, we work closely with some of our largest brands to advance the sustainability of the products we sell in our stores. We partnered with 66 of our largest brands last year to advance product sustainability across the industry, and we've worked with the Outdoor Industry Association and Mountain Equipment Co-op to encourage all brands to adopt the Higg Index to make improvements in the environmental impacts of the products we create.