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REI: Portrait of a Responsible Company

Leslie Back | Tuesday September 28th, 2010 | 1 Comment

Fortunately, today we have many examples of triple-bottom-line, sustainably focused companies. Okay, maybe not as many as we would like or as many as we need, but its getting better. If you don’t believe me, keep reading TriplePundit. You’ll see. Every once in a while a shining star will catch the attention, demanding notice. Working on an ethics and law class recently, one group came to light. In my estimation, Recreational Equipment, Inc. or REI, demonstrates the best that the corporate world can offer.

So, why does REI get an A+? Because it excels in all areas: environment, people, vision and forward momentum. The company has a mission, a real one for goodness sake, and uses that mission as a starting point for business operations. Lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship? Yes, sounds good, sign me up.

REI was founded in 1938 by a group of just over twenty mountaineers. Based in Kent Washington, the organization is the nation’s largest consumer cooperative. Anyone may shop at REI, but cooperative members, who pay $20 for a lifetime membership, receive a portion of the organization’s profits each year based on a percentage of their eligible purchases. Members may also vote for REI’s board of directors. So, I get to get money back,  get to vote and support the environment in the process? I am with you so far…Catch?

Nope, there does not seem to be a catch. According to the corporate website, “…success depends on our ongoing commitment to stewardship to help protect and enhance the natural world.” Of course, as a company focused on selling equipment and products primarily intended for outdoor recreational use, the firm’s profitability is directly tied to the conservation of natural places. To that end, the company’s environmental focus, as described in its annual stewardship report, is focused around five key areas: greenhouse gas mitigation; paper usage; recycling; green building and product stewardship. According to Sally Jewell, President and CEO, “…stewardship is not a competitive advantage or strategic differentiator…we believe it is essential that organizations work together if we are to achieve healthier communities and a sustainable environment”.

Sustainability at REI does not stop with ecology. The organization was ranked as #14 on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work for 2010” list (they have been on the list every year since 1998). No doubt employee benefits such as those listed below contributed to the impressive rankings:

  • A retirement plan that doesn’t require individual contributions.
  • Health-care benefits for all, including part-time employees.
  • Gear discounts and free gear rentals.
  • Encouragement of work/life balance.
  • Outdoor-focused culture that encourages outdoor activity as an extension of our business.
  • Camaraderie, open communication and opportunity for advancement.
  • Gear grants to take on personal outdoor challenges.
  • Community involvement and support for outdoor-focused clubs and non-profit organizations.
  • Incentive pay program

The best part about REI is that they are not done yet. Understanding the increased societal interest in sustainable business and the particular commitment of its unique stakeholders, REI strives to be even greener. While many firms would rest on the merits of past efforts, REI understands the real truth that sustainability is a never-ending process.

In August 2010, the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) published a piece, co-written by REI Corporate Responsibility Manager Kirk Myers and consultant Kimberly Allen, about the development of what the firms calls its “Next Generational Environmental CSR.” Simply put, the focus is to build on what the company has learned from stewardship efforts so far and expand the aforementioned environmental focus areas, “…into seven lenses that together constitute a full environmental view…these lenses are Climate Change, Energy Use, Waste, Water, Toxics, Land Use, and Social Impacts.” The elements are intended to align and integrate with the product sustainability metrics of the Eco Working Group of the Outdoor Industry Association, a key organizational stakeholder and partner of REI.

We spend a lot of time focusing on the wrong things-trying to get corporations to do right by embarrassing them into positive action. It is refreshing to find a company with a unique structure, strong ethics and a clear vision. Ah….how sweet it is. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going  back to REI’s website. Going to check those job listings….


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  • http://www.sustainable-path.com Roland Van der Meer

    Yes it is refreshing to see a company incorporate sustainability into their business model on all fronts – conducting business such that they enhance rather then degrade environmental resources, and reassessing stewardship efforts to insure the greatest impact when many companies would rest on doing just enough to be recognized. Beyond that, their investment in employees and loyal customers will surely keep their business growing because they’ve managed to turn everyone into a stakeholder. REI is certainly an example for how a commitment to a sustainable and thriving business model will benefit people, planet and profits.