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REI Takes the Lead in Rethinking Packing Materials

Words by Leon Kaye

When it comes to design, leading companies are moving beyond products and taking a hard look at packagingPUMA has touted its fully compostable bags, Dell has experimented with mushroom-based packaging, and beverage companies like Coca-Cola are incorporating plant-based materials into their bottles.  Then there are the companies that are taking a holistic look at how they can not only increase recycled content in their packaging, but decrease the total amount they use for presenting and shipping their products.  Sustainable packaging, quite simply, is hot and a money saver to boot.

REI has been a trailblazer on the packaging redesign front.  The company has long stopped using clamshell packaging that is not only annoying to open, but uses way too much PVC compared to the size of the products that it is encasing.  Steps like eliminating clamshell packaging are behind the firm’s goal to reduce its REI-branded packaging by 25% in 2013.

Eric Abraham, REI’s packaging engineering manager, drives much of REI’s packaging innovation.  Some of his successes are in the numbers:  instead of a token 10 percent of post-consumer content in paper packaging, Abraham is pushing for materials that are 100 percent recyclable and sourced from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified materials.  Those same recycled paper materials now end up in the product hangtags (pictured above), which are then attached to garments and other products with fasteners made from recycled polypropylene (from old hangars) instead of ones made from virgin plastic.  One reason why packaging is often wasteful is the little things:  twist ties, zip ties, polybags, and tape, are find their way out of REI’s packaging.

Some of Abraham’s ideas come from his experience as a consumer.  After finishing a bicycling race, he eliminated the bulky cardboard packaging used for bicycle tubes and instead had them shrink wrapped in a film made from plant source.  For bicyclists on a long haul, it’s more comfortable to have that tube stashed in a seat pocket instead of hogging space in a cardboard box--or poking you if it’s in your back pocket. Design often drives packaging innovation, not just a knee-jerk reaction to “go green.”

If you have ever ordered a bicycle online, chances are your recycling bin gets filled up quickly (or you have plenty of cardboard to line your driveway if you still do your own oil changes).  Abraham worked with his department to ship a certain bicycle in boxes of four instead of individually.  Bicycling just got a little more carbon neutral.

All these ideas are just not for REI’s benefit.  The company is involved with the Outdoor Industry Association Eco Working Group to push changes within its industry, had has hosted events in Seattle to show other local companies how they can be smarter when using resources like paper.

Visit REI’s blog to learn more about Abraham and REI’s work on packaging.  Judging by the comments, not only is REI saving money, but its customers are engaged and offering even more suggestions (and even a date!).  A company founded because of love of the outdoors is doing its part to keep those same outdoors just a little more pristine.


Leon Kaye is a consultant, writer, and editor of GreenGoPost.com and also contributes to The Guardian Sustainable Business; you can follow him on Twitter.  He lives in Silicon Valley.


Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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