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Renee Farris headshot

Why You Should Quit Your Job and Go Work For REI

By Renee Farris

Reading REI’s latest sustainability report is like finding a $20 bill in the pocket of jeans you haven’t worn in months. It's full of surprises. The company’s new initiatives are leading to women's product-pitch competitions, employees getting engaged on hiking trails, and even quality-of-life enhancements for ducks and geese.

If you drive by a store at 8 a.m. on Saturday and see a line of 50 people who have been waiting for an hour, you have probably just driven by REI. Some die-hard customers even camp outside the store the night before.

Who are those crazy people, and why aren’t they in bed sleeping? According to REI, they are "stewards of the earth." There are 5.5 million of them in the U.S. Say what? They sound like mythical nymphs who help out Mother Nature, but they aren't. Your burly ice-climbing neighbor Ross is probably standing in that same line hoping to score a deal on a used ice axe.

That’s right, everyone’s waiting for REI to open its doors so they can rush in and score hot deals (or steals?) on used outdoor gear. This is just one of the sustainability initiatives REI has: reselling used gear instead of tossing it in the garbage.

REI just published its 2014 Stewardship Report. A few things got shuffled around this year. For one, its sustainability, business operations and strategic planning departments just all crawled into the same sleeping bag and got cozy.

Secondly, it came out with some great initiatives. Here’s a list of three of them accompanied by symbolic outdoor products.

1. REI is a headlamp: Illuminating the power of women

Every year in Utah there is an assortment of outdoor brands and companies that showcase innovative and fun products. “It’s like walking into a gigantic outdoor store 100 times the size of your local REI,” Marc Berejka, REI’s director of government and community affairs, told TriplePundit in a recent interview. During the event it becomes obvious that, in the upper ranks of outdoor companies, most of the leadership is male. REI has a different story.

In January, REI generously gave a $1.5 million grant to its old friend of 10 years, the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition (OIWC). The grant will be used to build programs and services for women leaders, match the funding of companies joining OIWC’s network, and create new opportunities for entrepreneurial women.

According to its website, “The Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition is the only national organization dedicated to workplace diversity and inclusion by expanding opportunities for women and companies in the outdoor, snow, run and bike industries.” One of these opportunities will occur this spring at the Pitchfest, a competition where women entrepreneurs will pitch their products to CEOs of outdoor companies.

2. REI is a backpack: Employees embark on epic adventures and REI has their back

REI’s motto is, “A life outdoors is a life well lived.” That goes for customers as well as employees. Berejka said that last year REI’s creative leadership asked, “What can we do to help employees get outdoors more?” The answer: Yay Days!

Two days a year, each of the brand's 11,000 employees are given a paid vacation day to go on outdoor adventures. And according to Laura Swapp, REI’s director of multicultural marketing, this turned out especially wonderful for two couples … who got engaged. Awww.

REI’s love of the outdoors truly underlies everything it does ... like a water table below the surface of land. Except in California.

3. REI is a downy feather jacket: Treating animals with warmth

The ducks and geese will be happier now thanks to REI joining the Responsible Down Standard (RDS). This means no live plucking or force feeding of waterfowl. However, waterfowl manicures and walks on the beach are okay.

REI will only put ethically obtained feathers in its private-label brand clothing. This should be fully implemented by 2016. The down and feathers are harvested by suppliers post-mortem. However, this is limited to the company's own brand. Other non-REI brands it sells may not live up to the RDS.

Similarly, REI is creating private-label clothes without chemicals (aka, Bluesign certified). This should be fully implemented by 2018. The vest and jacket the company has developed so far are now best sellers, “proving that stewardship and business success go together like skiing and hot cocoa” (or beer if you’re 21).

Hopefully the next step for REI will be to require all brands it sells to adhere to these standards. The textile industry is one of the largest consumers of water and energy. It’s also one of the highest polluters. Water use is expected to increase by 50 percent between 2007 and 2025 in developing countries and 18 percent in developed ones.

It would be great if REI could show customers an environmental footprint scale for each product, like H&M’s sustainable brand clothing Reformation does. The scale displays how much water and carbon dioxide were used for each product compared to industry standards. Nike also created an app called MAKING that shows its products footprints.

Jazzing up the design of the REI Stewardship Report (like Virgin Unite or Nike) could also entice customers to read about REI’s sustainability efforts.

REI's everyday miracles

REI’s awesomeness doesn’t end with its women's empowerment, sustainable clothing efforts and ethical treatment of cute feathery birds. It’s also in the business of luring people into the outdoors.

Do you know how many minutes the average American kid spends outside per day? Four to seven minutes. Do you know how many hours kids spend in front of an electronic screen each day? Seven hours. Did part of your hope for the world just die?

REI is on a mission to encourage people to embrace the wild. Next year it’s sponsoring the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service.

REI will also put a little boogie in your boots with its outdoor adventures. If nature doesn’t inspire you, check out REI's Instagram and get inspired by everyone else who loves the outdoors. You will immediately want to take a vacation to Switzerland, I promise. Want to hike, bike and kayak Thailand? REI made outdoor adventures happen for 9,000 people last year, while it educated 200,000 participants through in-store classes and outings.

Regardless of whether you explore the outdoors with REI or go on your own, you will undoubtedly have amazing gear. Ellen DeGeneres says a REI tent will protect you from a hailstorm, earthquake, rain and even a tidal wave. (I’m still waiting for an organic bear-repellant tent.)

Another ray of sunshine REI brings is its customer service. In fact, REI’s customer service is so amazing it hit Hollywood’s big screen in the recent movie "Wild." The main character Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) is hiking the Pacific Coast Trail 1,100 miles from Mexico to Canada and realizes her boots are too small leading to blisters and sore feet.

A friendly worker at a post office along the trail tells Cheryl to call REI and it will have a new pair of boots the right size waiting for her at the next trail stop. Later, while changing shoes, one of the boots falls off a cliff. She screams and logically hurls the second boot off the cliff. This deliberate action is not condoned by REI’s eco-friendly policies, as bears are not meant to walk around in hiking boots.

She’s then left to hike in duct-taped flip flops. When a delighted Cheryl receives the boots at the next stop, she praises REI: “Thank you so much. You will be my favorite company forever and ever.” That pretty much summarizes most people's feeling about REI. Except Republicans in Congress who want to sell or give away hundreds of millions of acres of national parks, wildlife refugees and historic sites. Happy birthday, National Parks.

See ya on the trail!

Image credits: 1) Renee Farris 2) REI 3) Flickr/Dru! 4) Flickr/Loren Kerns 

Renee Farris headshot

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

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