REI just announced an ambitious new plan that will likely shape your outdoor goods retail experience in coming years.
By 2020, everything sold at REI—regardless of brand—will be held to seriously lofty sustainability standards. That bike rack you need to buy for your Subaru? It will be manufactured according to fair and safe labor practices, no matter what logo is on it. Need a new down midlayer? Responsibly sourced down will be your only option. No more sketchy flame-retardant chemicals on tents. Hydration systems completely free from BPAs. No sunscreen with reef-destroying chemicals.
If REI sells a product, they will have made sure it was made humanely, by fairly treated workers, with a minimal environmental impact. This will be true for all thousand-plus brands REI carries. The company can certainly afford to take this plunge, as it reported a record $2.6 billion in sales last year.
A sustainability initiative this far-reaching is a major undertaking for REI, likely to have ripples, if not outright tidal waves, throughout the entire outdoor industry as brands sold at REI begin to implement the new standards and as competing retailers take stock of their own sustainability approach.
“The standards we launched today are about raising the bar on everything we sell,” said Greg Gausewitz, REI’s product sustainability manager. “We’ve structured the initiative so that it’s feasible for any brand we sell—we’re not trying to pull the rug out from anybody. We’re providing collaboration and support to all our brand partners to achieve these standards.”
REI’s new program is built on two tiers: “brand expectations,” which are essentially a baseline set of attributes and sustainability practices REI considers to be requirements for a product to appear on the shelves, and “preferred attributes,” which might involve stringent third-party certifications and/or materials that adhere to the highest levels of sustainable production.
The two tiers are spread across everything from fair labor practices to organically-grown cotton, humanely sourced animal products, products sourced from environmentally-friendly supply chains, and a list of banned chemicals.
REI intends to help shepherd big and small brands along with the process of meeting their standards.
“Many smaller brands have found that incorporating sustainability into their production is complicated and they have trouble knowing where to begin,” Gausewitz said. “This initiative will be really helpful to them. We know these standards are feasible and we know they’re very scalable—these are industry-best practices.”
“It’s so beneficial to use the standards that REI sets forth as a foundation and a guide to help us prioritize our activities and work more effectively with our manufacturers and their suppliers,” Cam Brensinger, founder and CEO of NEMO said.
Trust plays a big part in the verification process, at least initially. Questionnaires sent to each brand probing their manufacturing and supply chain practices will be be used to monitor adherence to the standards, unless brands are participating in a certification like Bluesign.
But with the standards shaped with direct input from brands REI already sells, Gausewitz doesn’t expect verification to be a problem.
Should you expect a sticker shock from the new standards? Gausewitz stressed any potential cost bump associated with incorporating things like better labor practices or organically grown cotton will be mitigated by industry-wide adoption—that supply will meet demand, in other words.
“We don’t want customers to have to choose between affordable and sustainable,” he said.
The full list of standards can be viewed here.