While researching The Recreational Equipment Inc (REI) Co-operative I continuously ran into impressive sustainability practices across their entire operation. The more I read the more I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and to finally find a flaw in their system, yet quite the opposite happened. As I got to explore REI as a company, their products, their co-op set-up, and their commitment to sustainability the more impressed I was, not just with their personal standards, but with the standards they hold their brand partners to, as well. REI values enjoying life outdoors, while at the same time has pledged to protect life outdoors, making them a highly rated sustainable outdoors brand.
The most amazing part about this jacket is how the creators of the Groundbreaker 2.0 seamlessly worked sustainability into their design without compromising form or function. Immediately, something major stuck out to me when viewing REI’s website listing of this jacket- within the list of features and details of the product, REI included a sustainability section, ensuring customers that their product inputs meet all bluesign criteria. Bluesign is one of the leading environmental certificates for textiles, that requires brands to act responsibly and sustainability with regard to people and the environment along every step of their manufacturing process. They certify a lot of top rated sustainable clothing brands, like Patagonia for example, who was the first brand to join them as a partner. Following bluesign criteria is a huge plus to me when buying products because it means REI is doing a lot of the same things other note-worthy environmental brands are doing, as well as being held accountable to bluesign’s mission of transparency and traceability across their supply chain. I’m not saying being bluesign certified is the “be-all end-all” for apparel in terms of sustainability, but it does provide a certain level of comfort as a consumer.
REI also uses materials that conserve the environment, rather than harm it. Polyester itself is an unsustainable textile to use in apparel, but it’s very hard to make a water repellent rain coat without it, or any other type of synthetic material. While it is hard to produce a rain coat that is 100% sustainable, REI tries its hardest to be as close to 100% as possible. One of their initiatives involves using recycled plastic bottles to manufacture some of their polyester, so that they can cut down their use of raw materials to as little as possible. According to REI’s website, when new raw materials are used, they are sourced with the least amount of environmental degradation in mind, although they did not say exactly how those materials were sourced.
REI does their best to make an unsustainable textile be sustainable by making environmentally conscious decisions on both ends of polyester’s life cycle. Although the jacket is made almost entirely of polyester, their initiative in recyclable polyester as inputs reduces the amount of polyester on the front end. On top of that, their used clothing program provides a circular life cycle, as well as reducing the number of polyester (and other synthetic materials) that need to be used to make new product.
In addition to their product inputs being certified sustainable from 3rd parties, so is their manufacturing process. REI offers their Product Impact Standards that is both thorough and easy to read. From lowering carbon footprints to promoting animal welfare and taking part in environmental stewardship, REI transparent and open to all sorts of sustainable commitments. Among their long list certifications and accomplishments, REI is able to boast of earning recognition as the first LEED Silver-certified distribution center in the U.S. Something that helped them get there was their commitment to renewable energy. All of their stores, distribution centers, and headquarters are being run on 100% renewable energy; however, there was no indication if their manufacturing factories are run on renewable energy.
In terms of product life cycle, like I said above, REI keeps both the beginning as well as the end in mind, which is another huge positive for the brand. In hopes of stopping a linear product life cycle, REI promotes their buy back program for used clothing and outdoor gear. The program benefits both sides of consumerism, by rewarding the consumer for donating their old products and providing money incentives for doing so, while also reselling the used products for a lower price. Customers send REI their used clothing and gear and in return they receive a gift card that can be used on any of their products and their partner’s brands as well. On the other end, environmentally conscious consumers can buy gear for very reduced prices, without having to worry about the negative impacts of a new product being made.
As a consumer myself, shopping from a company that honors a circular life cycle is huge. Having the choice of buying a new product or a discounted used one is something that not a lot of companies offer, so coming across one as good as REI is something to take note of. This rain coat in particular has not made it into the buy-back program just yet because it is newly released, but the older Groundbreaker model that was discontinued, as well as other models, are available for purchase used.
The place where I need to knock down their rating a little bit comes from the amount of questions I still have on their manufacturing process. While REI has made leaps and bounds in sustainability in recent years and seems to have everything together from the outside, there is no concrete information about their internal operations. REI is open about the end of the product's life cycle and their initiatives in things such as waste reduction and packaging, but not so much about the physical manufacturing process. I'd still like to learn more information about their suppliers or how this rain coat is exactly made. They are bluesign certified in their supply chain, which means there is a level of transparency and traceability available to the certification team, but that level of information was not readily available when looking at the company as a consumer. As of now, REI has made commitments and plans to up their sustainability internally, but I will need to keep following the brand to see if they follow through on this. From REI's past, there's no indication that they would let up on their sustainability journey, and will only continue to make even stronger commitments down the road. Their latest Product Impact Standards report contained numerous new implementations that I'm sure will boost the company's environmental reports in the coming year.
REI is very unique in their business model because they are set up as a co-operative which allows consumers to feel like they are a part of the bigger corporation. As a co-op member REI supplies discounted clothing/outdoor gear [this rain coat is $59 normally, $50 as a co-op member], limited edition gear exclusive to the co-op, special classes and events, and annual dividends to active members which they can use as store credit or receive as cash. This is unique in the sense that REI ensures valuable and reliant costumers who share their environmental values, rather than one-time shoppers who do not care about the company’s core mission statement. As their co-op membership grows, so do their investments into the environment. In 2019, the co-op alone invested over $8 million into organizations that work to protect the outdoors. It’s refreshing to have a company that doesn’t just “talk the talk” but also “walks the walk” when it comes to their interest in sustainability. One of their most recent achievements in terms of sustainability was following through on their 14-year-long goal to be carbon neutral by 2020- but they aren’t stopping there. The leaders of REI vowed to halve their carbon footprint by 2030, as well as investing in programs that take carbon out of the atmosphere, such as reforestation. The current President and CEO has seen REI through their uphill sustainability trend and only seems to want to take the company farther into environment stewardship. Having such a strong environmental leader has helped REI stand out from every other outdoors brand by promoting and caring for the outdoors rather than just selling outdoor products.