REI Announces New Sustainability Standards

On Monday, retail giant REI announced a new set of sustainability standards, which will apply to all 1,000-plus outdoor brands it sells currently, and all the ones it will sell in the future. The standards address a broad range of social and environmental concerns, with minimum requirements and a set of preferred or suggested practices.

Effective immediately, companies will have to adhere to a code of conduct, pledging to uphold environmental and social responsibility in the supply chain. Companies don’t have to write their own codes of conduct; REI encourages brands to use either REI's own factory code of conduct or a code of conduct that’s aligned with internationally recognized best practices, like those published by the International Labour Organization. Companies will also have until 2020 to remove BPA, oxybenzone, long-chain PFAs, and certain dangerous flame-retardant chemicals from their products, and to make sure all their down, wool, and leather is sourced humanely. If a company refuses to make these changes, REI says that it will find similar products from another one that does.

In addition to the minimum requirements, REI lists a host of “preferred attributes,” which are voluntary: Bluesign approval (certifying a chemically clean manufacturing process); fair trade certification; use of the Higg index (a metric designed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to rank a company's sustainability attributes); adoption of the Responsible Wool Standard and either the Responsible Down Standard or the Global Traceable Down Standard (all third-party auditing groups that certify humane treatment of animals and best use of the land they graze on); use of organic cotton; and use of recyclable or compostable packaging.

REI’s product sustainability manager Greg Gausewitz says the preferred attributes will be one of the many factors REI takes into account when considering creating a relationship with a new company. They’re also intended to call attention to the brands that are using those certifications, educate customers about why those certifications matter, and “build demand and loyalty for those products." An online search function and special in-store merchandising will highlight, say, RDS or Bluesign products, so customers can easily identify them.

The various certifications and standards themselves aren't new. The Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group, which REI has been involved with since the group’s inception, has had resources available on its website for companies interested in getting more sustainable, including a suggested OIA code of conduct and a social responsibility toolkit. “What REI did is come up with their own guidance for those tools,” says Beth Jensen, OIA’s senior director of sustainable business innovation. “They’re outlining how they expect brands to use those tools, and providing a timeline for implementation.”

Of course, sustainability has proven to be good for business in the outdoor industry. Take Patagonia, which has led the charge on responsibly sourced down, socially conscious supply-chain management, and organic cotton, and been extremely vocal on the public lands front. Its sales have skyrocketed. Likewise, Jensen calls sustainability a “big area of opportunity” for retailers, who can turn themselves into resources for eco-conscious customers who don’t have time to vet products on their own. “I absolutely think that REI stands to gain customers and increase customer loyalty with this announcement,” Jensen says. 

Starting last summer, REI consulted with roughly 60 brands as it drafted up the new standards. “We wanted to make sure the standards were feasible, not just for big companies like Patagonia but for up-and-coming brands, too,” says Gausewitz. “We didn’t want to leave any brands behind.” For Nemo Equipment, which was one of the brands that weighed in, the standards are a welcome relief. “As a small brand, it’s difficult to carve out time and resources to figure out what you should be doing on the sustainability front,” says Theresa Conn, Nemo’s supply chain and sustainability coordinator. “With these standards, we can easily pick the top 10 things to spend our energy on.”

Evan Currid, CEO and co-founder of Tepui tents, which was not consulted during the drafting process, reacted to the new standards with more cautious optimism. “While we are still getting our heads around the breadth of the requirements and resources, we are aligned with the spirit of the program,” he says. Yet Currid adds that as he looks to expand the company’s offerings beyond its mainstay of rooftop tents, “this certainly will have implications in regard to time and cost to market.”

Just how much money is it going to take for companies to comply with the standards? Ali Kenney, vice president of global strategy and insights at Burton, says the costs are only high if you try to implement change right away. “The cost thing is real,” she says. “But if you take a longer-term view, the costs are lower.” That’s because companies often do product development two seasons ahead. To implement supply-chain changes now would mean switching up the manufacturing process for items that are already in production, possibly re-prototyping and perhaps even switching factories, none of which is easy. Implementing a change two years in the future, on the other hand, means the company has time to start from scratch with its new line.

Of course, the real cost in going sustainable comes from the factories. They have to pay for site cleanup, replacing machinery, changing the chemicals they use, and the way they deal with waste. “Factories are going to come up with every reason why they shouldn’t change,” Kenney says. “They’re afraid of the cost and afraid of the unknown.” Negotiations can take months or years, and often require additional human resources. “It would take a full-time employee just to calculate man hours and dollars broken out only for sustainability,” Kenney says. Between 2011 and 2018, the company went from having zero dedicated sustainability staffers to four. 

Nearly everyone Outside spoke with explained that the more companies that request sustainable practices from their factories and suppliers, the easier those facilities are going to be to convince. “There’s strength in numbers,” Gauswitz says. “So many brands use the same factories, and if they’re all going to those factories asking for sustainable practices, it’s easier to effect change. Indirectly, we can get a large number of suppliers working toward common positive outcomes.” Kenney explains that certified products will also become cheaper. If one company asks a down farm to get RDS certified, the supplier will pass along the certification cost to that one company; if 20 companies ask that same facility to get RDS certified, they’ll each shoulder only a fraction of the cost. In theory, at least, REI’s new standards could actually make it easier and more affordable for companies (of all sizes) to adopt sustainable manufacturing processes.

Danielle Kresswell, sustainability manager at Klean Kanteen—a small, relatively young company that is a 1 Percent for the Planet member and certified B-corporation—is well aware of how much sustainability costs. When it launched in 2004, there weren’t resources or guidelines for going green. “We found partnering with high quality factories was a critical investment” because they’re able to meet more stringent environmental standards, she says. Naturally, those factories are more expensive. But she's adamant that this cost shouldn’t be prohibitive, nor used as an excuse. “Every company must make trade-offs and choose where to put limited resources,” she says. “Looking around, it’s hard to miss the imperative for creating socially and environmentally responsible business no matter the age or size of a company."

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