Sustainability, Climate and Inclusion Factor Into New Standards From REI

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Under new co-op requirements, outdoor brands will work to operate more sustainably, while also ensuring they market and design products in an inclusive way.

The outdoor industry has long touted the benefits of time spent outside. But that doesn’t mean brands have always been good environmental stewards. When Mark Galbraith, now vice president of product at Osprey, began his career working in textiles in the ’80s, some people viewed sustainability as a barrier to doing business. Over the decades, he’s seen that mindset shift. Today, more brands are rallying around climate goals and working together to reduce their environmental impact. Sustainability is no longer seen as a shackle, but a key component of a shared mission: to preserve the planet. 

“It’s less about each individual [brand] competing with each other,” Galbraith told the Co-op Journal. “Our mutual efforts are combined to make a change that no individual can make.”

This year, more outdoor brands will take a critical look at their efforts to operate more sustainably, all while designing and marketing in a way that reflects the diversity of people who spend time outside. In December, the co-op announced its Product Impact Standards, which build upon the Sustainability Standards the co-op released in 2018. The standards outline requirements for brands sold at REI, including REI’s own brand, and focus on sustainability as well as diversity, equity and inclusion. Among the asks, brands will have to measure and reduce their carbon footprint; enforce standards to prevent inappropriate use of culturally meaningful designs; adopt more inclusive marketing practices; and ensure diversity in the talent they engage in front of and behind the camera. Brands are also encouraged to use materials and processes that meet the requirements for certifications like bluesign®, Fair Trade and Climate Neutral.

“When we embed our impact aspirations into our product offering and the way we do business, that’s when we have a massive opportunity to drive positive impact,” said Greg Gausewitz, product sustainability manager at REI.

Galbraith said it’s helpful to have the co-op supporting Osprey as it implements new processes. “My first gut reaction was I was extremely pleased and happy and felt like, ‘OK we are not in this alone. None of us are’,” he said.

The pack manufacturer has already started working to reduce its carbon footprint. “We can make the biggest impact right away by switching to recycled content,” Galbraith said, explaining that recycled materials typically use less energy and reduce the amount of waste being sent to a landfill. Last spring, Osprey began making a portion of its line from recycled materials. Now, about 50 percent of packs, bags and other products is made using non-virgin textiles, like recycled polyester and nylon; the team hopes to reach 75 percent by end of 2023.

In the same year, Osprey hopes to have 90 percent of its materials meet the bluesign® criteria for sustainability. In addition to helping keep harmful chemicals out of the manufacturing process, Galbraith said these efforts will help address a primary concern for the brand, its greenhouse gas footprint. The brand has also launched a more formal process for including a wider range of sizes and fits and has created an internal group devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Nicole Browning, manager of local and inclusion marketing at REI, said the inclusion portion of the new standards is a critical step in a much longer journey. This first phase focuses on ensuring products don’t perpetuate cultural stereotypes (be it through language or design) and avoid culturally appropriated designs.

Brands, including REI Co-op, will have to make clothing in a broader range of colors to be inclusive of many skin tones—for instance, underwear, bras and camisoles that better reflect a spectrum of complexions. They’ll also have to rename products that could cause harm to marginalized communities, for example, by reinforcing stereotypes or coopting culturally meaningful language. The co-op has begun selling children’s books with characters who reflect the range of people who spend time outdoors. And it has put in place a new process to review product copy to ensure, among other things, that the language used to name colors, designs or patterns is not causing harm.

Other brands have taken strides, too. For instance, before the standards came to fruition, eyewear maker Smith Optics stopped using the term “Asian fit”—terminology used by the industry for decades—to describe eyewear that has larger or longer nose pads (or foam padding, in the case of goggles) to prevent them from slipping down the face of someone with a shallower nose bridge and higher cheekbones. Today, Smith, along with REI, uses the term “low bridge fit.” Warby Parker was among the first eyewear brands to part with the language years ago.

The team at Smith is also talking about inclusivity more broadly across its brand—from its copy to the athletes it features, said Graham Sours, category director at Smith, based in Portland, Oregon.

Gausewitz said the co-op will support brands like Smith and Osprey as they adopt the impact standards. Some of the standards must be implemented by the end of 2021. Others, like those that involve a brand’s supply chain, have until 2023. Gausewitz said it was important that the timelines are feasible for both small and big brands that sell at REI.

The co-op created the standards in part based on feedback from a diverse group of stakeholders, the co-op’s own inclusion partners and the co-op’s racial equity, diversity & inclusion working group. The requirements are informed by feedback submitted by customers and co-op employees through a digital tool the co-op released in 2018. The tool allows REI employees to share concerns about products that cause unintentional harm to underrepresented communities—this includes perpetuating stereotypes and inappropriately using culturally meaningful designs, among other things.

In addition to encouraging brands to improve their practices, the requirements will also help the co-op reach its climate target of reducing its carbon footprint 55 percent by 2030. Individually, REI is making strides to meet this goal by cutting emissions throughout its business—particularly within its supply chain, which contributed more than half the co-op’s total emissions in 2019—targeting everything from transportation to waste. It will also invest in climate solutions and offset emissions for its brand and operations—work that began in 2020.

“We know that if we’re going to achieve our climate targets, we need to work with our brand partners,” Gausewitz said.

Brands complete a robust annual questionnaire about their sustainability practices and how they’re meeting or addressing the standards. The standards are meant to provide a framework for brands, especially those without their own sustainability teams. If a brand is falling behind, Gausewitz said, the co-op will work with them to get them on track. Ultimately, the standards are a requirement for doing business with REI. Echoing Browning, Gausewitz said this is just one step of many as the co-op works toward equity and sustainability. The standards will be revisited in 2022. “It was a big moment for REI when we launched our standards [in 2018],” Gausewitz said. “But this to me feels like just as big a deal, if not a bigger deal, because we’re putting our impact agenda right into our product offering.”