What is the Circular Economy?


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As a co-op, we’re a different kind of company. We put purpose before profits and act with the long-term interests of our members in mind. Being a co-op also means we act transparently. That’s why we publish our annual Stewardship Report. It’s our way to show what we did in the previous year to get more people outside, operate more sustainably, and protect and create access to our outdoor places–none of which we could have done without you.

Imagine a world where you could walk into a gear store and, instead of buying a tent, you could rent one for whatever kind of camping or backpacking you planned to do. If your tent happened to get a hole, you could simply bring it back to the company for repairs or an upgrade. And, after years and years of adventures, when the tent was no longer usable, a company could recycle it into a new product. Today, many organizations are working to make this world a reality by contributing to the development of the circular economy.

Most products take a one-way trip from the Earth to the landfill—what experts call a linear economy. In 2015 alone, the EPA estimates that 10.5 million tons of municipal solid waste textiles (mostly clothing) ended up in landfills, in part due to the fast fashion trend. But some companies are working to make products last longer, and/or recycle products at their end of their lifetime in a process known as the circular economy.

This concept can’t be traced back to one single date or person. It’s been gaining momentum since the late 1970s through the work of academics, thought leaders and businesses, picking up even more steam following the 2002 publication of the book Cradle to Cradle, a kind of manifesto for the circular economy. Here’s a deeper look at the circular economy and why REI is investing in it.

The Circular Economy Defined

Most traditional businesses that create and sell products use linear economic models that take, make, use and dispose of materials. The circular economy is a model that disrupts that process by extending the life cycle of products, increasing efficiency in how we use finite resources—such as petroleum-based materials—and promoting the recycling of products at the end of their life.

“Our goal is to transition from a linear waste system to a regenerative economy,” said Kate Daly, executive director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm focused on building the circular economy. “Our current economic system is very leaky. A circular economy generates revenue and profit, so you capture the resources.”

According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, one of the leading organizations promoting these efforts, the circular economy focuses on three things: keeping products and materials in use, designing products in a way that reduces waste and pollution and prioritizing the use of renewable and recyclable materials.

This way of doing business has far-reaching implications that are beginning to influence the outdoor industry. REI believes the circular economy is a promising model that can help reduce waste and increase efficiency in how we use our planet’s resources. That’s why the co-op is using this model to rethink its offerings, and looking toward Used Gear and Rentals as a way in.

“We live in a world of finite resources,” said Gregory Gausewitz, manager of product sustainability at REI. “We’re a growing population. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the impacts of our consumption. The ultimate goal of a circular economy is decoupling economic growth from resource consumption. How do we continue to attain a higher standard of living without continuing to deplete the planet?”

REI’s Role

An important way the co-op is embracing the circular economy is by implementing programs that extend the life cycle of the products we make and sell. The thinking is that if we can keep outdoor gear and clothing in use for longer, we’ll get the most out of the Earth’s resources that we’ve already made into stuff.

“Getting more use out of the things we’ve made is by far the best thing we can do,” said Andy Ruben, CEO of Yerdle, a service that helps companies build online platforms to exchange used goods. “If you don’t need something, don’t buy it. Buy high-quality gear [that lasts]. And besides not buying, reusing is the best thing we can do. REI is trying to make that easier for all of us members.”

But just how is REI making it easier? Used Gear and Rentals. In creating solutions to allow people the option to buy used gear or rent gear they might not take into the wilderness that often, the co-op is hoping to help reduce the environmental and economic impact of outfitting.

Used Gear

You can buy used gear from REI stores, during members-only Garage Sales, and online through the Used Gear program. The online Used Gear program works like this: The co-op, in partnership with Yerdle, inspects gently used items that have been returned and selects the best. Then, Yerdle helps the co-op put the items up for sale, allowing you to buy used gear at an affordable price and take it on a whole new set of adventures. By extending the life cycle of the products it sells, REI’s Used Gear program helps keep gear out of landfills, and makes investing in gear more accessible.

According to McKinsey & Company, in 2014, the apparel industry produced 100 billion garments, or 14 items of clothing for every person on the planet. That’s double the number of items produced in 2000. Ruben said we’re getting less use out the gear and apparel we buy compared to a decade ago: “The trajectory we’re on requires not only our current planet but a second planet to store waste,” he said. “No matter how much we recycle, we have to get more use out of the things we’re making to address the scale of the crisis that we’re in.”

To extend the lifespan of its gear and apparel, REI also launched a member trade-in program in October 2020. This allows co-op members to swap their gently used items for an REI gift card, which can be used to purchase both new and second-hand products. There are some restrictions on what can be traded in (for instance, it can’t be broken or older than 6 years), but an online registry makes it easy to check which items qualify. REI then sends the appropriate packaging to the customer, so they can ship the items hassle free.

And it’s not just sustainability REI has in mind with these programs. There’s also a business case. “We’re trying to respond to evolving customer behavior—they’re looking for alternative ways to access products,” said Peter Whitcomb, director of new business development for REI. More and more people are looking for alternatives to buying new gear—for environmental reasons, lack of storage space or to save money. In this way, Used Gear isn’t just better for the environment, it’s also better for members and customers, and ultimately for REI’s business in the long run.


REI’s rentals program is another way the co-op is seeking to extend the life cycle of its products. Most people are familiar with the way rentals work: By renting outdoor equipment, you can test gear without having to make a big investment. It’s a great way to try a new activity without breaking the bank. REI rentals are handpicked by experts; you can rent snowshoes, skis (alpine and cross-country), snowboards, bikes, and camping, climbing and mountaineering gear.

“What we are effectively doing is buying a new product, putting it into a rental program and maximizing the number of uses to enable as many outdoor experiences as we can with that one product,” Whitcomb said. Then, if the product is still in great condition, REI sells it to members and customers at a discount through the used gear programs.

What’s exciting is that more brands and retailers are starting to adopt this reuse model. “If we can continue to deliver and scale more sustainable buying options for customers while also reducing waste, the potential impact gets very interesting. The really big players with the largest reach will increasingly think and act this way,” Whitcomb said. “It’s a multi-stakeholder approach: customers, brands, manufacturers and retailers all have to start moving this way to have the scale of positive impact required. We believe the solutions have to be rooted in a customer and market-driven approach.”

What You Can Do

For the circular economy to work, we all need to be involved, Gausewitz said. But it’s not as hard as it sounds. Here are a few things we all can do:

      1. Buy used gear and apparel or rent it instead of purchasing new items.
      2. When buying new gear, whenever possible, buy products that contain recycled materials and are also recyclable.
      3. Keep your gear and apparel for a long time and repair it, when it’s broken.
      4. And finally, instead of trashing your items when you’re done with them, donate, sell, or recycle them.

“The circular economy really relies on collaboration,” Daly said. “It’s just a question of understanding how we approach the design perspective and of thinking about the objects in our everyday lives in an entirely new way. And how we as consumers ask not only where does this come from but where does it go.”

Using the principles of the circular economy to find new ways of doing business is just one of the ways the co-op is seeking to minimize its environmental impact with the gear it sells and makes. Watch this video to learn more about the steps REI is taking to practice responsible consumption and production:

Editor’s note: This article was first published on April 8, 2019. It was updated on Sept. 29, 2020 with new information about REI’s member trade-in program. 

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