Pursuing Sustainability at REI: Eliminating What Shoppers Don't See Delivers a Big Win

Apr 26, 2012 5:30 PM ET

When thinking about the sustainability of REI's operations, the complexity of the task quickly becomes apparent. Where does a person start?

At REI, applying metrics against our environmental performance has helped us challenge conventional thinking (i.e., the "way we've always done it")—often in areas of our business that customers never see.

Our annual stewardship report details one such area: our efforts to reduce REI's waste-to-landfill.

We reported on our waste in tons in our annual Stewardship Report. Then we conducted a retail waste audit to better understand the details. To paint a picture, imagine this: Our teams literally went "dumpster diving" to get a real behind-the-scenes look at our trash.

We confirmed what our retail employees had long assumed—plastic garment bags (also called polybags) were a major issue. 

A long-time retail industry standard—or, "the way it was always done"—has been to protect clothing in plastic bags during transport to stores. For example, a seemingly inexpensive bag that held a $100 sweater was removed and discarded when it reached our shelves for customers. 

That's where we parted ways with our standard practice.

Knowing our waste data, we asked ourselves if polybags where the only solution. Our packaging engineer worked with REI-brand teams to reduce the number of bags used.  The solution? Protect garments by rolling them.

While we started to reduce the number of bags for REI-brand products, that was only a small part of the challenge. Considering other brand products make up about 80% of what the co-op sells, we needed partners to make a big difference. 

One great brand we work with is prAna, the California-based climbing and yoga apparel company. It turns out that people at prAna had been asking themselves the same question.

We worked with them to ultimately eliminate polybags for a majority of prAna garments. In fact, the 1.3 million plastic bags used by prAna in 2009 dropped 32% by the spring of 2011.

This REI-prAna project offers a real-life example behind the metrics in our stewardship report, showing that collaboration with partners brings lasting change. We are thankful for the hard work of prAna; check out their polybag story in the clip below. 

So, how does this plastic bag story relate to you? I'd say it is a cue for all of us to take action by making our voices heard by challenging current thinking.

When you visit an REI, or any retailer, bring your own bag or skip a bag altogether. Or, consider where you spend money. When you spend your dollars at stores that do their part, you are recognizing and validating their efforts.

To learn more about our business operations, take a look at REI's 2011 stewardship report.