Green Scene: REI putting its broad shoulders behind green commitment

When REI announced via a press release in late March that the company was committing to the purchase of wind, landfill gas and solar generated electricity, the company was simply announcing the continued steps in a journey it began several years ago -- a journey REI CEO Sally Jewell tells SNEWS® that has many more steps to go.
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When REI announced via a press release in late March that the company was committing to the purchase of wind, landfill gas and solar generated electricity, the company was simply announcing the continued steps in a journey it began several years ago -- a journey REI CEO Sally Jewell tells SNEWS® that has many more steps to go.

The journey's mission is outlined in REI's strategic plan, with a section that states, "As a company that takes seriously its commitment to society, we strive to operate in a way that supports members, employees, communities and the environment. We want to set a standard for the corporate world by earning the trust and support of our members, customers, business partners and employees and by being a strong financial performer. We believe that being conscientious corporate citizens and employing socially responsible business practices will sustain our long-term success."

Jewell told SNEWS®, "We have aspirations, as detailed in our long-term strategic plan, to be an influential business that sets standards. Early on in the process, we went about in a methodical way identifying what impact we are having on the planet. Our goal is to be planet neutral – when is the question and how. We are working on it."

Michael Collins, vice president of public affairs for REI, was the driving force behind the initial push by REI to focus corporate efforts on sustainability and lessening the company's footprint, Jewell told us.

"I got some clear hand signals from Sally and Dennis (Madsen) and the board that they wanted to see us move beyond the already successful individual points of doing well and doing good, but start to think about what we do at REI in terms of the bigger impact on the environment, the social landscape," Collins told us.

Those hand signals, Jewell told us, were not simply some board-generated dream, but came from the core beliefs its store employees were voicing to store managers and company executives with increasing vigor, wondering why REI wasn't doing this, or doing that.Â

"Everything that could be done regarding recycling and energy efficiency and the like in a silo was working quite well," said Collins. "We knew we needed to move well beyond that so we began working with Brian and Mary Nattrass of Sustainability Partners through workshops that helped our management team construct a framework for building a case around this."

Through that process, Kevin Hagan, who ran his own consulting firm focusing on green energy, began consulting with REI to take what the company had learned with Sustainability Partners and turn that into a program of corporate governance and measurement.Â

"What REI has realized," said Hagan, "is that the sustainable business movement is going someplace thanks to a subtle shift of mentality. In an earlier world, sustainable business practices would be considered philanthropic, but now an increasing number of businesses realize that to be sustainable is to be able to conduct business in a manner that is both profitable and sustainable."

REI cemented its commitment to this corporate direction toward the end of August 2005, when the company hired Hagan to a newly created position of corporate social responsibility program manager.

"My job is to help guide the organization through a set of internal mechanisms we have created to identify priorities for corporate responsibility efforts and to develop business-based solutions to our environmental and social responsibility challenges," Hagan told SNEWS®.

To do that, the company has outlined four areas of focus that Hagan will oversee and manage:

1. Address climate change. REI is committed to reducing greenhouse emissions caused by the company's operations worldwide.
2. Build with green materials and design. Hagan pointed out that this year, REI is slated to open eight new stores, and each one of those will be built using the knowledge the company has gained through the entire process, ensuring that each has a minimum impact on the global environment.
3. Forest products. "We are ensuring that we are not using old growth and doing verification of that. In addition, we are using as much post-consumer product as possible in everything we use that requires paper." Hagan estimates REI saved 6,000 trees and 50 acres worth of land in the last year…a figure that will increase dramatically as the program spreads.
4. Controlling the waste stream. REI is working to reduce, reuse, recycle and redesign anything that might enter the waste stream, Hagan said. "If you are working on your products to eliminate PVC, for example, it makes no sense to have a clamshell pack that has PVC, does it?" asked Hagan. REI is working with its vendors to ensure that packaging generates as little waste as possible, and what waste that is developed is as green as possible.

Here, then, is a quick summary of what REI has already put into place, with much more yet to come:

Green energy
The green energy conversion REI has already committed to will provide 100 percent of the power for 17 of REI's 82 retail stores and is equivalent to the annual power use of more than 1,000 average homes. It is estimated by REI that the switch to renewable resources will eliminate over 5,500 tons of CO2, equivalent to removing more than 1,000 average cars from the road.

When asked where this program might go, and how many more of its current stores the company planned to convert, Jewell said, "You have to balance the economics of the business with these decisions. We would love to have all green power, but it is easier to do in some markets than others. We have picked markets where we have the highest level of gas emissions. In the Rockies, we are on coal power which has high greenhouse gas emission footprint…so that was a natural choice for conversion.

"Our strategy is to convert those locations that reduce emissions the most. More importantly, we are part of a groundswell that will create a significantly increased demand for green power," added Jewell.

Green-e certified, renewable energy contract purchases include the following stores and suppliers currently:

• Brookfield, Wis. - WE Energies; sources: wind, landfill gas and solar
• Madison, Wis. - Alliant Energy/WP&L; sources: wind, landfill gas and solar
• Eugene, Ore. - Eugene Water & Electric; source: wind
• Denver, Englewood, Boulder, Grand Junction and Lakewood, Colo. - XCEL Energy; source: wind
• Colorado Springs, Colo. - Community Energy; source: wind
• Fort Collins, Colo. - Fort Collins Utilities; source: wind
• Bloomington and Roseville, Minn. - XCEL Energy; sources: wind
• Dallas, Houston (two stores) and Plano, Texas - Green Mountain Energy; source: wind
• Pittsburgh - Community Energy; source: wind

REI also joined the Green Power Partnership, a voluntary partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and organizations interested in buying green power -- www.epa.gov/greenpower. REI's purchase of 10 million kilowatt hours will place the company among the top 10 retailers in the country purchasing green power -- just a few spots behind Prana and Liz Claiborne (Prana's parent company).

Climate change leadership
REI became a founding member of the Seattle Climate Partnership (www.cityofseattle.net/climate/), a group of Seattle employers working together on climate issues. The new partnership was announced in March by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

The partnership is modeled after the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement: Employers participating in the partnership will commit to a series of actions to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions and help achieve the community-wide target. This partnership is the response from mayors around the country who, responding to a call to action from Mayor Nickels following the failure of the U.S. federal government to ratify Kyoto, decided to take global protection more personally.

According to a statement from Mayor Nickels, "The partnership will create a strong collaboration among Seattle-area employers that will help achieve the community-wide climate protection goals by increasing the number of public and private institutions that are taking actions to reduce global warming pollution. This will create a dynamic network of institutions that support each others' successes by sharing information, resources, and ideas.

"To jump start the partnership, seven businesses and institutions have agreed to be founding partners -- Port of Seattle, Recreational Equipment Inc., University of Washington, Starbucks Coffee Company, Urban Visions, Lafarge Seattle, and the City of Seattle. The founding partners have committed to work together to draft the Seattle Climate Partnership Agreement, recruit additional employers to the partnership, and provide direction on training materials and a resource guide."

A final agreement is expected by the end of April, followed by a Business Leaders Summit in early summer 2006 and trainings for businesses on how to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in late summer 2006 and early fall 2006.

Money for Parks
For the first time in REI's history, the company topped $1 billion in sales for 2005, and with that, the company board voted to divide $1 million among 100 community parks across the United States -- significantly bumping up the more than $3 million the company already put aside for grants supporting outdoor recreation and conservation causes in 2006.

When we asked Jewell how the company decided to divvy up the money, she told us that the decisions were made by REI stores at a local level with an emphasis on parks working to get urban communities outdoors.

A list of parks receiving money can be found by clicking here.

SNEWS® View: There is a fantastic movement afoot that is no longer just about waving a green banner to collect the oohs and aahs from customers and compatriots it appears. More and more, the green movement in our industry is taking shape through the collaboration with other brands. And, increasingly, companies are realizing, correctly, that practicing sustainable business that is good for the globe is also good for the bottom line -- being green and being profitable can go hand-in-hand. We salute REI's incredible commitment to sustainability and encourage other companies to join the ranks of those (Patagonia, MEC, Timberland, Prana, Liz Clairborne, Chaco, Half-Moon Outfitters, and more) which are demonstrating that the outdoor industry is the perfect place for the principles of sustainable business to gain traction, momentum, and be used as an example and template for other industries worldwide. 

The SNEWS® headquarters in California converted to solar power in 2004 and currently feeds electricity back to the grid. We are currently exploring converting our other field offices used by our staff to green power use through the purchase of green power credits. SNEWS® is committed to further the communication of the green message. Our regular "Green Scene" column takes a look at what our industry is doing well, what it can do better, and provide inspiration and ideas for establishing our industry position as the leaders in green for both preservation and profit. If you have ideas or issues you would like to see us discuss, send an email to:GreenScene@snewsnet.com.

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