Sustainable spirit: REI chief says the challenge is to connect people with nature

The Missoulian – October 02, 2007
By Michael Moore

Sustainable spirit: REI chief says the challenge is to connect people with nature

You might think that when REI, the national outdoor equipment retailer, thinks about competition in a place like Missoula, other outdoor gear shops come to mind.

Bob Ward and Sons, the Trailhead, Pipestone Mountaineering.

But other outdoor stores are barely even on REI's radar. The real competition is the video screen, be it the computer, television or video games.
Sally Jewell, REI's president and chief executive officer, was at the University of Montana on Monday to speak at the Harold and Priscilla Gilkey Lecture Series, and she recounted a conversation she had with a top official at Best Buy.

“He asked me, ‘Who's your competition?' and I said, ‘You are, and right now you're thumping us.' ”

Think of it this way. American children now spend 47 hours a week in front of a screen of some sort - watching TV, cruising Facebook and MySpace, and playing “Halo” and “Madden NFL.”

Compare that with the 30 minutes they spend outdoors in unstructured play.

“That's our competition,” said Jewell, who came to REI after stints in petroleum engineering and banking. “That's what we're up against.”

If you sell outdoor gear, you need people to go outside. And that's why REI is heavily involved in the 91 communities where it does business, she said.

“We need to find a way to bring people to a connection with the outdoors, a way to breed an ethic in regards to nature,” Jewell said.

That, she said, is good not just for business but for communities and countries.

“As a society, we need a way to bridge the disconnect between people and nature, between children and nature,” she said.

REI has been a pioneer in the philanthropic art of giving back to its communities. In the last year, the company, a cooperative that is owned by its membership, gave back 3 percent of its operating income in grants. That's $4 million, a portion of which was spent here in Missoula.

“We're really trying to create healthy communities,” Jewell said.

It's not just money. REI also had 169,000 people involved in volunteer projects in its communities last year, doing more than 570,000 hours of service.

But even that is not enough, Jewell said. It's all hollow posturing if the company does good deeds with its left hand while causing environmental degradation with its right. That's why REI has been working to reduce its carbon footprint - the amount of resources and energy the company uses to get its products into customers' hands.

“We're working to be carbon neutral by 2020,” Jewell said.

The company is also working to bring more products made of recyclable materials into its stores, to have the stores themselves be examples of green building techniques and to make better use of paper for its catalogs.

If REI is going to bill itself as a company that brings people and nature together, it's got to do something other than just sell things, Jewell said.

“We have to be a planet-neutral company,” she said.

The co-op's efforts seem to be paying off. It took the company 67 years to reach $1 billion in sales. The next billion took only six years.

Part of that growth has come online on the company's Internet sites, but the co-op is also expanding at a rate of about seven stores per year. Jewell said REI has very few stores on the East Coast and almost none in what she called the “flat middle” of the country.

“We're growing, but it's not growth for growth's sake,” she said.

At her lecture Monday night, titled “A Virtuous Cycle,” Jewell talked in depth about sustainable business, using REI as an example.

The company, she said, identified five global trends that will affect not just REI but the world, and tried to imagine where both will be in 25 years:

- Globalization

- Demographics

- Urbanization

- Technology

- Climate change

“It's easy to think about each one of those things in terms of the company, although it's very difficult to predict where we'll actually be in those trends,” Jewell said. “But it's much more difficult to imagine the world and how we will be coming to terms with these issues across the planet. I do think we're obligated to think about them and to speak to them. I do think that is our responsibility.”

And that's a spirit that Jewell wants to see infused not just at the top levels of REI, but in all of its stores, and with all of its employees.

Which brings her to Missoula, and the question everyone has about the REI store here.

“The answer is yes, it's not big enough for Missoula,” she said. “We're working on that now. We're looking at all the possibilities, but it's clear that at some point Missoula will have to have a bigger store. This was part of an experiment to see how we could serve a smaller community, and in this case the answer is that we can't do it with this size store.”

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at mmoore@missoulian.com