REI Looks to Others for Inspiration on Sustainable Standards: Q&A with Matt Thurston

by | Apr 27, 2018

REIREI sells more than 1,000 brands in retail stores and online ranging from bikes and kayaks to food and electronics. A little over a year ago, the national outdoor cooperative looked at developing comprehensive sustainability standards for these diverse products.

North America’s largest consumer-facing co-op, which has 13,000 employees and does $2.7 billion in sales, started working on the standards in early 2016. They spoke one-on-one with more than 60 brand partners, says REI’s director of sustainability Matt Thurston.

“As we got into the nitty-gritty, we had to make specific decisions on what’s in and what’s out, fostering conversations to help educate ourselves,” Thurston says. “We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but instead distill this very complicated world down into what we thought was relevant, impactful, and credible — both for our members and for the brand partners.”

This month REI unveiled the new product sustainability standards, which all brands sold at the co-op will need to adhere to by 2020. We caught up with Thurston to learn more about that process, and what other retailers can learn from the experience.

What does REI’s product sustainability standards initiative entail?

There are two key aspects. The first is establishing clear expectations of the more than 1,000 brands we sell. All these products will need to meet these expectations to be considered by our merchandising team.

The second is consumer facing, where we’re highlighting leading sustainable product attributes, making them more visible. By embedding that in the consumer decision process, you allow people to have a collective impact.

What was the impetus for the initiative?

We’ve always known that the brands that are purpose-driven tend to do fairly well within our product ecosystem. But how do you help members or customers find outdoor products that match their values? As a retailer, how do we look beyond our own walls and support better ways of doing business?

About six months ago, we turned on the ability to begin collecting consumer facing sustainability attributes in our data ecosystem. We stitched together a bunch of different data sets that we hadn’t previously. What we found was that the more sustainable products are consistently performing very, very well at REI. They have strong margins, strong sales, strong reviews, and they are most likely to be recommended by our customers.

What are some examples of those attributes?

One example from the social side would be Fair Trade-certified. You can go to and it becomes a filter. On the environmental side, Bluesign is the gold standard in safe and efficient material manufacturing, particularly for the outdoor industry. Other ones include recycled content and organic materials. We’re beginning to see growth in organic cotton, and we’re helping consumers find that.

How were the standards developed?

In early 2016 we had conversations with more than 60 of our brand partners. It started off slowly. We began drafting the work and trying to understand what an appropriate approach would be.

We’re members of the Outdoor Industry Association, which is the primary outdoor organizer of our trade show. Last year we sat down with different brands to roll out our first formal draft of the standards and kick off a formal input process. We also pulled in other groups — nonprofits like Textile Exchange that have deep expertise. We gradually built this up. Where we landed is a place that is ambitious but achievable for most brands.

Could you give an example of a standard?

Being a brand in the outdoor industry, particularly a smaller brand, a lot of what you’re trying to do early on is get purchase orders placed, and get products manufactured and delivered on time.

We wanted to encourage foundational practices like having a manufacturing code of conduct, which outlines in a formal way what you consider appropriate practices, particularly around labor, in the supply chain. We are requiring all brands that sell to REI have a formalized code of conduct that aligns with international norms and best practices.

How did you communicate with the brands?

The rollout has been one that we thought carefully about. First, how do we involve brands and credible nonprofit leaders in creating it? That led to a document that’s both aspirational and achievable.

We have large global leaders in sustainability and a lot of small startup brands. We have brands with different governance structures. We sell tents, sleeping bags, and backpacks, bikes and kayaks, food and food storage devices, electronics. We tried to pull in brands that can represent product categories.

The rollout to our brand partners was in January. We wanted to make sure they had the first opportunity to ask questions. We backed that up with a guidebook. We hosted a number of webinars for brand partners with the Outdoor Industry Association.

What were some of the largest challenges as you moved through the process?

The biggest challenge was how do we map the entire ecosystem of sustainability opportunities across a highly diverse product offering. Then how do we make it something you can quickly wrap your head around.

For consumers walking into a large retail environment, it can be challenging to understand all the different claims, which ones are carrying weight, have strong third-party endorsements, and are doing great work.

We mapped a huge array of sustainability topics as well as third-party certifications. The three litmus tests we used to distill that: what was most relevant to our product offering, what was most impactful in advancing sustainability on the ground, and which are most recognized as credible resources for customers.

Were there any tools or resources that were helpful?

We looked at retailers that have sought to do this type of work for their own product offerings in our sector and beyond. Target, for instance, has done pretty impressive work on a number of sustainability initiatives.

Then we reached out to nonprofit partners in industry groups who could help us work through the complexities. There are pros and cons to different approaches. We had to choose topic areas as well as certifications that we thought most closely align to REI’s values.

What outcomes do you anticipate?

Even though we didn’t find any models we could directly replicate, we wanted to make sure that all this information is open-source and available. If we’re fortunate, this can be something that other retailers use to think through building a body of work for their own products and relationships.

One of the things we learned is that no single brand can move the entire retail industry. So if you can find ways to work together to create demand for more sustainable products, that helps create the critical mass to advance more sustainable practices.

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