REI Co-Op Raises Product Standards, Tackles PFAS Phase-Out

(Photo: REI's new distribution center in Goodyear, Arizona. Credit: REI Multimedia Library.)

(Photo: REI's new distribution center in Goodyear, Arizona. Credit: REI Multimedia Library.)

by | Mar 8, 2023

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(Photo: REI's new distribution center in Goodyear, Arizona. Credit: REI Multimedia Library.)

(Photo: REI’s new distribution center in Goodyear, Arizona. Credit: REI Multimedia Library.)

REI Co-op, an outdoor retailer, recently announced a third evolution of their Product Impact Standards, which will elevate the expectations of their brand partners to fight climate change, advance inclusion in the outdoors, and manage chemical usage. The standards were first launched in 2018 and updated in 2020 to apply to all products that REI sells in stores.

Notably, the revised standards require brand partners to remove per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in a planned phase-out which staggers the deadline, according to the difficulty of finding alternatives. All cookware, apparel, shoes, packs, and similar gear must be PFAS-free by fall 2024, and heavy-duty textile products like waterproof rain jackets will follow suit by 2026.

PFAS compounds are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and can build up in fish and wildlife. Though the impact on humans is not fully understood, some studies show that exposure to PFAS in the environment could be linked to harmful health effects, according to the EPA. In October 2021, the EPA released a PFAS Strategic Roadmap to improve research and prevent the chemicals from entering the environment.

These PFAS restrictions follow increasing consumer pressure on REI to limit PFAS in its sold products. Toxic Free Future, an advocacy organization for corporate responsibility, coordinated a letter from 100+ organizations that demanded action on PFAS, alongside a petition with signatures from 110,000 REI members and customers. Such a ban on PFAS was particularly difficult for outdoor apparel retailers, because these chemicals repel water, oil, dirt, and stains in a way that alternatives simply cannot achieve.

“We were looking for a magic chemistry that could do it all and get our performance back and keep your jacket waterproof,” says Matt Dwyer, Patagonia’s VP of product impact and innovation. “And it took a whole lot more work than that.”

However, Patagonia led the way with the promise to convert all their water-repellent finishes to non-fluorinated versions by 2024. It can be done, but at considerable research and development cost. By implementing the PFAS ban across all partner brands, REI incentivizes changes from smaller companies that might not otherwise be able to compete with brands still using PFAS.

Not only do these standards help REI meet their sustainability goals, but the collective action provides their brand partners with a competitive reason to invest in improving ESG performance within their product lines. As of 2021, more than 400 brands reported using REI’s preferred sustainability attributes for their products. Of total REI sales, 70% came from brands that measured their greenhouse gas emissions and set reduction targets.

Building on their emissions reduction target submitted in 2022 to the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), REI will be engaging with partners to ensure at least 55% of their annual sales volume comes from brands with a science-aligned emissions reduction target by 2025. The co-op will support brands with resources and engagement opportunities, including partnerships with the OIA’s Climate Action Corps.

The standards also modify some guidelines for diversity and inclusion within outdoor products, specifically highlighting price equity across size ranges, increased inclusive sizing, and more offerings for diverse hair types. Implementation guidelines tend to be marked with “ongoing”, but for the DEI goals, the deadlines are fixed with nearby dates, like spring 2024 and 2025.

After a stumble in profitability, the co-op reduced its headquarters team by 8% in January. Leadership also combined some divisions and reorganized many teams around new priorities. Meanwhile, a wave of stores voted for unionization in 2022 and continue to push for fair pay and flexible work schedules.

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