How REI breaks out of capitalist norms

Mount Washington, NH // Anna Repp

There’s something about physical movement that takes a lot of soul. A lot of commitment.

I don’t think running, hiking, or climbing are “comfortable” hobbies. But you’re not going to get to the top of a mountain by being comfortable. You have to commit to the discomfort to get to something greater.

You end up asking: How far will I go? How much discomfort can I take before you quit? What am I wanting to achieve?

Usually, my answers quantify in distances and mile times. On summer weekends in the White Mountains, they come to me in elevation gain.

But I still have to ask those hard questions when I’m not on the trails. What do I stand for? What will I do in the name of convenience that maybe I don’t really believe in? What am I wanting to achieve when I vote with my dollars?

Those answers are harder.

Ethical consumption is difficult. So hard, even, that a lot of times it’s easier for me to turn a blind eye. But we don’t grow by pretending problems don’t exist, so sometimes I try to be more intentional. A lot of the time, that means opting out of the easy option. Canceling my Amazon Prime subscription, for instance. But it also means opting in when I find something that works.

Opting In

When it comes to my own value system, I find that REI rises to the top. They’re best known for being the supplier of anything a person might need before an adventure of any size, whether that’s a day hike in Tonto National Forest in Arizona or committing to the Appalachian Trail up the East Coast*. They have everything you’d reach for out in the wild, from climbing shoes to sub-zero sleeping bags to packaged trail food that looks a little bit like you might bring it to outer space.

Beyond what they sell is who they are. REI does a great job of giving back, as a company committed to responsible adventuring. They’ve got a pretty cool business model as a co-op, which allows them to operate more closely to a nonprofit than a typical corporation could. It gives shareholder power back to members, who then have access to participate in the voting process for the board of directors each year. Members also receive a 10 percent dividend on all their purchases throughout the year — so for however much money they spend at REI in a year, they receive 10 percent of it back to spend at REI in the future. It’s a cycle of reinvestment from the members to the company and back again.

They give back to others, too. In 2019, REI gave back 70 percent of their profits to invest in the outdoor community and donated $8.1 million to 427 non-profits. And they’ve addressed the link between climate justice and racial justice, doubling down on their goals to make a positive impact on the world around them.

Lighting the Fire

It’s a business model I can get behind. It’s a company that makes me want to opt in. But they don’t stop there. REI is involved with the entire customer buy cycle — from inspiration to purchase to implementation. It’s as strategic as it is effective, but the brilliance is that it isn’t pushy.

Instead of pressuring people to buy, REI engages in more thought-leadership-esque content on their YouTube channel, which is packed with all kinds of videos. Many of these are informational (how to fix your bike’s flat tire) or product-oriented, but they also have beautifully shot, documentary-like videos that showcase people doing incredible things, like running ultra-marathons or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. They spotlight the humanity of connecting with nature and the soul of adventuring. They’re the type of videos that make you wonder why we don’t all live in the woods.

In On the Action…

When you do decide to move, REI is right there with you. Back in April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, the team at REI encouraged people to run and share their tiniest mile — which was a challenge to run a mile in the smallest space possible. People participated by running around their kitchen island, back and forth across their living room, or around their car, as a few examples. By engaging with #TiniestMile, folks boosted the brand and encouraged people to stay home and stay safe, while still getting the miles in.

Then REI launched another campaign for Black Friday: #OptOutside. The goal here was to refuse to contribute to the mass consumerism of Black Friday, to reject the cultural norm we have created of frantically buying all weekend. Instead, REI said, opt outside before it gets too cold. Remind yourself of what really matters. The stuff will always be waiting for you at home.

It’s a brilliant way of encouraging people to recenter with what is truly natural for us. We’re so often inundated with ads that try to persuade us to buy. For REI to reject that norm in favor of what is actually good for the soul increases the goodwill toward the brand. It’s a breath of fresh air, in more ways than one.

…And Joining You Out There

The thing that really rounds out REI as a company is their commitment to the adventure. They’re not just profiting off sales of items (which, you’ll remember, they only keep 30 percent of anyways) — they’re building a relationship with customers. Importantly, they’re also teaching people how to build a sustainable and respectful relationship with the earth around them.

They do this, in part, through their co-op journal. But beyond that, REI offers a variety of classes and events (under normal, non-pandemic circumstances) designed to empower people to get out into the wild. From teaching survivor skills to climbing to snow sports, REI facilitates a learning experience with other people who have similar interests to create community and expertise within the adventuring world.

In an economy designed to maximize shareholder value, REI has a bold and effective approach by redefining shareholders (through their member program) and redefining value (through quality products, dividends, and experiences). But REI also understands that the people they attract care deeply about experiencing and preserving the earth around us. And whether that experience comes from watching YouTube videos during a pandemic that stops us from traveling or from running a tiny mile, it connects us and reminds us what our priorities are. It’s incredible that REI has built a successful business without sacrificing the soul of the organization, and I’m hopeful that other companies can mimic this model by way of also contributing positively to the world around us.

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*It’s important that I note that while I believe in the REI mission, these national parks are still on stolen land. At the end of the day, REI is a business. We must continue to apply pressure for climate and racial justice in these organizations, especially for reconciliation for Native American people who continue to face oppression. We cannot stop thinking critically simply because a system doesn’t target us specifically. Again, we don’t grow by pretending these problems don’t exist.

Asking questions, seeking answers. Northeastern ‘21.