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REI piloting used-gear buy back program as part of ambitious sustainability move

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REI will once again shut down its operations on Black Friday. But the co-op is framing the action as part of a much wider effort. 

For the fifth consecutive year, the outdoor apparel and gear retailer will close all its stores and process no online payments on the day after Thanksgiving as part of its #OptOutside campaign. But this year it is urging its 13,000 employees (all of whom will be paid for the day) and 18 million members to do more than go outside and enjoy the outdoors. It wants them to "opt to act" and join a nationwide clean-up effort and has posted a list of nationwide cleanups on its site. It also is urging members to sign up for a 52-week action plan to take small steps throughout the year to reduce their environmental footprint.

"My job is to steward the co-op, and the outdoors, on your behalf — and on behalf of the generations who follow us,” Eric Artz, who became CEO of REI in May, wrote in a letter to co-op members this week. “Today, that future is at risk. We are in the throes of an environmental crisis that threatens not only the next 81 years of the co-op, but the incredible outdoor places that we love. Climate change is the greatest existential threat facing our co-op. I believe we do not have the luxury of calling climate change a political issue. This is a human issue. And we must act now.”

At the same time, REI is stepping up its own fight for the environment – starting with rethinking its core business model in favor of more mindful consumption. To that end, the company is expanding its rentals and used-gear businesses, reflecting its belief “that one of the most impactful ways to lower a product's environmental footprint is to maximize the numbers of times it can be used.” It is piloting a used gear buy-back program with some 5,000 members in which they may receive REI gift cards when they trade in gently-used outdoor items for resale. REI also is debuting a seasonal ski-rental offering for kids and adults, and testing a new online rental reservations system that it plans to roll out more broadly in 2020.  

In addition, REI is working toward zero-waste operations and challenging the outdoor industry to eliminate unnecessary packaging. Here are some of the highlights: 

• Achieving zero-waste operations: For many years, the co-op has been working toward a 2020 goal of operating as zero-waste (diverting 90% of waste from landfill). While REI has made significant progress, challenges like changing recycling markets and variable infrastructure from city to city mean its will not meet its 2020 goal in every store.

The co-op has worked hard to increase its recycling rate to 76% across its operations—in headquarters, distribution centers, and stores. The remaining 24% of waste is a challenging mix of everything from the silica packets that come with apparel items, to the plastic poly bags these items are inevitably wrapped in, to the paper towels in some buildings' restrooms. Waste is created at virtually every touchpoint, and to-date, no U.S. retailer has figured out how to achieve zero-waste operations in all retail stores.

REI is working toward an updated goal of operating as zero-waste (diverting 90% of waste from landfill) across its total operations by the end of 2020. Additionally, by the end of 2021, REI will certify its headquarters, all its distribution centers and at least 10 REI stores as TRUE Zero Waste facilities.

 Challenging the outdoor industry to eliminate unnecessary packaging: Of REI's current waste stream, over 20% is made up of the thin-film plastic like polybags used to protect apparel. Although REI Co-op branded apparel has transitioned away from the use of individual polybags for most items, many brands still use them for each item. These bags are rarely recyclable at the stores, and contribute to the generation of more than 7 tons of thin-film plastic waste per week that REI is determined to eliminate.

By the end of 2020, REI employees and customers will see a substantial reduction in polybags. The co-op will hold its own brand to the continued avoidance of polybags and work with its brand partners to reduce the use of unnecessary plastic packaging too. 

REI has actively pushed itself to raise the bar on sustainability for decades, through efforts like sourcing 100% green energy for all operations, pursuing zero-waste operations, and pushing the outdoor industry to dramatically raise the bar on product sustainability through first-of-their-kind product sustainability standards.

"At REI, our purpose is clear – to awaken a lifelong love of the outdoors, for all,” said Artz. “We believe that if we get millions of people to love the outdoors, they will leave it better than they found it, Because when the next generation asks us what we did when the outdoors and the world needed us most, I want to be able to say, "we did our best.”

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