Tonight Sally Jewell, the President and CEO of REI, spoke at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. She was sponsored by the UW Chapter of Net Impact. According to the 2009 REI Stewardship Report, the company focuses upon three areas: Community, Environment, and People.
As Jewell explained in her talk tonight, the COMMUNITY piece focuses primarily on encouraging people to participate in outdoor activities and on conserving natural spaces. Jewell cited some rather dire statistics — the average kid spends 30 min a week in unstructured outdoor activity. Investing in our natural spaces and promoting outdoor activity serves the good of the community while strengthening potential profits. For this reason, REI was strongly involved in supporting the American Outdoors Initiative that was signed by President Obama in April 2010.
The aspect of CSR that Jewell spoke about most passionately was care for the ENVIRONMENT. REI recently developed metrics on sustainability which they will be presenting in their 2011 report, including electricity consumption and carbon footprint. In 2009, REI recycled 85% of their operational wastes, such as packaging. Jewell showed off her own backpack, whose material included 14 recycled water bottles.
The final piece of their CSR strategy is the one I am most interested in: PEOPLE. Unfortunately, Jewell spoke very little about REI’s work on factory labor standards. The 2009 Stewardship Report on Factory and Labor Compliance demonstrates some of the challenges that REI has faced in promoting safe and fair working conditions in their contract factories. In her talk, however, Jewell focused primarily upon REI’s desire to draw more diverse audiences to the outdoors and into their stores, in order to continue to build the REI brand in an increasingly diverse U.S. setting. Jewell’s speaking time was limited, so perhaps had the audience pressed a bit harder on REI’s commitment to fair labor practices in their contract factories, Jewell would have demonstrated that these concerns were more integrated into the culture of REI. Unfortunately, her interest in fair labor standards seemed to be on the avoidance of the negative PR that a brand like Nike received. In this sense, I was disappointed that the international human rights aspect of her description appeared less integrated into the mission of REI than the focus on environmental sustainability and the growth of potential markets. Do those of you who know REI from the inside think that this perception is an accurate one?
Jewell’s most memorable quote: “There is no mission without margin; there is no margin without mission.”