REI chief Sally Jewell on sustainability, shoes, and sedentary schoolkids
The statuesque athlete sitting across the table has just handed me her shoe. As I examine it, she begins to point out the various fibers used in its construction and tells me about the manufacturer’s sustainable practices. Clearly, this is a woman who is well aware of her footprint.
Dressed in casual pants and a blue fleece jacket, Sally Jewell doesn’t necessarily look the part of high-powered CEO. And during the course of our hour-long conversation, it becomes clear that she’s as down-to-earth about the effect a major company can have on the planet as she is about her wardrobe.
In 2005, Jewell took over as head of REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.), an outdoor-adventure outfitter that began as a group of mountain-climbing buddies trading gear and now includes 80-plus stores. Today, REI is the country’s largest consumer cooperative, boasting more than 3 million members (including yours truly). Having joined the company as chief operating officer in 2000, Jewell pledged in an organization-wide meeting after being named CEO that her No. 1 goal would be reducing the company’s environmental impact.
Already much work has been done: In 2004, REI’s Portland, Ore., location became the first retail store in the country to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED gold rating for commercial interiors; a silver-rated store followed two years later. A prototype store in Boulder, Colo., tests the performance of new green building features as part of the LEED for Retail pilot project. And once fully operational, a 525,000 square-foot distribution facility in Bedford, Pa., will cut transit times — and emissions — for delivering goods to East Coast consumers.
REI has also launched an eco-sensitive apparel line focusing on fabrics with a high percentage of renewable, recycled, and/or organic fibers. Other recent eco-efforts include purchasing green power to offset 30 percent of overall electricity use, sourcing FSC-certified paper for catalogs, and working toward a “zero-waste to landfill” operation.
My conversation with Jewell about the company’s sustainability goals was followed by a tour of REI’s impressive multi-building campus in Kent, Wash. — I visited a mock store where REI’s innovators test out bamboo shelving and hanging light displays, examined architectural plans for the new distribution facility, fingered eco-duds from the spring ’08 line, and ate a hearty lunch at the “almost all compostable” cafeteria.
But I came away from the whole visit recalling most vividly my time with Jewell; I found myself suddenly aspiring to be the kind of woman who could run a company like she does. And quietly envying what must be a killer collection of gear.
Let’s talk about REI’s stewardship program and sustainability efforts. How did that come about?
Mike Collins [REI’s VP of public affairs] put together a group of about 23 of our employees from around the company — people that would be involved in our buildings, materials, purchasing, marketing (which is producing catalogs), etc. … And that group of people spent three days just going through REI’s impact on the biosphere.
The whole wall was covered with this giant, complicated diagram of arrows coming and going of all the things that we do that in some way are impacting the Earth. And you look at that, and you think, “Oh, man, I am so overwhelmed. Where do I start?” And what that team of people did was really narrow it down to the big offenders where we can actually have an impact.
Is there anything you’re not proud of or you’re looking forward to changing soon?
I’m not proud of our employee commuting footprint. We’re sitting out here in an office park [in Kent, Wash.], in an area that used to be farmland, probably in a floodplain. [Laughs.] And many people are driving single-occupancy vehicles to get in here.
I am proud of the fact that every single REI facility is set up for bike commuters with showers and some form of secure bike storage. That’s a step, but we have to get more creative on how we work and on facilitating telecommuting — maybe satellite [offices] where people can get to [that are] closer to home.
As we work to try and build diversity in the outdoors and diversity in our stores, one of the other challenges is locating our stores by where many of our customers are. Well if many of our customers are affluent, well-educated, and they tend to be less diverse than the population as a whole, how do we increase diversity and how do we help employees who really want to work for us get to and from a store that is not well-served by public transit? That’s a tough nut to crack.
How do you balance this idea of wanting to protect the outdoors while encouraging people to get out there and buy more stuff?
One of the things that I think REI has always done well is sell high quality, durable products. So when you buy something from REI, it should last a long time. And if it doesn’t perform up to expectations, you can bring it back, and we have a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. I think the worst thing you can do is sell junk. If you sell a tent that leaks on the first or second outing, then what do you have? You’ve got stuff in a landfill, and you’ve got a frustrated customer.
There’s also an element of Robin Hood to REI: Because we’re a co-op and because we aren’t having to talk about our quarter-to-quarter profits with shareholders all the time, we can actually take some of what we generate and recycle that back out to organizations that are doing a great job of connecting people to nature, taking care of wild and scenic places, and so on.
This is via programs that you’re hosting, and grants that you’re giving away?
A few years [ago], the board [of directors] made a decision that they were going to commit 3 percent of our operating profits [toward a charitable giving budget for the following year]. … So 3 percent of operating profits is between $3 million and $4 million a year, and that’s what our grants program is. But beyond that it’s leveraging our volunteer resources and getting people out to do things. Last year, we [coordinated or recruited] 169,000 volunteers who did more than 900,000 hours of community service. And that’s not stuffing envelopes. That equates to about $15 an hour that you’d be paying a trail crew to do backbreaking trail work.
Our grant [program] has a disproportionate focus on organizations that get children active in nature. That’s the primary area of focus for what we’re doing.
You’ve said before that you feel like TV, video games, and overscheduled kids are your competition …
Yeah, I mean, god bless Rich Louv who wrote the book Last Child in the Woods, because he put — in a very factual and thoughtful way — some words to this thing that a number of us have been feeling, those of us who have children. Mine are older; I’ve watched them grow up, and I’ve tried hard to encourage them to play outside, and yet the pull of technology and what it does to the young brain is a little bit scary … I don’t want to blame technology — it’s with us to stay and there’s a lot of wonderful things about it — but what I’ve been saying is how do we get technology and nature to work together? The average child today spends 47 hours in front of a screen.
In a month?
Forty-seven hours a week: television, video games, computers. And that is really scary. OK, so 47 hours a week in front of a screen; in unstructured outside play, 30 minutes a week.
Let’s shift gears and talk about your role as CEO. We recently put together a list of 15 green business founders, and we had a hard time finding women who are leading major companies moving in a sustainable direction.
Did you have a hard time finding women, period, in the roles?
I mean, I don’t think women are less green than men, I just don’t think there’s too many of us in the business world.
Have you faced any particular challenges as a female CEO?
Well first, I’m not a woman CEO. I’m running REI, and it’s a privilege to be in this position, and I wouldn’t have been picked because of gender. No CEO’s going to get picked because of gender.
I’ve been the beneficiary of affirmative action along the way; I think some of the opportunities I’ve had have related to someone taking a little more of a risk on me because I was different in some way, as organizations worked to build diversity. There’s no question in my mind that that’s in the background. But as you’re running a company, you’re juggling an awful lot of things and you’re not thinking about that.
How do you find time to go outdoors and get away from your screen?
Something that has always been important to me is taking care of the machine. You’ve got to take care of yourself, because if you’re not healthy, you’re not going to be able to have the stamina for this job, which oftentimes does go into evening functions and early-morning functions and things like that. So today I did my usual thing, which is a pretty strenuous workout and then a yoga class.
In a few weeks, my husband and I leave for an REI Adventure in Bhutan. We’re going to be doing some trekking and visiting that culture, which should be great. That’s not very environmentally friendly, by the way — flying all the way to Bhutan. Do you know how many air miles that is? It’s really bad.
That’s another criticism about getting outdoors — sometimes you have to travel really far to get to these gorgeous places.
One of the shockers to me is 26 percent of REI’s greenhouse-gas footprint is REI Adventure travel trips, like the one I’m about to take. It’s almost as much as — or maybe it’s equal to — all of the electricity generated by all of our facilities. And that is, like, stunning.
We actually did a pro deal with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation so that employees could offset their own footprint at a discount. So I did that personally when it was offered, and will continue to offset my personal footprint every year. And we went carbon neutral in REI Adventures with offsets, so anybody that travels with us in REI Adventures is already covered. But that doesn’t stop it from going in the atmosphere, that just offsets it.
What are some of your favorite spots to get to around here?
One of my favorite, favorite hikes is Mount Defiance. The access trail’s just been renovated, which makes it much more popular — so maybe it’ll go off of my [list of] favorite hikes.
I’d say one of my favorites for taking care of the machine — or sometimes it feels like it’s destroying the machine — is Mailbox Peak, which is just one peak east of Mount Si. It’s really a pretty dreadful trail. It’s almost straight up. It’s about twice as steep as Mount Si — the same elevation gain, but in half the distance.
I also like to paddle, and one of my favorite paddles is around Squaxin Island. It’s about 10 miles; it’s just beautiful. [I go] every New Year’s Day. It’s a great, sort of centering thing to do on Jan. 1 when everybody’s still sleeping off their hangovers.
Thinking ahead to Jan. 1, 2008: What are your resolutions and goals for REI?
Connecting kids with nature, being part of the solution around climate-change issues, and reaching audiences that aren’t being reached are huge and ongoing challenges — for me and this organization.