Together We Are A Force: For Sustainable Gear and Apparel

For MEC's Valerie Pressoly and REI's Vik Sahney, leadership in sustainability is best achieved through collaboration not competition.

October 18, 2017

Retailers are curators, and the most trusted shops—from small specialty boutiques to large chains—earn their customers’ loyalty by carrying values-based brands that deliver performance and principles. Vik leads REI’s sustainability efforts. Valerie does the same thing up north at Canada’s MEC. What else do these two have in common? They are both members of the OIA Sustainability Working Group, a collective of sustainability experts bouncing ideas off each other to improve sustainable practices for the industry as a whole. They also utilize the Higg Index to measure product sustainability, and they’re encouraging all vendor partners to do the same. In this candid conversation, they explain why their companies have placed collaboration ahead of competition in order to advance the industry’s sustainability message.

This conversation is part of OIA’s Together We Are A Force campaign.

Read the full transcript

Vik:                                              Well I think collaboration is really important for REI because we’re founded as a co-op and so that’s one of the essential elements, you know. It’s 23 people who came together and said that they didn’t want to make money off their friends and they wanted to work together to get access to outdoor gear. So I think what we’re doing through collaboration with the Outdoor Industry Association and the Sustainability Working Group and with our work with you is extending that umbrella to a broader group so we can have greater impact.

Valerie                                       Yeah. I think a lot of the problems we’re working on as a group are so much broader than our own businesses, right? They’re big issues that we’re tackling that we can only really tackle together.

Vik:                                              Well I think a great example of the collaboration is the Higg Index and whether that was from the initial generation and conception of the Higg Index … which is where we were really as retailers, right? REI has 1400 brands and we couldn’t have each one of those brands coming up with their own way of talking about measuring, talking about sustainability and the sustainability language really needed a common way so consumers could understand it eventually, and we could talk to each other about it.

So I think together we are able to, along with a lot of those leadership brands, come up with a better way and get to a better answer that covers more product and really can influence even beyond the outdoor industry through the Sustainable Apparel Coalition as well. So I think that’s a great place where we’ve collaborated and now we’ve even collaborated with pushing the ask out to more and more of those brands to get them to use the index and to share it with us so that we can identify common issues and common problems and then work on generating common solutions to help drive adoption and increase brand scores.

Valerie                                       I think for both of us a retailers that’s a really great way of collaborating and having the same ask that we’re pushing out to some of our big wholesale brand vendors.

Vik:                                              Absolutely. I think other topics, you know, there’s a number of topics that are on the Sustainability Working Group priority issues so whether those range from durable water repellency to microplastics and microfibers, to flame retardants, those are all issues that collectively all of our brands and all of us feel. And both as retailers we are the face to many of those brands to the consumer and so I think it’s important for us to be engaged proactively on those issues with our brands whether they have small teams or large teams to try and help make progress on behalf of our members.

Valerie                                       I think that’s where the collaboration comes in as well because not all of the brands that we work with have these big sustainability teams so it’s like everybody contribute a little bit and together we can get to a better output.

Vik:                                              Absolutely.

Interviewer:                           So you’re both organizations that use the co-op model and how do you think that helps or contributes to driving sustainability in the outdoor industry?

Valerie                                       So as a cooperative, one of the cooperative principles is collaboration and I think that’s where part of that collaboration comes from but I think it’s broader than the co-op movement. Like within the outdoor industry as well there is so much collaboration going on. I think we’re maybe better suited as a co-op just because the business model doesn’t necessarily have the same short-term demands as a publicly-traded company would have, and I think the other piece is the long-term view. Like we have more of a long-term orientation, long-term goals that make for a more collaborative platform.

Vik:                                              I would add that one of the key questions we use internally is, how is this in the best interests of the membership, and we use that to think through a lot of  our decisions whether that’s business and strategy or whether it’s customer service, and sustainability falls right into that as well, so I think it’s very natural for us to have that question and to tack on streams of work to address those topics.

Interviewer:                           So how do you each think about leading sustainability as outdoor retailers specifically?

Vik:                                              I think for us how we think about leading sustainability as a retailer is we think about, what’s the customer experience when they walk into our store? And that is the touch point that most brands have with a consumer beyond a website or an ad that they might place direct to a consumer. So with 1400 brands we need to … It’s very challenging to think through what is the messaging and how do we communicate sustainability for all those 1400 brands or for those that are leading in those elements but I think how we engage with the customer is a super important part of it.

Valerie                                       Yeah, and I think a big part of it is too that our members trust us. They shop with us because they trust us and they don’t necessarily differentiate between MEC as a brand and MEC as a retailer so I don’t want to say we have an obligation but we have … there’s a member expectation that when they come and shop with us that it is a curated assortment in terms of quality, in terms of sustainability, in terms of everything else really that they’re looking for. So I think that’s a big part of it.

Vik:                                              We feel the exact same thing. We’d love to honor the member trust that they’ve placed with us to reflect their values and that when they walk in the door that they feel like, “Gosh, things have been looked at here,” and, “I feel comfortable shopping with you.”

Valerie                                       Yeah. It’s a curated assortment not just in terms of you know fashion, fit, use but also in terms of sustainability and quality.

Interviewer:                           So what do each of you find most valuable about the OIA Sustainability Working Group?

Valerie                                       For MEC, what I love about the OIA Sustainability Working Group is just the collaborative spirit and I don’t think you see that in many or any other industries really and it’s so great to have all these brands coming together that might be competitors and still working on these issues in a pretty competitive way and pulling their resources together to create a greater outcome.

Vik:                                              Absolutely. And I would add with that there’s the topical places where we link with people but there’s also the personal relationships that you get with your peers and so you can learn, how is brand X working within their own organization to push sustainability? And, what’s working in the communications with their executive leadership? And so you do get that peer-practitioner lessons learned as well and so I think it’s a great way to connect with people and learn from each other.

Valerie                                       Yeah, and I think especially because sustainability teams are typically very small and it’s uncharted territory in many ways so there’s not like a given path that you can follow so the more people you have to bounce ideas off of and to learn from, the better.

Vik:                                              It’s been fun when we’ve had a topic like looking at product repair or end-of-use, or end-of-life. It’s a big topic for most brands but the ability for me to call up or email and set up a call with somebody to talk about what are they doing on the topic? What are the challenges they’ve seen? What are the issues? What hasn’t worked for them? Then to do that with five other brands really helps me so I can learn through other people rather than having to spend a huge amount of money to try and do those tests internally myself as well. It provides a huge leg up.

Interviewer:                           Last question is, what do you each like most about working in the outdoor industry?

Vik:                                              For me, it reflects my personal values. So for me, our tagline at REI is, “A life outdoors is a life well lived,” and that was literally like my personal brand statement when I was joining the company. So through my work, I’ve now aligned my profession with my personal passion for the outdoors and I’m able to come to an event or a thing and not realize, “Am I here because I’m from REI, or I’m here because I love the outdoors?” And to not know which hat I’m wearing, and that’s a fantastic experience to have. And to be able to contribute so much of my professional time to furthering what I think is great in the world about the positive outcomes of people spending more time in the outdoors and to minimizing our impact of getting people into the outdoors is just fantastic. So I love my job.

Valerie                                       Yeah. I totally agree. I think the other piece is too like protecting the places that we love to play in and especially working in sustainability, playing a direct role in that is really cool. Like when you get a land acquisition grant or land gets designated as public land, it’s a really cool win.

Vik:                                              It’s so much fun even through our work as a co-op, like we now have a bunch of apps that we can help people find trails and find places to go outside and we do that as part of the National Parks Centennial and we had the Find Your Park campaign where we had the co-op guide to National Parks and so just additional layers that we’re able to offer to people to help get people outside. It’s just super rewarding to be a part of that.

Valerie                                       Yeah, and I love how passionate everybody is like no matter where they are in the organization and which organization they are in. People are really, really passionate about what they do, about the gear, about getting people outside, and that’s really inspiring both from a personal perspective as well as from a professional perspective.

In 2016, we conducted extensive interviews and surveys to find out how OIA can best support outdoor companies. What we learned is that our members see us as a convener—the unifying entity best equipped to galvanize the industry around three important issues: policy, participation and sustainable business. Then we identified individuals who are already working to move the needle on those issues within their respective companies. Ashley Korenblat and Tom Adams demonstrate that, through collaboration, our industry as a whole can do so much more than a single company or individual can do alone. They prove that, indeed Together We Are A Force for Sustainability.