Addressing an Ethical Issue in the Outdoor Industry: Case Study of REI's Carbon Emissions

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Addressing an Ethical Issue in the Outdoor Industry: Case Study of REI's Carbon Emissions

Outdoor industry brands face an ethical dilemma to create sustainable and environmentally friendly products while focusing on reducing carbon emissions from their manufacturing facilities. This dilemma is not unique to the outdoor industry, and in fact, the majority of manufacturers in textiles and other products are facing the pressure of adapting a new policy to address the carbon emissions that their factories are releasing into the atmosphere.

Brands across the outdoor industry such as Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI) have been focusing on efforts to reduce this problem. REI is a national retail cooperative famous for its outdoor apparel and equipment and is organized as a consumer cooperative (Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative).

This case study will discuss a new policy for REI that resolves the ethical issue of reducing carbon emissions from it’s manufacturing facilities as well as the facilities of the other brands it carries in their stores. With the implementation of this new policy by the end of 2020, REI will sever its business relationships with any of its 1,000-plus suppliers that don’t meet stringent new requirements in areas including environmental impact, chemical usage, animal welfare, and labor safety and fairness (O’Reilly).

Recommended Policy That Resolves the Ethical Issue

To reduce carbon emissions is to reduce your overall carbon footprint. According to the WHO, “a carbon footprint is a measure of the impact your activities have on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced through the burning of fossil fuels and is expressed as a weight of CO2 emissions produced in tons.” That means that your carbon footprint is the impact your daily activities and lifestyle is having on the atmosphere with the emission of excess carbon dioxide, i.e. carbon emissions. Excessive carbon emissions can affect the environment and cause climate change. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels — coal, natural gas, and oil — are burned (Osmanski).

REI recognized that it needed do its part in addressing the issue of reducing carbon emissions from its manufacturing facilities, stores and products. The recommended policy that can help resolve the issue of unnecessary carbon emissions has been named the “REI Product Sustainability Standards” with a goal of completion by the end of 2020. This policy is more than idolized thinking and wishes; it specifically addresses ethics and sustainability in both their house brand as well as laying out specific requirements for manufacturing brands that want to do business with REI. The policy addresses new standards such as requiring any wool products to be sourced from humanely treated sheep and any sunscreens sold in in the retail chain can’t contain coral-reef-bleaching components (O’Reilly). The policy addresses not only ethical product sourcing but also touches on environmental management which is affected by carbon emissions. The sections of the new policy include:

  1. Fair and safe supply chains
  2. Chemicals management
  3. Land stewardship
  4. Animal welfare
  5. Environmental management

Despite being a new policy that is being implanted, it can be expanded, and a sixth section could be added to include specific attention to the subject of carbon emissions. REI has already made the decision to source 100% renewable energy to its stores and has announced that it commits to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030 and offset emissions for its brand and operations starting in 2020 (Grothjan). With this new commitment and focus, it only makes sense to add a new sixth section to the REI Product Sustainability Standards policy titled “Reducing Our Carbon Footprint”. This policy and approach to addressing this ethics issue follows the guidance of both the Common Good and the Virtue ethical decision-making models.

Ethical Decision-Making Models

This new policy recommendation reflects the ethical decision-making models called the common good approach and the virtue approach. The common good approach is derived from the teachings of Greek philosophers. It contends that the “notion that life in community is a good in itself and our actions should contribute to that life. This approach suggests that the interlocking relationships of society are the basis of ethical reasoning and that respect and compassion for all others—especially the vulnerable—are requirements of such reasoning. This approach also calls attention to the common conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone” (Husick). The virtue approach asks the question “What kind of person will I be if I do this?” and leads as a moral compass. The virtue approach also falls in line with REI’s new policy and efforts to focus on their carbon footprint on the environment. REI is member-owned by nature enthusiasts who value preservation and conservation, and the values of REI drive the force of its business operations. It’s apparent in REI’s approach that they practice both of these models.

Socially Responsible Corporate Policy

REI is a trailblazer in being socially responsible, and its corporate policy solidifies that fact. REI is socially responsible on many levels and is enforced even further with the new REI Product Sustainability Standards policy ensuring that the brands it works with also follows their values and standards. Since REI is a member owned co-op of over 5.5 million people plus its board of directors, it’s safe to say that they hit the mark on being socially responsible.

Support for the new policy can be found in their pledge to halve its carbon footprint by 2030 by working toward zero-waste operations, operating as a circular economy reselling previously used items, and challenging the outdoor industry to eliminate unnecessary packaging (REI Newsroom). The hashtag #OptOutside used for the 2015 Black Friday shopping day turned into a movement that focuses on spending more time in nature thus minimizing your carbon footprint. The popularity of the brand and the #OptOutside movement shows that it’s not just a corporate vision but also the vision of its consumers.

Policy Communication Strategies

With any new policy within an organization, the way it is communicated and shared with it’s employees and consumers is important. What truly sets businesses apart from the rest is their commitments to communicating effectively. REI’s website is a great resource to stay up to date on current policies, trends and issues and information can be found on its blog called the Co-op Journal and news page. Focusing on communicating effectively over these sources is important. To communicate effectively, businesses need to keep it real, be timely, focus on being consistent, practice what you preach, and encourage feedback. 

REI is no stranger to communicating new polices and ideas to both its employees, members and the public and they seem to be doing a good job at it through their various press conferences and blog posts. A strategy that REI can implement and reinforce to communicate its new policy is to focus on spreading the message to as many outlets as possible and to follow up with updates every few months. Sending information out on updates of new ideas to its own blog writers as well as to other outdoor industry news sources is vital to spreading the message as quickly as possible. Not every consumer goes to the REI website to learn about new policy within the company, so focusing efforts into other communication avenues such as with email subscriptions, cross marketing, in-store marketing campaigns and outdoor industry news organizations will help standardize the message that they are trying to communicate.

Potential Policy Limitations

With such as large worldwide burden to undertake as a sole company, there are obvious limitations with how much impact the policy will have on the ethical issue of reducing carbon emissions from manufacturing. REI is only one company, but with the help and collaboration of it’s members and customers to try to do their part in reducing their carbon footprint, a reduction in carbon emissions worldwide is possible. The limitations that come with this policy is that it can only affect a small percentage of the manufacturing facility; a niche that only deals with outdoor goods. A hidden benefit that can come with requiring its manufacturing facilities to follow their guidance and requirements for production is that the manufacturing facility most likely makes other products for other companies and niches. Thus, this will cause a ripple effect across all niches which may encourage communication and awareness about carbon emissions and the effects it is having not only on the environment, but on that brand as well.

Monitoring compliance of this new policy can be controlled by bi-annual or annual inspection visits to the manufacturing facilities. This will ensure that these facilities are following standards and it will increase communication and awareness to make things better.


Reducing carbon emissions is up to humanity as a whole, with the major contributors being large manufacturing facilities. Specifically, outdoor industry brands can have a large impact on the reduction of their carbon footprint and take the lead in this initiative because it already aligns with their core beliefs and values.

With the work done with REI’s new policy focusing on ethical sustainability and the addition of a new section to the policy titled “Reducing Our Carbon Footprint”, trailblazing this movement will take less effort and initiation and will set the standard across the entire outdoor industry.




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