The Cooperative Economy: REI’s Commitment to Serving the Planet’s Stewards

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting fed up with buying things that break or wear out way before they should. Warranties – from both manufacturers and retailers — seem to be getting shorter and more limited than ever, as if durability is an afterthought.

But I don’t want to support the landfill economy. I want to support the restoration economy and, when I need to purchase things, support companies that care about the planet the way I do. Some of these companies break from this planned obsolescence mentality and profit obsession, companies like REI, or Recreation Equipment, Inc., where your love of the outdoors actually pays dividends to you, as a customer-member of the cooperative enterprise.

REI, the nation’s largest consumer cooperative, got its start in 1938 when a bunch of climbing buddies got together to buy some gear to explore the great outdoors. They support people, their community and the environment on which their enterprise is based. And they guarantee that their products last and perform as expected.

A couple years ago, for example, I purchased a pair of sandals from REI.  After limited use, my sandals had an ankle strap that broke. The brand is well known and adventure proven: Teva. Since I live in a four-season climate, they should have lasted longer than they did. Walking into the REI retail store in a much older pair of Tevas I wore when traveling to South America, I talked briefly with a salesperson in REI shoe department who found a replacement pair of a different model for me in minutes. No hassle. No runaround. Try that at a big box retailer or chain.

The Cooperative ECOnomy

As I write about in ECOpreneuring, ECOnomics involves operating in more than the free market economy, the one we commonly think about when buying or selling goods or services. Often depending on their scale, many ecopreneurs, and the “conserving customers” who support them — thrive in economies other than those purely based on cash. Such economies include the barter, household, free exchange (i.e., free cycling), and cooperative economies.

REI is among the largest and most well respected of the retail cooperatives. My family and I are among the more than 3 million members of REI, a cooperative where every time we purchase a tent, sleeping bag, or pair of sandals (or any of the other outdoor clothing and gear they offer), we typically receive about 10 percent back as a member annual refund. Lifetime membership is $20.

My family is also a member of more than six cooperatively owned businesses, including the nation’s largest retail food cooperative, Willy Street Cooperative in Madison, a regional sustainable forestry cooperative, Kickapoo Woods Cooperative, and a community land trust, the Mississippi Valley Conservancy. Common ownership in these mission-driven organizations offer opportunities for us to better steward resources and work together to achieve collective goals, accomplishing more as a group than we could as individuals.

According to REI, their core purpose is to inspire, educate and outfit people for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship. They define stewardship as getting people outside to lead healthy active lives, care for our planet by protecting shared natural spaces, and engage others in making a difference.

Besides REI’s personable customer service and 100 percent guarantee for their products, they are also striving for continuous innovation in the products they sell by recognizing those that have a high percentage of recycled, rapidly renewable and/or organic fibers with their REI ecoSensitive label. Talk about transparency. Some of the labels explain both the advantages and shortcomings of the products themselves. As a company committed to the triple bottom line, REI also strives for fair trade through audits of factories where both REI-branded and non-REI-branded products are made while working with the outdoor industry on well-defined compliance standards.

It’s why I boycott Walmart and remain steadfastly committed to REI (and others like them), a company more interested in keeping me hiking on a trail in my sandals than just selling more stuff to make more money for their shareholders.

Interestingly, despite the downturn in the economy, in 2008, REI paid the highest dividend in their history: $73 million to their members. I’m proud to be one of them.

Photography: Courtesy of REI

  1. russ

    A good Volvo/Audi type green?

    I know REI well though from when I lived in Portland, OR in the 70’s.

    I think Jim Whittaker was the director at the time. It was a base for his climbing expeditions.

    Good store with high prices and with a kickback for members. The % you get back is simply extra in the cost to begin with.

    Hardly the savior of the world though.

  2. Mike Nelson

    I’m with you on REI. I bought a pair of boots that I used for backpacking and getting around for a couple years in Africa. 5 years after the purchase I was halfway down the Grand Canyon when the soles unexpectedly came off. I mentioned it at REI when I went to get new boots and they insisted on giving me a full refund.

    I’m not sure that too many other places would ever do that!

  3. Erbin

    Great points in this article. I’m glad that the co-op movement is getting more attention. For people who would like to know more, check out http://www.go.coop, http://www.ncba.coop and http://www.ica.cop.

    As a member of many co-ops, including REI, I believe that REI has real potential. However, it seems to me we have a long way to go. I wish there were ways for members to have more real influence in governance at REI. But board elections have not been competitive in my time as a member, with nominees generally chosen internally and votes being limited to a check-off. I also struggle to find clothes in the store that are made of natural fiber (as opposed to petroleum-based fleece) and there is almost nothing made in the US anymore, let alone products made by other co-ops.

    This last point is very important to me. Is REI’s economy truly “co-operative” if it’s based on cheap, overseas labor? Shouldn’t we be using out buying power to support other co-ops and make co-operation available to more – to build a real co-operative economy.

    How can members work together to make our co-op more of a co-op and more socially and environmentally accountable?

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