The MSR WhisperLite stove enjoys a legendary reputation among outdoor enthusiasts.
“It’s incredibly durable and repairable and [one] that people can keep in use for decades,” says Greg Gausewitz, Product Sustainability Manager at outdoor retailer REI. “You might even argue that that’s the most sustainable product out there—because you buy it once, and you never have to buy a new one.”
In some ways, this is a radical statement for a retailer. Phrases like “durable and repairable” and “keep in use for decades” might seem like a questionable business strategy in a world where fast fashion and planned obsolescence have been popular.
However, forward-thinking companies like REI are determined to find new ways to protect the planet, and that includes getting radical about product sustainability. They are realizing that how long an item lasts and how it will be disposed of matters just as much for sustainability as what goes into it—the long-lasting WhisperLite stove being a prime example.
While remaining conscious about sourcing and manufacturing, some environmentally-minded retailers are helping customers extend their products’ lives and, ultimately, consume less. And it’s changing the way they operate.
Staying Focused on Sustainability Even After Products are Sold
REI has been working to educate consumers on this new way of thinking—and buying.
From a business perspective, the shift focuses on which phases of the product life cycle a company aims its sustainability efforts. Conscious consumers have traditionally focused on the early stages of a product’s life cycle: sourcing, process, packaging, and distribution. “For most products, the material manufacturing component represents the single biggest environmental impact. So we look at things like recycled and bluesign-certified materials. We look at resource efficiency in manufacturing,” said Gausewitz at the “Navigating Change” event sponsored by Bank of the West.
“We’re seeing consumers continue to really prioritize sustainability as they decide which brands to shop with.”
Limiting the focus to the early stages of a product life cycle was partly because retailers exerted little influence over a product once it was sold. But that is changing. To lessen the environmental impact of a jacket or a stove or a pair of hiking boots, some companies are extending their sphere of influence to the last two steps of the product life cycle: use and disposal.
Gausewitz says, “Once a product has been made, the single best thing you can do for it is to keep it in use for as long as possible and support your customers in getting the maximum amount of use out of that product.”
‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’
One way REI is trying to maximize use of the products it sells is by helping customers repair outerwear, footwear, bikes, skis, snowboards, and more. The retailer also hosts a buy-back program, which now includes pop-up stores. The goal is to recirculate used gear, so each product gets used to its maximum capacity.
Other environmentally conscious companies are making similar efforts. Patagonia offers repair options for clothing and gear, and the brand’s Worn Wear program sells used gear and clothing back to the public.
Consumers have an appetite for it. ThredUp forecasts that the resale market for apparel will reach $64 billion by 2024, a 39 percent compounded annual growth rate increase from 2019 numbers. And in 2019, ThredUp’s report says, resale grew 25 times faster than the broader retail sector.
Some companies are even extending the buy-less approach to don’t-buy-at-all. Brands such as Rent the Runway offer subscribers the chance to rent instead of buy, touting the sustainability benefits of sharing. Swiss running shoe company On offers a 100% recyclable shoe, the Cyclon, made of beans that consumers subscribe to—returning a worn pair to be recycled in exchange for a new one.
Conscious consumerism has been evolving for a while. In 2011, Patagonia memorably ran a Black Friday ad in the New York Times with the headline “Don’t Buy This Jacket” above its own merchandise. In addition to touting the pillars of reduce, repair, reuse, and recycle, the company encouraged readers to “reimagine a world where we take only what we can replace.”
Sustainability Can Boost Brand Loyalty
Nearly a decade later, consumers are driven by a desire to protect the planet and spend wisely. Even brands not currently pushing the boundaries of product sustainability may soon feel the pressure to follow suit. Savvy, conscious consumers are holding retailers’ feet to the fire and voting with their wallets. Forty-seven percent of consumers would pay at least 25 percent more for a sustainable product, according to a 2019 survey. If companies don’t continue to evolve to keep up with the evolving definition of sustainability, they’ll lose out on the benefit.
“Once a product has been made, the single best thing you can do for it is to keep it in use for as long as possible…”
Sustainability shapes brand loyalty too, which is vital currency. “We’re seeing consumers continue to really prioritize sustainability as they decide which brands to shop with,” Gausewitz says.
Loyal customers spend 67 percent more with a brand than new ones. And sustainability is one of the best ways to forge brand loyalty: sustainable/ethical business practices are the second highest reason, after quality, that consumers return to a brand.
The top reason—quality—demonstrates the brilliance of this new, expanded definition of product sustainability: it still can be profitable. Whether it’s the $140 WhisperLite Stove at REI (and its $30 service kit) or the $170 R2 fleece jacket featured in Patagonia’s 2011 ad, you can charge a premium for a quality item—and if you’re helping customers resell used items, you get to sell it twice.
As Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard wrote in his autobiography, Let My People Go Surfing: “When we make a decision because it’s the right thing to do for the planet,” he said, “it ends up also being good for the business.”