Sustainable Brands: A Q&A with Burton and REI

The Outdoor Industry's Playbook for Sustainable Recovery

BY Jim Cole Managing Editor
Means & Matters

Nov 9th 2020

REI and Burton are trailblazers in sustainability and the outdoor sports world. They’re also known for their generosity in sharing what they’ve learned to make their businesses, their industry, and the world better.

In this fourth and final segment of The Outdoor Industry’s Playbook for Sustainable Recovery, Burton Director of Global Sustainability Jenn Swain and Greg Gausewitz, REI’s Head of Product Sustainability, talk values, customer loyalty, and keeping climate front and center during COVID-19.

Brand loyalty often starts with shared values. How do those values translate into real action?

Jenn: We know that half of our customers say that the environment is something they think about regularly and are incorporating positive changes in their own lives when they can. Snowboarding is really core to Burton, and nearly a third of snowboarders have indicated that they volunteered or donated, particularly to climate change organizations, compared to 17 percent of outdoor participants. So, we know that really authentic sustainability—and climate activism, in particular—is important to our customer. As a brand, using our whole brand reach means helping empower our customers to take action on policy. And so, one thing that we’ve learned from recent research relates to how we can approach messaging in a way that’s most effective: How do we actually motivate outdoor enthusiasts to take action with us?

Greg: Shortly after launching curbside pickup, we wanted to hear what was on folks’ minds. The first thing that they said was “easier returns,” not surprisingly, and the second thing they said was “packaging waste. How do you minimize packaging waste?” So we’ve had to make some pivots to make sure that even as we shift our business and think about how product gets in the hands of customers, we’re continuing to honor and advance our sustainability values and really our emphasis on minimizing waste.

One body of work that we’ve doubled down on is eliminating plastic poly bags from our supply chain. We’ve been working with brand partners to get them on board with not sending product in poly bags. And so [it’s] little things like that, to make sure that when that customer picks up the product, they get the product—and they don’t get a bunch of extra packaging. That’s great for customer satisfaction. It’s also great for sustainability.

The upfront costs of operating sustainably during a pandemic can be overwhelming. Any advice for businesses?

Jenn: I won’t sugarcoat it: It is hard to measure sustainability performance in financial terms. There are certain opportunities that we find where actually sustainability leads to efficiency. There are other times where to improve product sustainability or environmental attributes might actually come with a cost in the short-term. So what we’re really thinking about at Burton is the benefit long-term: customer lifetime value— customer loyalty to the value of the brand over time as a result of sustainability. Corporate sustainability used to be seen as exceptional; it’s increasingly the expectation. The long-term risk of inaction might be greater than the short-term cost of action. In a survey that was conducted earlier this year, 73 percent believed that moving forward after the pandemic, companies really need to be prioritizing the needs of all stakeholders and not just financial reward. And that shows up in all aspects of responsible business practices. It’s a business imperative.

Greg: Look for opportunities to integrate sustainability into changes in your business. For better or worse, we’re seeing change, and as you react to these changes and think about which business models you might want to grow coming out of this pandemic or which you might want to shrink and how you want to resource different initiatives, think about sustainability. Then when you regrow the business and things start to get a little bit more steady and stable coming out of this, you’ll have sustainability built in.

How has 2020 redefined how businesses think about social and environmental progress?

Jenn: Sustainability is both about social and environmental responsibility and the intersections of the two. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, businesses seem to finally be taking notice that they need to meaningfully incorporate justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion into their practices. We cannot build sustainable companies, communities, and economies without ensuring fair treatment, equitable distribution of resources, access to opportunities, and representation. I don’t have to say this is a big wake-up moment for a lot of businesses. And I think it’s an incredibly important moment for businesses to be taking stock across all of their practices.

What first steps can a business take to incorporate sustainable practices?

Greg: Don’t try to do it alone. And two, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of really robust groups and organizations and tools that have been created to advance sustainability. One particular initiative that they’re working on right now is called the Climate Action Corps. And it’s really meant to enable brands of all different shapes and sizes—very much including small brands—to understand their contribution to climate change and their carbon footprint.

It’s much easier and more effective to join an initiative like this Climate Action Report, and frankly have a little bit of hand-holding as you go.

Jenn: Reaching out to learn from others and lean on others is incredibly important because if you try to go it alone, especially as a small business, it’s going to be an uphill battle that’s unnecessary. Especially when it comes to responsible practices, people are incredibly willing to share information, to share resources, and to help lift one another up.

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Jim Cole Managing Editor
Means & Matters

Jim lives on the Russian River, in Northern California, where wildfires, windstorms and floods have forced him to evacuate his home 5 times in the past 4 years. A fiction writer, he received the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize.

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