Business

REI’s Director of Local Brand Engagement on Team Hikes, Sustainability, and the Secret to the Co-op’s Success

Surprise: It has more than a little to do with believing in your work.

In 2020, more and more brands are diverting at least some of their attention toward efforts to steer their work to benefit the greater good. But REI has been doing so since 1938, when the retailer established themselves as a cooperative company that took its stewardship of the outdoors incredibly seriously. But as consumers’ lives have grown increasingly urban and the concept of “getting outside” has expanded to include a host of activities our prior selves might have never dreamed of, from bootcamps in the park to parkour, the retailer has evolved as well. How has REI managed to stay the course for so long, and what’s next in sustainable brands? We spoke with REI’s recently-hired director of local brand engagement, Jennifer Lindenauer, to get the latest.

The Riveter: So, tell us about your role as Director of Local Brand Engagement and Impact at REI. What is a day in the life like for you?

Lindenauer: When you make many decisions from one geographical place — REI’s place being the Pacific Northwest — there are a lot of assumptions about when you go outside, what you do outside, how easy it is or isn’t to get outside. And we need to really turn that on its head. We need to understand that being outside is very different based on where you live, and help solve customer problems based on where they live. Our headquarters are outside of Seattle (in Kent), but I usually I work from home, in Brooklyn, New York, so I spend the lion’s share of my day doing a lot of video calls with folks at HQ to coordinate the program at a national level, to work with all of our shared partners, and then working with my team in the field to really start to build out a program which is new for REI in this way.

“There are a lot of assumptions about when you go outside, what you do outside, how easy it is or isn’t to get outside. And we need to really turn that on its head.”

Jennifer Lindenauer, rei

The Riveter: What’s it like to be a fan of the outdoors living in New York City?

Lindenauer: There’s pros and cons to both! When I lived in the Pacific Northwest, getting outside was going snowboarding after work, or going on a hike on the weekend in the Cascades, or spending the weekend out on the Olympic Peninsula and being in the rain forest. There are times that living in Brooklyn getting outside looks similar! There’s Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park: Of course, getting there is easy, but you have to deal with all the traffic going home, and it’s horrible. Similarly, running outside in Seattle (during bad weather) was not always awesome either. I once ran a marathon, but I had to make sure that I was training in the summer. I run and ride my bike outside in New York all the time! Frankly , I spend a lot of time outside in New York City just getting around.

The Riveter: So your lived experience makes you a particularly good fit for your job at REI. How does the role play into the company’s larger brand values?

Lindenauer: At its root, our mission is to help people spend more time outside, because a life outdoors is a life well-lived. My job is about helping to understand what’s stopping people from getting outside based on where they live, and ultimately helping them get outside more. On top of that, what we know is we need to protect the places where we want to recreate outside. And you’re not willing to fight for a life outdoors if you’re not spending time outside, it’s all interconnected.

The Riveter: To that point, what should consumers be asking of brands in the sustainability space? How can we vote with our dollars?

Lindenauer: I’ve worked in this space for many years and when I first started, it was like an anomaly to find a brand that had values that they shared or had a strong mission. If they had it, they’d probably didn’t talk about it all that much. The landscape has really changed, and especially regarding millennials, they really have a different expectation of the brands that they support. They’re really looking to choose brands that stand for something, that give back, that have a value to society. Those beliefs force businesses to behave differently.

“Millennials have a different expectation of the brands that they support. They’re really looking to choose brands that stand for something, that give back, that have a value to society. Those beliefs force businesses to behave differently.”

jennifer lindenauer, REI

The Riveter: REI walks the walk, but it’s also a great business success story. What advice would you give to founders looking to follow in REI’s footsteps?

Lindenauer: The line is very direct. To spend time outside, there have to be places you want to go, and we have to protect those places. The other priority for us is around sustainability. As the largest national consumer outdoor retailer, we have an opportunity to help set the standard for the industry. So we take that on ourselves very seriously, whether it’s about the products we make and our own product levels of sustainability, our packaging, or our facilities. We also ensure that the brands we sell meet certain product sustainability standards as well. We can’t escape climate change. I haven’t been in a room in the last couple of weeks that hasn’t talked about the koalas or the kangaroo. It’s just omnipresent. 

“We can’t escape climate change. I haven’t been in a room in the last couple of weeks that hasn’t talked about the koalas or the kangaroo. It’s omni-present.”

– Jennifer lindenauer, REI

The Riveter: Indeed. Any happy news to share?

Lindenauer: One of the things that REI did well before my time was The Opt Outside Project, which was just so awesome. And that was based on the idea of shutting our store doors on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, and encouraging people to opt outside. It’s been a huge success story for us. This year, what’s exciting about the #OptOutside campaign is that this year it’s about Opt to Act. It’s not just “go outside,” it’s “go outside and leave it better than we found it.”

The Riveter: What can individual folks do in their spare time to make small changes everyday?

Lindenauer: On the Opt to Act website we have a program called “The Opt To Act Plan: 52 Simple Weekly Challenges for a Year of Action”. Each week, there is something you can do as the consumer to change your behavior. Things like: “Call your utility companies to ask about green energy options.”

The Riveter: You’ve been at REI for a little over a year. What’s it like to work there? Is there anything that you have found surprising or notable?

Lindenauer: On my very first day we went on a hike.

The Riveter: Amazing.

Lindenauer: A team-building camping trip activity followed. We earnestly try and create a culture around spending time outside. We also have an internal mantra called the Co-op Way, which is a set of principles based around our values. Some of the ones that I think a lot about are “We fight for life outdoors. We’re better together. We’re here to do the best work of our lives”.

The Riveter: And how do you implement them?

Lindenauer: It’s easy at work to think about things from your own perspective — no matter where you work.  As we as an organization continue to, at a greater and greater level, adopt these values and practice them, it creates permission to behave that way in the greater good. Oftentimes I’ll see people send an email about a hard subject and a suggestion on how to do things differently, and they’ll sign it “better together,” and I think that’s amazing. 

The Riveter: You’ve had such an interesting career, both at REI and beyond. What do you think is the biggest factor that’s contributed to your success?

Lindenauer: My career has been a zigzag. If you look at it, you’re like how’d you get from here to there? The through line for me has been purpose, and what that has meant for me as an employee is that no matter where I work, I can really bring passion to what I do. 

But another thing I’ll highlight, is that in my very first job I went door to door for this amazing organization called PIRG that has an organization all over the country. And ultimately, in that very first job, as you can imagine — knocking on a stranger’s door, interrupting them from watching television or eating dinner, and asking them to write a check to someone they didn’t know for something they’d never heard of, and that they hadn’t planned to spend money on — taught me a lot about communication and people. It taught me about understanding how to frame a problem and give people a solution and an opportunity to do something good. Sometimes you’ve just got to ask, and, shockingly, sometimes people will say yes.