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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Recreational Business

Air Date: Week of

Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI with host Bruce Gellerman at the studios of Living on Earth. (Photo: Dennis Foley)

Sally Jewell, president and CEO of Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI), speaks with host Bruce Gellerman about how the co-op is trying to get kids back out into the great outdoors and reconnecting with nature.


GELLERMAN: Apparently our interest in the great outdoors isn’t so great anymore. The Centers for Disease Control reports a 30 percent drop in youth participation in outdoor activities over the past decade. In fact, since 1999 recreational visits to our national parks have been on a steady downward slide. Overnight stays: down 16 percent, tent and backcountry camping have fallen nearly 20 percent. Hardest hit in terms of shear numbers of visitors are parks in the Pacific West region which is the backyard of one of the world’s largest seller of outdoor gear, REI. Recreational Equipment Incorporated is a co-op - it’s owned by its members. The 70-year-old company recently released its first annual stewardship report that aims to address the downward trend in outdoor activities. Sally Jewell is president and CEO of REI. Hi Sally.

JEWELL: It’s great to be here, thanks for having me Bruce.

GELLERMAN: The statistics are absolutely incredible. In the last decade there’s a 30 percent decline in youth participation in outdoor activities.

JEWELL: That’s true, yeah. We’ve seen a real decline especially in the use of public lands. People are getting out for activities that are closer to home and things that they might do in a day. But the activities like family camping and backpacking trips and long road trips in the car really are scaling back as people choose to do other things with their free time.

GELLERMAN: So, what’s going on? Kids are just getting to be fat and happy?

JEWELL: Kids are busier and parents are busier and I also think that technologies are becoming so good at engaging the brains of our children and perhaps ourselves that it’s much easier to stay put. Your mind is very active but your body isn’t. And what you’re seeing is increasing obesity certainly. But asthma and other diseases are increasingly problematic, and part of that is that children are getting exposed to the outdoors like they used to.

Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI with host Bruce Gellerman at the studios of Living on Earth. (Photo: Dennis Foley)

GELLERMAN: The implications of this are profound because if we are not raising kids who are used to going to the outdoors. What’s going to happen to the outdoors? Who’s going to take care of there?

JEWELL: Bingo. I think it is very difficult to expect that we’re going to have advocates for the future for the wild and scenic places or even the city parks if people haven’t been out using them and appreciating what’s there. So, if we want advocates for the future we need to be engaging children today. They are the future. And that’s also why we need to reach out across the broad spectrum of our population. Not just those families who’ve traditionally played outside and gone camping together. We need to reach out to a broader group of people that make up our population so they will advocate for these important places when they’re in the legislature or in the city councils or the mayors in the future.

GELLERMAN: Well, for you it’s even more profound because it’s really your business. That’s your customer out there.

JEWELL: I guess the good news is people aspire to do things in the outdoors. It’s still very much a part of our consciousness and part of what we need as human beings. We need nature. So part of our job as a business is to connect people back to nature, to make it easy for them. So, you don’t want to make it sound like it’s an epic journey to get into the outdoors. Part of our job is to make people feel comfortable that they can get outdoors and do things every day in the outdoors that are close to home. We have a program called PEAK, which stands for Promoting Environmental Awareness in Kids. It’s actually a backpack full of curriculum that we developed in conjunction with Leave No Trace, the environmental organization for outdoor ethics. We’ll take it out any place where kids are gathered and put on a PEAK program which gives them an introduction to the principles of outdoor ethics and connecting with nature in a low-impact way.

GELLERMAN: You have something called a gear bank. What is that?

JEWELL: In some markets across the country we put a special program of gear in place so that underprivileged groups of kids who don’t have access to quality equipment to have a good camping experience can come into REI and get outfitted so it’s packs and tents and sleeping bags and sleeping pads and stoves and in some cases clothing. We don’t want any child in the communities to not be able to equip themselves to be comfortable on a trip. We don’t want them to have a miserable experience outside. We want them to have a great experience.

GELLERMAN: You have an interesting background because you came through the corporate structure not in the you know great outdoors. You were a banker for almost 20 years. You worked for an oil company, Mobil?

JEWELL: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: Not what I would think of as your you know granola trail eating kind of a gal.

JEWELL: I started my career in oil and gas as an engineer. I would say this, that we all use hydrocarbons. And being an engineer and working for Mobil Oil I have a real understanding of the trade offs that we make when we use oil and gas. There is an impact on our planet, not only in the greenhouse gases that we produce but also in the damage to the environment that’s just inevitable when you’re going to be extracting things from the planet itself. But it’s given me a background and I think a practical way of looking at our responsibility collectively to do the right things for our planet. Reducing our consumption, taking care of our planet, trying to find ways to produce energy that aren’t so impactfull.

GELLERMAN: Is it more difficult to manage a company of the size of REI? I mean how do you make a company that’s a billion dollars in revenue a year sustainable?

JEWELL: That’s a great question. We think REI must work toward being planet neutral and of course we aren’t yet as very few companies perhaps can make the claim that they were. We think we need to set a tone not only for the outdoor industry but for other businesses in general. So, we understand now our greenhouse gas footprint, CO2 levels by every single store. We reduced that greenhouse gas from electricity by 30 percent last year by buying new renewable energy from wind and solar primarily. We are working to reduce our commuting consumption, our transportation consumption as well as recycling more. And we have goals to be planet neutral, at least from a carbon dioxide standpoint by 2020.

GELLERMAN: Sally, you like what you do, I can hear it. You love what you do.

JEWELL: I love what I do.

GELLERMAN: Why do you do it though?

JEWELL: You know there’s something about working for a co-op where you can think about how do you support this company, this industry, and nature 25, 50 100 years from now? We’re engaging young people because they’re going to be our customers 25 years from now and they’re going to be the decision makers about our environment.

GELLERMAN: Well, Sally Jewel it’s been a real pleasure. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

JEWELL: It’s my pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.

GELLERMAN: Sally Jewell is the CEO of Recreational Equipment Incorporated, better known as REI.

[MUSIC: Anonymous “Patriotic: Salute To The Flag” from ‘Background Music for Home Movies, Volume 1’ (Smithsonian Folkways – 1950’s)]

ANNOUNCER: And now, a public service announcement to the youth of America.

MAN: Hey you kids, shut off the television, and the video game, get your butts off the couch and GO OUTSIDE AND PLAAAY!

ANNOUNCER: Another public service announcement from FATBAGO, Federated Adults Taking Boys and Girls Outside...

MAN: Get off your butts and go outside!

ANNOUNCER: … of America.

GELLERMAN: A bit of satire by the Living on Earthlings…



Rocky Mountain News Article on Drop in Outdoor Activity

REI’s Passport to Adventure Initiative


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