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REI's flagship store in Seattle against the sky. Photo by John Ryan.

REI's flagship store in Seattle against the sky. Photo by John Ryan.


At REI, Is 'Carbon-Neutral' A Smoke Screen?

John Ryan

What do Nike, REI, the Vancouver Olympics, and the Washington state government have in common? They've all promised to eliminate their impact on the climate by going "carbon–neutral." REI aims to have zero output of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide by the year 2020. But since REI set the zero–impact goal, its emissions have been heading rapidly in the opposite direction.


Mountain hemlocks and Alaska cedars shade a three–story–tall waterfall outside REI's flagship Seattle store. Inside the heavy wooden doors with ice axes for door handles, green–vested salespeople help shoppers find their way through two acres of outdoor equipment.

Salesperson: "If it's stretchable, it generally won't have much wind protection. Likewise..."

The co–op has come a long way since a couple dozen Seattle mountain climbers joined together in the 1930s.

Today, REI has nearly 4 million members. It sells more than $1 billion of clothing and gear annually. CEO Sally Jewell makes more than $1 million a year.

Kevin Hagen is in charge of corporate social responsibility for REI. He spoke with me at REI headquarters in Kent.

Hagen: "At its core, REI is about getting people outdoors, and so we want to run our business in ways that makes sure there is an outdoors for people to get out to."

So REI set a couple goals for itself in 2006. Reduce its impact on the climate by a third in three years. And go completely carbon–neutral by the year 2020. Since then, the co–op has been comprehensively adding up its impacts and reporting them publicly.

Hagen: "Our members are our owners, and our owners have a right to know."

Hagen says REI has achieved reductions in the energy used for shipping and corporate travel.

Even so, the co–op's greenhouse gas emissions have increased by nearly one–fourth in the first two years of REI reporting. That's largely because business keeps growing. But it's not the sale of outdoor gear that's the main problem.

REI operates an adventure travel business that goes to destinations as far flung as the Great Barrier Reef and the North Pole. The tourists book their own flights, but Hagen says REI takes responsibility for the pollution from those flights.

Hagen: "Ultimately, we've had to come to grips with the fact that it's one of the bigger parts of our business that has a contribution to climate change."

In fact, it's REI's biggest contribution to climate change.

Even though international air travel sends a lot of carbon into the sky, REI advertises its trips as "carbon–neutral." That's because REI pays a fee to offset the trips' emissions.

For each air mile a passenger travels, REI pays the nonprofit Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) in Portland a penny or two.

Pat Nye with BEF says the fees keep carbon out of the sky by adding climate–friendly power to the electric grid in the western U.S.

Nye: "We know that if we're putting an extra megawatt of wind onto the grid, that that is backing out fossil–fuel produced energy somewhere else on that system."

Barry Saxifrage buys carbon offsets for his family. He's an REI member and former Microsoft programmer. He lives in Victoria, B.C., where he's become a climate–change activist. He says carbon offsets often lead people to pollute more.

Saxifrage: "I don't even think this is a theoretical thing. This is what REI itself is doing. They say it right on website: we are aggressively expanding this thing, but it's okay because we have offsets."

He praises REI's transparency on climate change and its other efforts to preserve the outdoors. But he says REI's business is getting dirtier as it promotes global air travel.

Saxifrage: "Instead of being carbon–neutral in 10 years, they're going to have triple their emissions in 10 years if they keep going how they're going."

REI wouldn't disclose the size of its travel business. Judging by its 50 percent growth in emissions, it's been growing rapidly.

Barry Saxifrage points to REI's $20,000 trip to the North Pole, by way of Finland and Russia. That trip wouldn't have been feasible a few years ago, before a thinning polar ice cap made boat travel to the North Pole easier.

Saxifrage: "If REI isn't going to do it, a huge member co–op, at this point in the climate disaster is not going to act responsibly and choose the least damaging of the options around, which is to promote local travel, slower travel, then what hope do we have? It's crazy."

Hagen: "Whether you fly to the North Pole or not this year isn't going to change the trajectory that our society is on."

That's Kevin Hagen with REI.

Hagen: "And if they come home as advocates for dealing with the things we have close to home around dealing with global warming issues, then maybe it was a net plus. I don't know."

Michael Wara is a climate scientist and a law professor at Stanford University.

He disagrees with the notion that it's wrong to pay someone else to do your work, whether that's stopping pollution or cooking your meals.

Wara: "That's something we do all the time in a modern market economy. The problem with offsets is that it's just so hard to know whether the service is actually being provided, whether emissions are really being reduced, and that's just a tough problem that doesn't go away."

Wara says the offsets market has improved its transparency in the past couple years, but it's still largely unregulated.

REI says it only resorted to carbon offsets because no other options exist for reducing the impact of air travel. For context, the number–one source of greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state is the coal–burning power plant in Centralia.

REI does less harm to the climate in a year than the Centralia plant does in four days.

REI isn't the only retailer in the Seattle area with a complicated relationship with the climate.

Eddie Bauer has solicited millions in donations from its customers to plant trees. They soak up carbon dioxide. The Bellevue–based retailer has also helped sell more than a million gas–guzzling SUVs. The latest Eddie Bauer Ford Expedition gets about 14 miles per gallon.

Nordstrom says it's taking steps to make its stores and trucks more energy–efficient.

But, unlike REI, neither Nordstrom nor Eddie Bauer discloses how much carbon dioxide they're emitting.

This year for the first time, all major polluters in Washington, and nationally, will be required to report their impacts on the climate.

Under the Washington state law, companies only have to track pollution from their own facilities inside the state. They can ignore emissions caused by their suppliers or customers, whether they offset them or not.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

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