Exit Interview: Kevin Hagen, REI

Exit Interview is an occasional series profiling sustainability professionals who recently have left their job.

Kevin Hagen served as director of corporate social responsibility at Recreational Equipment, Inc., better known as REI, the 75-year-old outdoor retailer and the U.S.'s largest consumer co-op, from 2005 until leaving the company in February. During that time, he had the opportunity to watch the company grow by nearly half — from $1.3 billion in annual sales and 3.3 million active members to $1.8 billion and nearly 5 million members.

Also during that time, REI developed its first comprehensive environmental program, engaging with its suppliers, competitors and others to address a wide range of operational and product-related issues.

I recently spoke with Hagen about his years at REI, and what he learned about making change happen. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: What was your responsibility at REI?

Kevin Hagen: I had a wonderful job. I was responsible for helping set up and execute the first real corporate social responsibility program at the co-op. That’s not to say that the co-op wasn’t involved in a lot of really good work for a very long time, but as the outgoing CEO, Sally Jewell, once said, we kind of made a conscious switch from random acts of greenness to an organized approach to sustainable business. And I had the wonderful opportunity to kind of arrive right at that moment to design that program and help lead it across the organization.

Makower: So is your job focused more internally or was it focused on supply chain or was it focused on product design? Where did spend your time?

Hagen: The whole portfolio was the big picture ­— the strategic positioning of how and where REI should be focused. It started with some consultants, Brian and Mary Nattrass, who came to REI before I did — in 2005 or so — and started getting the organization thinking about a systemic way of looking at the world through the sustainability point of view.

I picked up those pieces, helped the organization get our arms around all of the things that should be important to us. It was really about how to look across the organization for opportunities and risks that we might not have seen before because we were looking at things in a more conventional way.

Makower: What was driving REI’s need to step up its game?

Hagen: I think REI really cares and really wants to make a difference. People worked for the co-op because they want to work for something bigger than themselves. They want to be involved in something big, and they were the first ones to feel when they saw a gap between how we wanted to behave and what was actually happening in the world.

So employees were the a primary driver early on. After that, it became the members. REI is a co-op, and so the almost 5 million members of the co-op were a driver. And then it was various other constituencies — the communities in which REI operates, various advocacy organizations, and other companies in the space.

REI as a retailer has a kind of unusual space. As opposed to a brand, which has got a single identity, REI as a retailer represents all of the companies in the outdoor industry. And so I had a wonderful position of being the nexus, the hub of where everything came together between the consumer and the outdoor enthusiasts, and almost all the brands in the industry. They all go through REI at some point.

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