Exit Interview: Kevin Hagen, REI

Makower: One of the things that strikes me about the sector is how much cooperation and collaboration exists — through the Outdoor Industries Association and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, among others. I’m curious on your view of how effectively that collaboration has been.

Hagen: Collaboration is an excellent litmus test in my opinion, for how advanced or how sophisticated a company’s sustainability efforts are. I think there’s a lot of work that has to be done inside of an organization to be credible — to learn, to figure things out, to be walking the talk, if you will. But ultimately, what most organizations have discovered is that the problems and challenges and the opportunities are really too big for any one company to deal with, even if you’re Walmart, for example.

And so it really comes to collaboration as the mechanism by which some of the biggest things are being dealt with. The outdoor industry is an absolute model of that activity. Perhaps it’s because the industry is small enough, or it may be because the industry has a lot in common, all the outdoors folks and all the ways that people know each other off work. The environment of collaboration among outdoor companies has always been strong — competitive, of course, but always collaborative.

Makower: Do you think maybe it had something to do with the fact that your sector has to do with sports and teams and mountain climbing and even ultimate Frisbee, or other things where people play together and cooperate, and that creates a more participatory and collaborative environment?

Hagen: Maybe there’s something to that. I think there’s also something to the fact that the companies in the room had already worked on sustainability things for a long time. Patagonia had years and years of effort. Timberland, years of work. Nike, years of work. I think most of those companies really knew the problems, knew the challenges, but were also at that point starting to really see the opportunities: how product could be better, how we didn’t have to accept tradeoffs. We could make things better, cheaper, faster if we made them right in the first place.

And I think that they started to realize that we could work together. And they saw that the supply chain was so big that none of us was going to be able to influence the cotton supply chain by ourselves, or the polyester supply chain, or the chemistry supply chain. So we needed to work together in order to get where we wanted to go.

Next page: The difference between incremental and groundbreaking