#OptOutside: Stepping Off The Trail

By Jerry Stritzke, President & CEO, REI

Summit on Mount Rainier, Washington

If the past few weeks are any indication, people really want to change the holiday tradition that has morphed into too many employees forced to walk away from the Thanksgiving table so they can lure consumers into a buying frenzy on Black Friday. We at REI would rather think about how to celebrate the holiday with our friends and families in the outdoors.

I have the privilege of being the CEO of REI, the nation’s largest outdoor co-op. REI is focused on living life outside. We have more than 5.5 million members and 12,000 employees. We share a common value that a life outside is a life well-lived; that life is richer, more connected, and more complete when you can choose to make the outdoors a part of it.

It’s a privilege and an honor to be part of an organization that is about something more than the bottom line.

This year, we decided to do something about the encroaching trend of consumerism. We announced that we are closing our doors on Black Friday, paying our employees — all of them — to spend the day with the people who matter most and making it easier to #OptOutside. We hoped to spark a conversation about the healing, inspiring power of getting outside. What better time than the Thanksgiving holiday?

Announcing #OptOutside in Seattle

As I write this, 14 states have stepped up to get people into parks (several of which have waived fees). Close to 1 million individuals (982,420, to be exact) and more than 150 organizations have expressed their intention to #OptOutside — see a list of them on the REI blog. Hundreds of Meetup groups are organizing #OptOutside activities, and a dam in Massachusetts is releasing water to enable paddling. Fort Collins Brewery in Colorado is offering REI employees a free growler of beer or root beer on Black Friday. The response has been humbling and inspiring.

For me, the outdoors has been a lifelong journey, and I have been asked many times what it means.

As a child on my grandfather’s farm, it meant freedom, exploration, and imagination.

Growing up, taking trips to the Colorado mountains, the outdoors meant majesty, climbing, camping, and family memories.

As a college student, trips to the mountains represented adventure, challenge, expanding horizons, joy, snow, questionable judgment, and fellowship with those touched by the lure of an outside life.

As a young adult, the outside experience evolved to include going off-trail, solitude, dark skies, bright stars, and survival.

As a parent, the outside took a different dimension: seeing the wonder of the outside through the eyes of my child and creating memories of adventure that will last a lifetime.

And as a professional, the outside became a necessity: for escape, replenishment, peace, reflection, silence, long walks, moving water, and context for life.

Mount Rainier, Washington

Eventually the outside became the home that I had to seek out.

So becoming a part of the REI co-op has felt like coming home. Working alongside so many women and men who are passionate about life lived outside has been the pinnacle of my professional career.

The co-op is a different kind of a company: It is owned by the members and its sole purpose is to foster and support people’s passion for the outdoors. We return the vast majority (75%) of any profit earned by the co-op to our members as an annual dividend. We invest millions of dollars annually in nonprofits that build and steward hundreds of trails that allow us to access the outdoors that we love. We also introduce hundreds of thousands of people to the outdoors and teach them how to ride, camp, paddle, or even survive a zombie apocalypse.

It’s a privilege and an honor to be part of an organization that is about something more than the bottom line.

The idea of choosing to #OptOutside on Black Friday might seem radical to those who do not know the heart of the co-op, but I believe it is an ideal way to make a statement about our values. It’s also an invitation to share those values and I am deeply grateful to all the people at REI who keep the co-op a lively, happy, and welcoming place each day.

I hope you’ll join us this Black Friday and that together we can start a Thanksgiving tradition that helps people go on their own journey to a life spent outdoors. Because surely the time that we spend with the people we love — in the places we love most — is what we should all be investing in.