The last time we caught up with Sally Jewell, the CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc. (better known as REI), she was being interviewed on stage to kick off the 2011 Net Impact conference, where she shared her insights into such things as using energy conservation to boost profits, and how to monitor global supply chain impacts.
Well, a lot has happened since then. Under Jewell’s leadership, REI has stepped up its sustainability profile while boasting a healthy bottom line, and as for Jewell herself, just yesterday President Obama nominated her to be his new Secretary of the Interior.
That’s touched off quite a bit of speculation as to the future direction of the Department of the Interior, especially as pressure mounts from the fossil fuel industry to allow more drilling on public lands. So, let’s take a look and see where things are heading.
REI and Stewardship
REI began life as a buying co-op in the 1930′s, when a group of Pacific Northwest outdoor enthusiasts combined their purchasing power to lay their hands on hard-to-find, high quality gear.
That combination of love for outdoor adventure with commercial smarts is REI’s guiding principle to this day, as described in the company’s website:
“…together we can prepare the next generation of environmental stewards and protect nature’s legacy of trails, rivers and wild lands for years to come. By combining the highest quality outdoor products and staff expertise in a welcoming environment with meaningful programs that encourage outdoor recreation and environmental stewardship, we will be successful in helping to inspire, educate and outfit our members and other customers—from novice to the highly accomplished—for a lifetime of outdoor adventures.”
REI and Sustainability
Customer education is just one element in REI’s sustainability track record. Volunteer conservation projects also play an important role, and the company’s greenhouse gas emissions goals include achieving “climate-neutral” operations by 2020.
Green buildings, sustainable forestry and energy conservation are also key parts of the picture.
Since the economic crash of 2008, REI has proved that retail companies can thrive, even in a major recession, while taking major steps toward more sustainable operations. In its 2011 sustainability report, for example, REI described a strategy that includes climate-neutral company travel policies with more efficient shipping procedures, among other elements. As a result, though the company expanded its stores and sales increased 14 percent from 2009 to 2010, REI measured a climate impact increase of only 7.3 percent.
In more recent actions, REI was among the vanguard of companies eliminating wasteful plastic “clamshell” packaging, and in 2011 it became a founding member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
Sally Jewell, Stewardship and Sustainability
As an outdoors enthusiast and CEO of a successful company that has corporate social responsibility flowing through its veins, Sally Jewell seems like a reasonable choice to guide the nation’s irreplaceable national heritage on a sustainable path to the future.
But we’re not the only ones who are optimistic about President Obama’s choice.
To get a sense of the early feedback we went to Politico.com, a news website that is not particularly identified with liberal or progressive leanings (to say the least). Reporters Andrew Restuccia and Darren Goode note that while Sally Jewell is a board member of the National Parks Conservation Association, she also has a background in the fossil fuel industry, having started her career as a petroleum engineer for Mobil (before the Exxon merger).
In particular, Restuccia and Goode cite Tim Wigley, President of the Western Energy Alliance, who said:
“…her experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation’s energy portfolio.”
That’s actually a pretty good sign. Despite its problematic place in the sustainable energy landscape, fossil fuel harvesting did enable the U.S. to grow its economy over more than a century while accommodating a skyrocketing population. Try doing that on firewood, and there wouldn’t be a stick of wood left in all of North America.
Now that new technologies are opening up new energy potentials, fossil fuels will eventually fade into the background, just as firewood and actual four-legged horsepower have done. They are still there, they just don’t dominate.
Under the current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, DOI has emerged as a strong player in the new energy future, for example by partnering with the Defense Department to develop more renewable energy on public land.
DOI has also been instrumental in offshore wind power development, most notably by promoting a consortium of Atlantic Coast states to work together on regional offshore wind power generation, including the massive Cape Wind project.
However, the fact is that right now we’re still in a transitional period. As someone with one foot in the fossil fuel industry and another in a more sustainable future, Sally Jewell seems perfectly capable of keeping that transition on a positive track.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.