REI Puts Employees Ahead of Profit and Encourages People to Get Out and Enjoy Nature

North Park Village Nature Center, Chicago, Illinois (copyright Andrew Morkes)

For the fifth straight year, outdoor gear and sporting goods retailer REI has announced that it will close its 162 stores in the United States on Black Friday (November 29, the biggest shopping day of the year), process no online sales, and pay its employees to head out to enjoy the great outdoors.

In addition to encouraging people to bypass Black Friday, REI has launched the #OptOutside movement, which not only seeks to get people outside, but also encourages to live more sustainable lives and clean up the outdoors, not only on Black Friday, but throughout the year. At its website, it offers 52 weekly actions that you can take to help make the world a better place.

I applaud REI’s move, but acknowledge that naysayers may believe this announcement is at least partially intended to generate tons of good publicity and social media buzz for the company (and increased sales at a later date). But I can’t argue with a company that puts its money where its mouth is and places its workers first and consistently acts to improve Planet Earth.

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Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, 3 states, Wyoming in this photo
(copyright Andrew Morkes)
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota (copyright Andrew Morkes)

REI’s decision should serve as an inspiration in a variety of ways. First, we should all find a moment on November 29 (or any other day) to get outside and enjoy nature—whether it’s at Yellowstone National Park or Theodore Roosevelt National Park (pictured above), a state park, or in a tree-lined city park. Too often, we spend our lives inside at work surrounded by cubicle walls and bad fluorescent lighting or in front of a TV or videogame at home. Modern life—especially for those of us who live in cities—is so frenetic that we often don’t take the time to take a deep breath and jump out of the rat race. A walk outdoors is the perfect antidote for the modern world. It will allow you to soak up the sounds of nature—the wind in the red-golden-brown leaves and the call of birds. You may even see a rufous hummingbird, indigo bunting, or bobolink heading south for the winter, and, if you visit a national park out west, you may get a chance to view the time immemorial battle between a pack of wolves and a herd of buffalo. In short, nature is awesome and awe-inspiring. Best of all, nature can heal you spiritually. Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and the author of Silent Spring said it better than I can: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

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Cap Sauer’s Holding, Palos Forest Preserves, Cook County, Illinois (copyright Andrew Morkes)
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan (copyright Andrew Morkes)

You might already have your own favorite places in nature, but if you don’t, REI offers a variety of apps and other resources that will help you to find the hiking, camping, or other outdoor activity that’s just right for you at its website. The National Park Service (NPS) offers a Find a Park tool. Here are some links to state parks and nature areas in the Midwest:

If you’re looking for some nature, hiking, history, camping, and/or activities for kids or for yourself in the Chicagoland area and beyond, you should check out the What to Do This Weekend section of my website for more than 75 popular and off-the-beaten path destinations.

In addition to enjoying nature, I suggest that we all volunteer in the great outdoors so that we can continue to improve and protect our nation’s forests, grasslands, mountains, rivers, and prairies. Your local nature center and forest preserve need volunteers to remove invasive plants (such as European buckthorn), improve trails, or otherwise help out. The NPS offers the Volunteers-in-Parks program to help aspiring volunteers locate opportunities. For younger readers of this blog, perhaps your time outdoors will inspire you to pursue a career (or transition from your current job to work) as a naturalist, wildlife biologist, environmental lobbyist or writer, or park ranger.

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Effigy Mounds National Park, Iowa (copyright National Park Service)

There are two other reasons why I like REI’s announcement. First, it serves as a clarion call to our consumeristic society to reassess what’s important in our lives—buying more “stuff” or spending time in nature (at no cost, by the way, in many settings) or doing myriad other fulfilling activities. And spending more time in nature can often translate into more quality time with your loved ones (if they join you). I guarantee you that when you die your son or daughter (or other loved one) won’t remember the Sony PlayStation you purchased, but rather the time you spent together, something funny you said, or the advice or support you gave in time of need. Some of my strongest memories of my long-gone father are those of him taking me on a hike through the hills and ravines of south-suburban Chicago, helping me to identify a cool bug or leaf, and paddling together on a 20-mile canoe trip in the wilds of upper Michigan. And even if you don’t like nature, other non-shopping-related activities such as spending time with family or friends, or volunteering, or even reading a book or painting a picture, are so much more valuable to the health of your soul than forking over your hard-earned money for another toy or gift that probably will be forgotten by next Black Friday.

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My wife and son at North Park Village Nature Center, Chicago (copyright Andrew Morkes)

Finally, thank you, REI, for providing an excellent example to other companies about how workers should be treated. REI is not new to worker-friendly practices. It’s consistently featured on “best company to work for” lists created by Fortune and other business magazines. (Of course, I don’t actually work there, but its frequent mentions on best company lists, environmental advocacy, and its ongoing committment to support its workers on Black Friday announcement suggest it’s a company that’s on the right track.)

But in many other instances the American worker is under attack through the increasing trend of hiring contract workers (which deprives employees of much-needed health care and retirement benefits) and outsourcing positions to countries where workers do not receive as high pay nor have the same legal protections as workers in America do, to name just a few disturbing trends. Let’s hope some of our nation’s other large companies move beyond being “employee friendly” in name only, and make efforts to live up to this adage. And in the meantime, put on your hiking boots, strap on your skis or snowshoes, or launch your canoe into a wild river, and get out in nature!

Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes

Interested in a career that protects the environment? I frequently write about job opportunities in environmental science, environmental activism, and clean energy in my career newsletter, the CAM Report. Click here to read a sample issue and learn more about subscribing. My College Spotlight newsletter often covers interesting environmental majors. Click here to read a sample issue and learn more about subscribing. Finally, my book, They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, 3rd Edition, provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. Click on the title to read the table of contents, the introduction, and a sample chapter.

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