Laura Jones, SUST Ambassador Checks In

SUST_Across_America 7-22-09

The Sustainability Across America Tour is a journey to bring the eco-movement to the people in a grassroots, human kind of way.

I’m Laura Jones, a writer armed with my curiosity, my laptop and a VW van. I’m traveling around the USA to deliver this movement from the ethereal marketing-wash to the you, the people. This is a mission to connect the dots between the movers and the shakers in this emerging economy and developing philosophy, to share the wisdom of the pioneers and to crowd-source inspiration with the powers of social media.

So far I’ve been lucky to talk to some incredible forces in the movement, to those really working to push the limits of what conventional business and politics thought possible about sustainability. What I’m discovering is a story about the fuel that fires the emergence of a new way of life, of business, and of politics. It’s about compassion, it’s about community and it’s about empowering global citizens to take the reigns and create the world they want to live in.

Check out what Kevin Hagen, the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at REI had to say during an interview, just a couple weeks into this tour.


Kevin Hagen, Director of CSR at REI

“There’s this idea that you don’t know what you don’t know – unconscious incompetence. It’s a great place to be, very comfortable,” Kevin Hagen says with a laugh. Hagen is the Director of CSR for Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI), sometimes considered the “gorilla” of the outdoor industry, although they don’t behave as such.

He’s describing a sort of “state of the union” that is the outdoor industry today as it’s collected and collaborated amongst itself in a myriad of ways, organizing into groups like the Outdoor Industry Association and the Eco Working Group, both of which are working towards a sustainable industry, improving upon everything in the big picture of operations like product life cycle, retail buildings and collective carbon footprint. It’s only been since about 2005 since the industry drew together and decided that the traditional random acts of kindness form of CSR was simply inadequate, and Hagen describes the shift in consciousness that’s evolved since that time.

“The next stage up from unconscious incompetence is that you start to know that there are things that you don’t know, you start to realize that there are things you don’t understand, it’s bigger than a breadbox. That stage, some call the consciously incompetent stage.”

This realization has hit the outdoor industry close to home, and perhaps no other industry is more closely married to the interest of the environment. Still, sustainability encompasses more than just eco-friendly materials and benign product design; it also entails a consciousness around social justice.

These are all things that the industry, perhaps under the lead of REI, has embraced and put into practice. Over the past four years, a collection of brands, businesses, nonprofits and government organizations have collaborated on progressive programs, like setting expectations on fair labor code that operate independent of local government enforcement. They’ve decided to shoulder the weight of product life cycle and the environmental impact of manufacture instead of passing it on to the consumer or off-shoring it to another’s land.

Hagen continues to describe this philosophical shift around sustainability with what I would call naked emotion – there’s no marketing spin to his statements.

“I would say that as a business and as an industry, we’re fully embracing conscious incompetence when it comes to sustainability. I think that that stage is really enlightening on one hand, frightening on the other, and it causes the average individual to have two places to go from there – denial, which is okay, it works for a while, or despair. I think the next step though, because neither of those are very good answers, is that if you’re working on something that works, and you have a good example at hand, you can move forward into a period of hope. And, as soon as you make that shift individually and organizationally, form despair into hope, you can really catch the fire and start to realize that one step at a time can start to make huge differences.”

He spends a little time reflecting on the plight of the retailer who, like many of us, is just trying to make a living. What the collective at REI has begun to realize is that both the public and their employees count the company responsible for the environmental and social impacts of products from Cradle to Cradle, and Hagen says, “I think that’s a hard pill to swallow for most retailers.”

But the revolution in the retail industry has come recently and from what some may deem an unlikely source: Wal-Mart. This July, the company announced that it will develop a sustainable product index, to assist in developing the tools that will enable sustainable consumption on a global scale.

Hagen says, “I think what’s fabulous about that is that now, no retailer on the face of the planet will be able to say, ‘Not my problem, not my job’ because Wal-Mart says its their job. That’s revolutionary.”

So that’s where we stand today, with a wholehearted acceptance that we are consciously incompetent, a battery of positive examples of things that work, and most importantly, a well of hope.

Once conscious companies like Wal-Mart and REI have set the stage, it’s like Hagen says, “We can turn the free market loose on this problem. We’ve always counted on our suppliers to amaze us, so if we give them the right direction, if we can give them the guardrails, they will amaze us again.”

Editor’s note: EcoSalon is an official sponsor of the Sustainability Across America Tour.

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.