REI: North Face Sweatshops are the Real #CampingFail

By Max Silva, Santa Clara University Student

Recreational Equipment, Inc., better known as REI, is one of the largest outdoor sports retailers in the country. Started in 1938 by a group of environmentalists, it was structured as a co-op so that members could be involved and invested in the success of the company. For just $20 lifetime membership fee, you can become an REI member and – in theory – participate in the decision-making processes and have a say in the future of the company.

But in recent years, REI has slowly begun to change. They veered from their policy of hiring from within, and brought in outside Jerry Stritzke, the well-known corporate CEO of Coach. They’ve started changing long-term policies that were once their biggest draws, and allegations of sexist practices in promotions have surfaced more and more frequently. They’ve moved away from carrying simple and functional camping gear, and now stuff their massive stores with trendy apparel and accessories.

REI’s biggest apparel cash cow in The North Face, a brand owned by the world’s largest producer of branded apparel, VF Corporation. In 2012, VF Corporation was responsible for the deaths of 29 workers when one of their factories in Bangladesh caught fire. Unfortunately, VF Corp was able to continue with business as usual because of a lack of public pressure – until now. The Rana Plaza collapse in April of 2013, which resulted in the death of 1,100 Bangladeshi garment factory workers, brought international attention to conditions in the country. In-depth investigations showed that VF was operating equally unsafe and unstable factories in the country. Any of the 91 factories where they produce could easily become the next Rana Plaza or Tazreen Fashions. That’s 190,000 workers putting their lives on the line every day.

So when brands began signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement between brands and unions that requires brands to repair their unsafe factories, did VF step up and join? Absolutely not. In fact, not only did they decline to join, they became a part of a corporate smokescreen called the Alliance, designed to fool consumers into believing VF was reforming without actually making changes.

As a student group, many of our members frequent REI stores. When we discovered that REI was carrying North Face apparel produced in these exact factories in Bangladesh, we wrote to them asking the co-op to drop The North Face products until VF Corporation signed the Accord. REI declined to respond. As a result, students and members are mobilizing across the country to let REI know that, as a co-op, they are accountable to their members.

Is this as a result of REI’s new leadership? Maybe. It could also be because REI recently hired a new CFO, Eric Artz, who spent 17 years working at The North Face/VF Corp. REI is choosing to stick with its corporate buddies over members like me (a member for six years) who are genuinely concerned about who the co-op is associating itself with.