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REI, Sales And Cold Turkey: How Some Brands Live The Mission, And Some Miss It

REI’s daring decision to close its doors on Black Friday represents the latest effort in the broadening movement of conscientious consumerism. The hitch for such organizations is balancing their desire to live a chosen mission while also making a living. How REI, Ten Thousand Villages and others do it, and why some fail.

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REI

Perhaps it was the way the sun set behind one of Colorado’s mountain peaks, or the sounds of Lake Washington on a morning kayaking trip, but somewhere along his professional journey Jerry Stritzke apparently had a vision, and it was this: Store’s closed.

The CEO and president of REI, the outdoor supply and sporting goods retailer, decided that the customer-owned company will close all of its 143 locations, and not process any online orders, on Black Friday. Instead of promoting sales, REI is promoting outside activities and urging its 5.5 million members and customers to share what they are doing using the hashtag #OptOutside.

“As a co-op … we define success a little differently,” Stritzke told USA Today. “It’s much broader than just money. How effectively do we get people outside?” (A second outdoors-gear retailer, Outdoor Research, hurriedly copycatted REI a day later, and others may follow.)

REI’s bold choice is the latest, and perhaps the most consumption-resistant, effort in the broadening movement of conscientious consumerism, through which organizations exist for purposes higher than making a buck. Stonyfield Organic, Newman’s Own, Hampton Creek and Ten Thousand Villages are other good examples. The effort has in fact gained enough traction to support the launch of a magazine, Conscious Company (whose cover this month features Hampton Creek).

The wrinkle, of course, is these organizations have to make some money to survive, so a balance is required between living the mission and making a living. Some, such as REI, Stonyfield and others, have found ways to do it well, largely by never wavering from their mission – even if it costs them profits.

Threatening the overall movement’s success, however, are those organizations that pledge to live a mission but really just cycle through them to enhance profits – think of brands that align themselves with “awareness months” and other charitable events as a way to goose up sales.

Only 16% Believe

Consumers want to believe cause-related companies are doing good, and will pay to support them, but they are not easily convinced.

Nearly 90 percent of consumers are likely to switch brands to one associated with a cause, according to the 2013 Cone Communications Social Impact Study, which benchmarked data over 20 years. Yet only 16 percent of consumers believe companies have made a significant positive change on social or environmental issues, according to the study.

REI is putting its mission where its mouth is – not only is it closing all its stores, it is giving its 12,000 employees a paid day off (a small number will be on call). REI is aware of the financial risk of this decision. Stritzke acknowledged that Black Friday is one of REI’s 10 best shopping days of the year, which could translate to millions of dollars on Nov. 27. In 2014, nearly 87 million people shopped on Black Friday, the National Retail Federation reports.

How Some Do It – Be Honest, Don’t Cheat

Sacrificing profit for purpose is one noise-proof way of proving mission commitment. Here are how some other brands do so, and how some do not.

Hampton Creek: The maker of Just Mayo and other foods was founded in 2011 with the goal of producing healthier, more environmentally friendly foods that relied on plant proteins rather than eggs. It lives its mission by constantly asking itself one question, CEO Josh Tetrick told Conscious Company: “What would it look like if we just started over?” The company quantifies whether potential products are better for water, reducing carbon emissions and land use, as well as cholesterol, before moving forward. It also is careful to hire mission-focused employees and researches the background of potential investors for philosophical compatibility (the privately held company counts 13 billionaire investors to date).

Ten Thousand Villages: Created almost 70 years ago as an outlet through which artisans in developing nations could earn incomes, this fair-trade chain now supports disadvantaged people in 38 countries. It does this by building long-term buying relationships where skilled artisans lack opportunities and then selling their handmade products in North America. These sales help pay for food, education, health care and housing. To further support its cause, Ten Thousand Villages is a founding member of the World Fair Trade Organization.

Stonyfield Organic: This New England company, dedicated to preserving the family farm, did not intend to be a business. Rather, its co-founders started making yogurt simply as a way to support their nonprofit organic farming school. Soon the yogurt was in demand, and served to prove that a company could make delicious food without harming the environment. Thirty years later, Stonyfield has introduced the first yogurt cups made by plants, it knows the carbon footprint of all of its products as it makes them, and it still trains organic farmers as part of its original mission to preserve the family farm.

These companies succeed as mission brands because they began as a purpose that grew to nourish the business. It starts at home. Some companies, however, adopt conscientious causes that serve as marketing ploys, which people can see through. Consumers complain, for example, that more and more merchants align themselves with Breast Cancer Awareness month simply to boost their October sales.

Companies with disingenuous missions are fairly easy to spot. Their statements tend to be long and packed with buzzwords (game-changer; innovators) and they are not readily backed up with results and relevant examples, such as closing shop on Black Friday in favor of promoting fresh air.

Winning customers, regardless of the organization’s mission, requires getting people to like the brand as they would a person. Because make no mistake, people choose their friends wisely, and that applies to brands as well.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, where Bryan serves as a retail contributor. You can view the original story here.

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