Outdoor and sports companies warming to 'carbon neutrality'

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

GAIL KINSEY HILL
Sports roof-rack king Yakima vows to rid itself of all carbon dioxide emissions before the leaves fall.

Outdoor gear giant REI has declared Jan. 1, 2020, the day it will become what it calls "carbon neutral."

Sneaker czar Nike and up-and-comer KEEN Footwear haven't set a date yet, but each claims a rock-hard commitment to airshed atonement.

More and more outdoor companies are taking up the fight against carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas tied to global warming and a host of wrenching environmental consequences. They're eagerly ringing up expenses, convinced they can cut long-term energy costs, create a stronger brand and broaden consumer love while doing right by the environment.

"It's not entirely commercial self-promotion, and it's not entirely intrinsic corporate virtue," said Angus Duncan, president of the nonprofit Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which promotes clean energy development. "It's a mix of two."

Businesses with a bead on CO2 emissions aren't actually eliminating the workplace pollutant. Instead, they're buying "carbon offsets," or credits, which represent investments in planet-friendly projects such as wind-farms, energy efficiency technologies and reforestation.

The most aggressive buyers -- who come from businesses ranging from coffee shops to department stores -- want to fill in their entire carbon footprint. A claim of "carbon neutrality" means a company has calculated its CO2 contribution -- everything from heating to manufacturing to transportation goes into the equation -- then purchased enough offsets to balance out the harm done.

Companies don't like to disclose how much they pay for offsets, but rough estimates put Yakima's annual contribution to environmental projects at about $30,000 and REI's at more than $130,000.

The trend has drawn controversy as well as praise. Carbon offsets don't guarantee reductions in pollutants, critics argue -- they merely give consumers an excuse to pollute more. The purchases may ease guilty consciences, but hardly alter the march of climate change, which is global in scope, critics add.

In the least, the voluntary offsets are a "worthwhile gimmick," said Clark Williams-Derry, research director of Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a think tank that promotes sustainability. Alone, however, they're not enough, he said.

"Until there's some systemic climate policy, acting all across the economy, you can't guarantee that climate offsets are effective."

The system that has evolved around the ballooning market for carbon credits adds to the confusion. Most nonprofit and for-profit companies that deal in carbon offsets follow meticulous protocols, but criteria can vary and, experts caution, some brokers are peddling projects of dubious quality.

Despite the concerns, the popularity of these carbon-fighting programs continues to grow, as does, advocates maintain, the accuracy of oversight.

Yakima Chief Executive Jerry Heinlen admits that the task of reducing the world's reliance on fossil fuels is huge and that it must be part of a larger environmental ethic. Businesses, he said, should do what they can to aid the planet, especially when their survival is so directly at stake.

Global warming, Heinlen said, "is a threat to people going to recreate."

Industry sets pace

Early leaders included ski areas such as Vail Resorts and Mt. Hood Meadows. Patagonia and Timberland also are known for their environmental credentials.

Nike took on CO2 in 2001. Now, 52 percent of the electricity used by large company-owned facilities comes directly or indirectly from renewable sources such as wind.

All told, renewable energy credits, additional carbon offsets and conservation measures have reduced Nike's CO2 emissions 18 percent over a seven-year period, Nike officials said.

The company will tackle the carbon emissions from foreign manufacturing facilities next. And, it will soon face off against another carbon bigfoot: the transportation track left as the sneakers make their way to worldwide markets.

"We have a target of carbon neutral," said Sarah Severn, who leads Nike's climate change efforts. Nike isn't ready to release a date, but, said Severn, "it won't be a long time horizon."

Outdoor gear retailer REI, based in Kent, Wash., embarked on a similar path last year when it asked Portland's Bonneville Environmental to calculate the co-op's entire carbon footprint. REI found that its eco-tourism division accounted for 26 percent of the total.

REI balanced REI Adventures' carbon output by buying green tags, a type of offset that represents investments in renewable projects such as wind and solar. The division is now carbon neutral, said co-op spokeswoman Megan Behrbaum.

Behrbaum said REI did not pass the extra costs along to customers. The company has targeted 2020 for CO2 neutrality.

KEEN Footwear, which stormed into the market four years ago with a rugged toe-covering sandal, still is finding its feet in a carbon heavy world.

KEEN makes its shoes in China, operates a U.S. distribution center in the Midwest and distributes its products internationally. It emphasizes a kinship with the environment, but recognizes the difficulties it faces.

The company buys enough wind power through Portland General Electric to account for the electricity consumption at its Pearl District headquarters. It hired a sustainability coordinator to green up its China factory, and it's on the verge of buying carbon offsets.

"The shoe industry, with the system that's been put in place, it's not clean," admitted Chris Enlow, manager of the KEEN Foundation, a nonprofit arm which focuses on conservation. "We know we're not environmentally pure, but we're looking for ways to make it better."

Yakima does the math

Toe-to-toe with Nike, Yakima's CO2 footprint resembles little more than a nail clipping. Nevertheless, with a manufacturing plant in Tijuana, Mexico, and a distribution center in Memphis, Tenn., it leaves its mark.

Next month, Yakima plans to open a second distribution center, in Riverside, Calif. Trucks will then travel 360,000 fewer miles annually -- the equivalent of 15 laps around the world -- to haul Yakima gear to retailers.

CEO Heinlen already claims carbon neutrality for all operations except those at the Beaverton headquarters. By fall, Yakima will declare itself completely carbon free, Heinlen said.

Heinlen hooked up with nonprofit Carbon Fund in San Francisco to figure out how much CO2 Yakima produced. The analysis included the electricity and natural gas used to make the gear as well as the gasoline and diesel used to take the products to market.

Heinlen learned that his company's annual carbon footprint was equivalent to that of 1,675 cars driving an average 12,500 miles a year. "It's an astounding amount of math," he said.

To wipe out that mark, he agreed to annual donations to Carbon Fund, which puts the money into renewable power, energy efficiency and tree-planting projects. He said the costs won't increase retail prices.

Independent organizations certify each project's authenticity and audits provide further verification, said Michael Stewart, a coordinator with Carbon Fund's western region.

Stewart said consumers and businesses need to account for their CO2 contribution, just as they take responsibility for their trash.

"You don't throw your garbage out the window, do you?" Stewart said. "We're trying to make carbon offsets as normal as paying your garbage bill."

Marketing the cause

All of the carbon-cutting companies are making sure that customers know about their efforts.

Yakima calls its carbon initiative Planet Payback and has launched a promotional campaign to trumpet the cause. REI devotes plenty of Web space to its environmental practices. And Keen features testimonials from customers who practice a "HybridLife: a community of people who stand up, out, and for a different way of living, expressing, playing, and caring."

For Yakima, Heinlen said, "It gets to the core of what we've been about for a long time. "

In the competitive outdoor industry, it's also seen as a way to edge out rivals.

"When, as an outdoor company, you take responsibility for your carbon footprint, customers see you're walking the walk," said the Carbon Fund's Stewart. "It gives you brand differentiation in the overall market place."

Gail Kinsey Hill: 503-221-8590, gailhill@news.oregonian.com <mailto:gailhill@news.oregonian.com>