REI Wins Millions of Dollars in Free Advertising for Treating Its Employees Like Human Beings

rei-optoutsideIf you’ve spent any amount of time on social media in the last twelve hours, chances are good that you’ve seen or heard about REI’s #optoutside campaign. If you’re just now joining the internet (Welcome! Don’t read the comments) here’s the deal: while other retailers are forcing their employees to show up ridiculously early to work on Black Friday—or even in some cases, forcing their employees to come to work on Thanksgiving—REI is closing for the day and urging the public to spend Black Friday in the great outdoors.

As Amy X. Wang reports for Quartz, “The company knows it will lose some money by keeping its doors shut on the biggest shopping day of the year, but, as a member-owned consumer co-up, REI doesn’t need to worry about the disapproval of shareholders.” So they’re in a perfect position to zig when everyone else is zagging. And the response has been tremendous. People are tweeting and Facebooking about REI, they’re signing on to the #optoutside campaign—over a third of a million people so far have committed to opting outside, according to REI’s special site for the program—and they’re publishing stories on news sites. So basically, REI has earned millions of dollars of free, positive advertising with #optoutside for a very low initial investment.

But why did this work so fantastically well? Is it a wave of anti-consumer sentiment? Are Americans upset about our collective lack of respect for the sanctity of Thanksgiving? Sure, those are probably some reasons why individuals are sharing the campaign with friends. But a lot of the excitement for #optoutside comes from the fact that REI is giving its employees a paid day off on the day after Thanksgiving—basically the same benefits that upper class white collar workers enjoy. A chain retailer treating their workers like human beings is an outlier in America today; too many retail chains race to the bottom with low wages, part-time positions, impossible scheduling constraints, and terrible benefits. We know that a better way is possible, that chains like Walmart which enjoy record profits can be better employers. So when we see stores like REI confirming our beliefs, we want to encourage them any way we can.

It’s important for the whole economy that businesses treat their employees like they’re human beings with families, social lives, and other interests. This is why, say, anti-clopening laws are so important. If employers force their employees to work all the time, those people do not have a chance to take part in, say, school functions for their kids. They don’t get to engage civically with issues that matter most to them. They don’t take part in neighborhood events. They do not get to be fully engaged citizens. The success of #optoutside is more than just praise of a marketing gimmick; it’s a celebration of the fact that an employer is allowing its workers the time and space to be whole human beings.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.