“Climate change is, beyond doubt, the biggest existential threat facing the outdoors’ survival. We do not have the luxury to dismiss climate change as a political issue. It’s a human issue and an impending crisis that we cannot afford to ignore, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us feel.” These are the words of Eric Artz, from September 2019. Eric is the president and CEO of REI, an outdoor retail co-op in the United States with more than 165 store locations.

Most people reading this will know all about REI. But what you perhaps don’t know is that this is a company that takes its environmental responsibility deadly seriously.

As early as 2006, REI has been working hard in practical ways to reduce its impact on the environment. It has achieved its goal of being carbon neutral by 2020. REI was one of the first retailers to report its greenhouse gas emissions, and over the years it has prioritised projects like green building certifications, improving its efficiency with LED lighting retrofits, generated its own power through solar arrays at 25 of its locations, and launched industry-wide sustainability standards for products it sells. The company also recently announced that it would reduce its emissions by 55% by 2030, it will be planting one million trees as part of the Trillion Tree initiative and it has joined Climate Neutral to hold itself accountable for all these ambitions. All very impressive, but a lot of these are big, broad stroke projects that not every company is able to implement in the same way. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. One of the best places you can start in the mission to make your business kinder to the environment is getting right how you source your energy.

I discovered all this about REI via a seminar at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Online Show during which the subject of sourcing renewable energy was discussed in detail. REI is a great example, but Outdoor Retailer recently surveyed 30 members of its Climate Action Corps group and discovered that 23 of them are now using some kind of renewable energy and in total 30% of the electricity all these companies use is from renewable sources. 

How do I source renewable energy?

So, how can you go about doing the same? The first thing to know is that there are several you can source renewable energy.

1) Self-generation of renewable energy. Self-generation is pretty self-explanatory – by owning your own facilities and equipment for generating energy (solar panels, wind turbines etc), or by leasing them and having them onsite. You can also do the same thing with equipment that is owned or leased offsite. For those of us who don’t have the space or the funds for such an undertaking, then there’s the purchasing option. The first and most obvious way to do this is to purchase green power via your electricity supplier. To do this shouldn’t be difficult, many suppliers will have different green tariffs and also dedicated teams who should be able to talk you through how it works. The good thing to know is that the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s predicted price for gas over the next five years looks set to be either the same or more expensive than that of many wind and solar providers. So, by doing this you’d also be saving money as well as doing good.

2) Power purchase agreements. Another way to buy renewable power directly is through what is known as a power purchase agreement (PPA) – this essentially is a private agreement between a buyer and power producer. It’s not the same as buying from your normal supplier, this a private business arrangement with its own terms and conditions. Another option, if you are not a large business is community energy. Often multiple local parties can group together to buy renewable energy together in bulk, therefore increasing their financial clout and making better offers to suppliers.

3) Renewable Energy Certificates. If it’s not possible to buy renewable energy directly, you can look into Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) as an alternative. You’ve probably heard about RECs, but just what the heck are they? In short, when a renewable energy provider produces one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity, under federal law it receives one REC. It is essentially a certificate that says 1MWh of green energy has been produced. Think of it as a reverse tax. Instead of being taxed on your carbon, it becomes a commodity the producer can sell as a reward for producing cleaner energy. If you buy an REC, you are effectively offsetting ‘unclean’ electricity you buy from elsewhere by supporting a green producer. If you use 1,000MWh per year from coal and gas, but buy 1,000 RECs, you can in a way say you are powered by 100% clean energy.

Another thing to consider is that if you do have your own renewable energy production either on or offsite, you will generate RECs that you yourself can sell. While RECs do not stop fossil fuels being used, the idea is that they help renewable energy sources to expand, which will eventually lead to them outnumbering coal and gas sources. One other thing to know is that they are also pretty cheap, though prices can fluctuate depending on state and time of year. Not all RECs are exactly the same, so it’s worth taking some time to research the subject a little before you commit to buy any.

REI operates more than 160 retail stores with a carbon neutral footprint.

Step by step

Before you consider how you clean up your energy supply and make your business more environmentally friendly, there are several things to take stock of. First, figure out how much energy your business actually uses – this should be your first port of call before you explore the options available to you. You can then price up different options and figure out which is the best way forward. Don’t be afraid to talk to energy suppliers, many of them want the same thing as you – to reduce the impact of climate change – they are not all just salespeople after your dollar, they are there to help and give advice. Lastly, whatever you do, it’s important to keep an accurate track of the results and the process. This is important for you as a business, but might also become invaluable if you want to publicly market what you are doing to be greener. So, don’t be bamboozled, there are plenty of small, achievable things you can do to clean up the energy you use as a business.