REI Co-op recently released updated guidelines reflecting the company’s move toward size inclusivity, signaling a potential sea change in gear availability for people with bigger bodies. Beyond its own products and stores, the outdoor retailer applies its “Product Impact Standards” to the more than 1,400 brands it works with, including big names such as the North Face, Patagonia, and Cotopaxi.
The first version of these standards, released in 2018, focused on sustainability, while a second version in 2020 focused on diversity. In the third version, released in February 2023, the co-op laid out expectations that build on its foundational requirement of improving size availability. It doesn’t require brands to sell extended sizes, but it does stipulate that brands that do must also provide an extended size sample for marketing photography, any promotional materials must include diverse sizes, and prices must remain the same across all sizes for any product.
The lack of inclusive sizing in gear has contributed to and perpetuated the culture of exclusion and discrimination in outdoor activities for decades. Individual brands have made efforts to expand their sizing with varying levels of success due to surface-level commitment, failure to include actual larger-bodied participants in the process, limited selection (especially in-stores), and a dearth of marketing support.
REI aims to buck that trend and influence the entire outdoor industry to follow it. In 2022, the co-op, which does $3.7 billion in sales each year, began selling up to size 20 in its physical stores. As of this spring, each of those 181 stores will have size 18 mannequins, part of a push to consider the entire shopping experience for people who wear larger sizes. (Online, REI sells a wider range of sizes, including its own Trailmade line, which goes up to size 26.)
Research shows that more than two-thirds of American women wear a size 14 or larger, and that the plus-size clothing market is predicted to reach $288 billion by 2023, but the myth that extended sizes don’t sell continues to pervade. REI’s Product Impact Standards, developed with collected insights from retail partners and customer feedback, as well as solicited input from community partners, such as Unlikely Hikers and All Bodies on Bikes, aim to go “beyond the foundational requirement of improving size availability,” per Nani Vishwanath, REI’s senior program manager for racial equity, diversity, and inclusion innovation.
The holistic approach means working to improve language, signage, and visual representation of sizes, with an emphasis on intersectionality, especially in how REI and brands tell their stories. Notably, the co-op also plans to work with brands on understanding limitations of sales data on new products and markets.
“Customers who wear sizes outside the standard run have been underserved and often stigmatized,” says Vishwanath. “The audience is there, but it takes time to build the foundation of trust and understanding that is needed to connect with them.”
Customers will need to pack a little patience: The document lists spring 2024 as the deadline for implementation of the standards. Brands have an additional year to implement the other new requirement in the latest update: Each brand that produces headwear of any sort—helmets, hats, headbands, balaclavas, hijabs, and more—must ensure an inclusive assortment for a variety of hair types, including higher-volume and textured hair.
But long term, REI’s Product Impact Standards give reason for optimism: Vishwanath reports that since the 2020 update, REI saw a 12 percent average improvement in the four DEI-related standards across the 1,400 brands with which it works. And implementation of well-researched standards to such a large swath of the industry brings hope for the trickle of high-quality, extended-size outdoor gear to turn into a deluge.
Naomi Tomky Naomi Tomky’s award-winning food and travel writing has been published by the New York Times, Food & Wine, and Travel + Leisure. She is the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Book.