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While millions of shoppers rush indoors to their favorite stores in search of holiday deals the day after Thanksgiving, REI is once again choosing to #OptOutside by closing all 153 of its co-op locations.

For the fourth year, the Seattle-based outdoor retailer will pay more than 12,000 employees to not have to deal with Black Friday and instead spend time with friends and family. The co-op will not be processing any online orders either. REI is encouraging millions of customers and hundreds of organizations to join the movement once again.

REI once again is giving employees Black Friday off and is encouraging customers to disengage from technology. (REI Image)

And this year, in a further nod to what it sees as the benefits of spending time outdoors, REI is pledging $1 million to the University of Washington, where a center for academic excellence called Nature for Health will be established within the school’s EarthLab. The goal is to deepen the understanding of how time outside impacts our health.

Ben Steele, the co-op’s executive VP and chief customer officer, discussed the original impetus for #OptOutside, when Black Friday seemed to be symbolizing consumerism running rampant. But the effort, and the social media hashtag, have taken on their own meaning now.

“We’re actually more interested in the gap between how we think about our lives and how they look in reality,” Steele said. “Technology can either enable or amplify the behaviors and outcomes that we want or distract us and become sort of its own its own focus or its own sort of time suck.”

Ben Steele, REI’s chief customer officer. (REI Photo)

Steele said REI’s hope is that people will take a breath and take a closer look at the choices they have made either intentionally or unintentionally.

“One of the amazing things that happened with #OptOutside is people have used that hashtag and that language to signal their best days, to share their best moments. And we love that. And that’s happened 10 million times alone on Instagram,” he said. “But I think in that same level, we’ve got to stop and say, ‘How much of our time are we spending looking down at those devices, looking down at those screens versus up at the world around us?'”

Rather than just proving to friends on social media that they’re in on REI’s idea-turned-movement, people are encouraged now to think beyond the choice of whether to shop or not on Black Friday.

“We want them to think about that choice in a slightly bigger way now and to say, ‘Am I using technology to inspire and take action or am I just sort of going down the rabbit hole that is the next instagram post, the next this, the next that?” Steele said. “I want them to use technology as an enabler. The mission and core of REI has always been to awaken and enable a lifelong love of the outdoors. That happens differently today than it happened 80 years ago, and a big part of that is technology, and I think we’d be naive to pretend that technology doesn’t exist or frankly to say that technology is the enemy.”

Take a hike! And avoid the crowds of Black Friday. (REI Photo)

At the UW, money from REI will help the university build on existing work and explore new ideas. According to a news release, that could include understanding “whether a dose of nature can be prescribed alongside traditional medicine to tackle issues such as anxiety and depression.”

“We know there is a link between time spent in nature and our health and well-being. We are working to close the knowledge gap so we fully understand the benefits,” said Joshua J. Lawler, head of Nature for Health and the Denman Professor of Sustainable Resource Sciences at the UW. “We’ll then work in close partnership with practitioners and decision-makers to use this information to do things like lower healthcare costs, design better schools and hospitals, and reduce disparities in health and well-being.”

While it may seem like REI is forfeiting easy money by closing on one of the biggest shopping days of the year — and still paying thousands of employees — the co-op wouldn’t be getting ready to do it for the fourth time if it wasn’t reaping some benefits.

“I can tell you that nothing but goodness has come from the energy around #OptOutside. That is good for our business, that is good for the health of the co-op,” Steele said. “We’ve got 17 million members, a million new members each year, massive growth in that membership base since that first year of #OptOutside. All that is good for the co-op and a thriving co-op community.”

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