Mother Nature means business. Words like “green” and “eco-friendly” have become standard lingo among companies in many markets – and arguably an obligation in the outdoor recreation industry. The environment is a growing priority in sustaining both business and life, and for Winnebago Industries, that doesn’t just mean awareness – it means taking responsibility.
“As an outdoor lifestyle company, the long-term sustainability of our business is really linked to the environment,” says Katy Friesz, Winnebago’s vice president of corporate responsibility.
Friesz joined the RV manufacturer in 2018. Her team was tasked with building upon its sustainable practices, sparking a newly focused journey that led to Winnebago’s first published Corporate Responsibility Report in 2019. The trend spread throughout
the RV industry, with other manufacturers such as REV Group, Patrick Industries and THOR releasing their own reports. Winnebago’s rendition unveiled an underlying goal for the company – having a big footprint, minus the carbon.
“We conducted what’s called an ESG (environmental, social, governance) materiality assessment. The main purpose was to identify and focus on the issues that we can have the most impact on,” Friesz says. “We conducted stakeholder interviews and did some research around the competitive landscape, what’s happening in the industry and what matters to our consumers and our employees.”
The assessment, in addition to tapping management frameworks such as the Global Reporting Initiative, the Climate Disclosure Project and others, set the building blocks for the company’s ESG pillars. Those priority areas have since become specific and measurable goals.
Reducing waste sent to landfills by 90% and freshwater use by 30% – including reclaiming and reusing water in all its operating sites experiencing high water stress – are two actions Winnebago aims to accomplish in the next seven years. In 2021, the company’s “Zero Waste to Landfill” target hit a 60% reduction.
The manufacturer is striving to offer eco-friendly upgrade options for all its new products. By 2030, it plans to have a Lifecycle Assessment process that looks at the environmental impact of Winnebago product lines, upstream and downstream. An alternative materials audit, product stewardship team and the much-anticipated e-RV concept are also currently underway.
“We are committed to the Business Ambition for 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Friesz adds. “That’s a global coalition of business leaders really focused on achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It’s the international community that has agreed to help us progress toward that dimension of sustainability.”
Winnebago also signed with the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) in 2021, whose Goal 13 is to “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact.” The UNGC reported global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions shrank by 5.2% in 2020 due to COVID-caused social and economic disruptions. When pandemic restrictions phased out in 2021, CO2 emissions spiked by 6% – the highest level ever.
“We’re thinking a lot about waste management and circularity. We’re thinking about our product and product stewardship, with offerings that are zero- and low-emission. We’re also thinking about sustainable procurement and supply chain – making sure that the elements in our products are moving toward sustainable and eco-aware components,” Friesz says.
The company plans to refresh its materiality assessment before the end of 2024 and will continue to set climate targets aligned with the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi).
Building the Pipeline
When it comes to having a big eco-footprint, Winnebago knows it can’t act alone.
“Everybody plays a role in sustainability and corporate responsibility. We’re really excited about partnering with others in the industry, and with community-based organizations out there to make sure we’re advancing collectively,” Friesz says. “It’s really important to be finding those kinds of partnerships outside of the industry, as well.”
Winnebago will collaborate on a panel with the RV Industry Association (RVIA) at its Leadership Conference in March to show manufacturers, suppliers and dealers that “there’s an entry point for everyone into this journey,” she says. Outside of the industry, the company’s CommunityGO teams tap employee volunteers to host park and beach cleanups, tree planting and more within their respective communities.
“We’ve had real success in harnessing the community spirit and engagement of our employees to make sure people understand that sustainability happens in real life, on an individual and community level, as well as a global level,” Friesz says.
While the RV manufacturer talks specifically about protecting the great outdoors, its broader focus is on being ambassadors for every person who wants to experience it. In 2022, Winnebago launched the All In, Outdoors campaign – its approach to hitting the S (social) in ESG.
“When we think about corporate responsibility, we think about what we are doing to advance diversity, equity and inclusion,” Friesz says. “How are we thinking about the safety of both our employees and our customers? How are we engaging proactively in the communities we support?”
Sustaining the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts is a family affair. The company recently renewed a partnership with the National Park Foundation (NPF)’s Service Corps, which works to expand the pipeline of talent in outdoor conservation. The program is a cohort- based service that connects diverse students, usually young adults, with paid work opportunities at national parks across the country.
“It’s really great because it gives candidates who may or may not have been able to access that career path as an entry point, and some real tangible experience,” Friesz says. “We’re hoping that will parlay into a more diverse talent pipeline for the broader outdoor industry.”
Other partnerships include Park Ventures, a program that bridges Winnebago with community-based organizations such as Outdoor Afro – a group connecting Black people with the outdoors through education, recreation and environmental conservation.
“Some of our evolving partnerships, based on the needs that the National Park Foundation has expressed, will look more like connecting those kinds of organizations, communities and people with different lived experiences to the parks,” Friesz says.
Winnebago’s dealer network is also an essential partnership for its ESG advancement.
“Dealers are really focused on striving to meet consumer needs,” she says. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen through various research and anecdotal that there’s been an increase in RV ownership, and a lot of new RVers are potentially younger and increasingly diverse. We’re learning that these new outdoor enthusiasts really care about the environment – they’re a new segment that is vocal about caring for all the elements of corporate responsibility. e’re keeping in mind the needs of these RV owners.”
Education for Winnebago’s employees is also necessary for the company’s growth. The manufacturer’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, Jil Littlejohn Bostick, recently hosted Earl B. Hunter Jr., founder and president of Black Folks Camp Too, as a speaker for a reoccurring series about “ideas, inclusion, diversity, equity and action” – available to all Winnebago employees virtually and through a recording.
When it comes to sustainability of all kinds, Winnebago’s priorities are truly about ethics and responsible business, Friesz says – which means evolving policies and procedures.
“Because really, corporate responsibility is about putting our company values into action,” Friesz says. “We care deeply about the environment. Our owners care deeply about the environment. It’s important to us to think about everything varying from product innovation to operational and manufacturing efficiencies.
“We have been working over the past several years to set meaningful goals and move forward in this journey, because as you know, environmental sustainability and corporate responsibility don’t happen overnight. It really is a journey – and one that we’re excited to be committed to.”