“The pledge has been signed by over 400 CEOs from companies—including AIG, Best Buy, and Alaska Airlines—in a wide range of industries and they have taken dozens of actions toward improving their company cultures since signing on.
Specialty retailers like Wylder use a lot of brand-provided imagery on their websites, and so a brand that uses all-white, super-thin models isn’t doing so in a vacuum; it’s affecting the presentation of its product far beyond the reaches of its own catalog.”
When REI started planning out its strategy for its ongoing “Force of Nature” initiative, it didn’t take long to realize how far behind the seemingly progressive outdoor industry has been when it comes to equal representation in advertising: There are so few stock images of women outdoors—especially non-thin, non-white, non-cisgender women—it was a challenge just to pull together mockups of what they wanted to achieve.
“We literally couldn’t find representation of women and people of color in the outdoors,” says Laura Swapp, REI’s director of experience marketing . “That was really the first ah-ha moment for us.”
It wasn’t hard at all, though, to find women who had stories to tell.
So, since last year, REI has made a point of showcasing women of all colors, sizes, abilities, and orientations in its
Co-op Journal, catalogs, and advertising, executing the industry’s largest effort thus far to show people who have previously never seen themselves reflected in advertising.
Force of Nature’s impact was apparent almost immediately. Anecdotal evidence of happy customers aside, REI’s women’s business grew by 20 percent in 2017, and its girls’ business grew by 30 percent, even though there were no Force of Nature marketing efforts targeted directly at young girls. “Our women’s business continues to outpace our men’s,” Swapp says. “And that wasn’t the case before Force of Nature.”
MAKE THE PLEDGE
The question we need to be asking, REI seems to have discovered, isn’t why the outdoors is lacking enthusiasts who don’t look like the stereotypical white, bearded, beflanneled mountain man who often appears in aspirational ads for gear brands. The question is, why aren’t we doing a better job of elevating the people who are already showing up?
This basic question is at the root of the debate over diversity initiatives in the outdoor industry. Outdoor publications such as this one analyze the situation and receive a flood of feedback that often falls into two camps: The first being that we’re not making enough progress, and the second being that we’re not talking enough about the progress that’s already been made.
“It speaks to the fact that, up to now, we’rennot really working together on this,” says Gareth Martins, director of marketing at Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). “I see the things that are happening, but I don’t think I see that much diversity on the trade show floor. But nobody’s not telling the truth—we’re all seeing it from our own perspective.”
Martins says he wants to see more C-level leaders sitting in the audience at diversity conversations at Outdoor Retailer. He also thinks the industry would benefit from a pledge targeted at hiring more people of color, similar to the way Camber Outdoors’ CEO Pledge has encouraged brands to pay more attention to hiring women. As part of a series of events based around intersectionality at Outdoor Retailer, Camber will hold an invitation-only workplace equity working group to discover a potential evolution of the CEO Pledge, Executive Director Deanne Buck says. On day one of the show, Camber will also host a conversation on the show floor called “Breaking a Paradigm: Why Focusing on Women is Not Enough.”
An example of this type of pledge is the CEO Act!On For Diversity and Inclusion pledge, which was created last fall by a group of CEOs spearheaded by Tim Ryan from accounting firm PwC, to foster Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts among the world’s leading corporations. The pledge has been signed by over 400 CEOs from companies—including AIG, Best Buy, and Alaska Airlines—in a wide range of industries and they have taken dozens of actions toward improving their company cultures since signing on. Aerospace Corporation, for example, has created unconscious-bias training for its managers, which has led to more participation in recruiting events run by organizations with diverse pools of talent. Recruiters now offer on-the-spot letters of intent to promising candidates at events such as conferences for the National Society of Black Engineers.
Alliant, another CEO Act!On signatory, has created an alternative workweek for employees to work half days every other Friday, which helps parents schedule doctors’ appointments for themselves and their children without having to take vacation time. And Alcoa, which manufacturers aluminum products, realized that the 12-hour shifts at its location in east Iceland were prohibitive to women returning to the workforce from maternity leave, and has found success in recruiting and retaining more women since moving to eight-hour shifts.
CEO Act!On is open to all companies, though outdoor brand participation is minimal thus far if it exists at all. But Martins feels there should be nothing stopping brands from making their own pledges. The outdoor industry has already been successful with such efforts:: Protect Our Winters, for example, can garner hundreds of CEO signatures for letters and commitments surrounding climate initiatives. After President Donald Trump backed out of the Paris Agreement, more than 2,700 business leaders and elected officials signed a pledge agreeing to uphold the terms of the agreement on their own. The “We Are Still In” pledge website holds signatories accountable by sharing stories of ways they’ve reduced their footprints since signing. And in April, The North Face announced a commitment to equal representation in advertising, called the Move Mountains Campaign, and will partner with Girl Scouts of the USA to create new adventure badges.
“We have a long ways to go, but there have been some wins,” says Yoon Kim, founder of Blogs for Brands. Big ones, too, he argues. He praises REI and the Canadian retailer MEC for making its customers part of the diversity conversation without first asking for their permission to join in. MEC’s initiatives to increase diversity and representation were unpopular at first, he said, but eventually its customer base got used to the changes and profits increased as more people felt welcomed.
Kenji Haroutunian, a consultant and former Outdoor Retailer show director, made the same observation. He noticed a similar transformation at Adventure 16 when he worked there in the 1990s. A16 had traditionally been the dirtbaggiest shop around. But then the management told employees to literally clean up their act—as in, maybe wear a button-up instead of coming to work fresh off the trail, and focus more on customer service. While it irked the core, sales ultimately increased and the shop’s base widened.
That connection with customers is invaluable, Haroutunian says, and it’s why gear manufacturers are increasingly putting up their own retail shops and starting events. prAna’s Boulder flagship offers free yoga every day of the week; Fjällräven created its Classic series to be new backpackers’ first outdoor mentor; Cotopaxi created Questival to encourage folks to seize adventures within their own backyard. The list goes on.
“REI used to put stores in faraway warehouse districts, way off the beaten path,” Haroutunian says. “They’d pack them high with mid-grade merchandise, and weren’t service-oriented. They’ve since completely changed their real estate strategy and approach to diversity and inclusion. They have been the one company I can name that has really pushed the envelope on that.”
FIND A PARTNER
Diversity-focused outdoor groups are flourishing, and they’re about way more than just getting more people from a specific population outside. Take Outdoor Afro, for example. It’s often lauded as an organization that works to get black hikers out on the trail. But it’s also a business that has hired talented employees and prepped them for outdoor industry careers, introducing high-performing candidates into the applicant pool.
“We absolutely have to keep up the pressure. I don’t want to seem like, we’ve done this great work, and that’s enough,” says Rue Mapp, CEO and founder of Outdoor Afro. “At the end of the day, we need to remember that a lot of what has happened is born out of relationships, and people being committed to those relationships.”
Smaller, independent retail shops face far more challenges and can’t be expected to lead the charge with the same financial power as a company like REI, Haroutunian says. You know—you’re juggling keeping the shop open with hiring new staff, attending trade shows, managing inventory, helping customers, and trying to get out on the trail yourself, too. Every day is a marathon.
There are, however, many subtle yet effective ways specialty retailers can not just join in but lead the conversation, say Jainee Dial and Lindsey Elliott, founders of online retailer Wylder Goods, which focuses on women. Wylder Goods has attracted a diverse customer base of women who want to know where their stuff comes from, who want to support brands that mean something, and who want to trust that the companies they support are being socially responsible.
Dial and Elliott have curated a web journal filled with the voices of women who have wildly different experiences with the outdoors. They don’t pretend to be experts on subjects on which they have no authority—they’ve hired others to tell stories of their own experiences instead. And behind the scenes, they have conversations with brands about the sizes they carry and the models they use. Specialty retailers like Wylder use a lot of brand-provided imagery on their websites, and so a brand that uses all-white, super-thin models isn’t doing so in a vacuum; it’s affecting the presentation of its product far beyond the reaches of its own catalog.
The sheer lack of diversity in images is pervasive in media, too. Many small and web-only publications don’t have big photo budgets, so they use stock and brand-provided images.
Swapp says REI is looking into making its database of Force of Nature images open to public use, so long as it owns the necessary rights for a significant number of images. Like Wylder, REI also pushes its brands to increase size runs. One of the greatest criticisms of the outdoor industry is that plus-sized gear is an inferior afterthought, if it’s available at all.
“In terms of what we learned [from Force of Nature], by far, the largest criticism was around sizing and our lack of extended sizes,” Swapp says. This year, REI’s primary Force of Nature focus will be to bring in more sizes. If brands thoughtfully design and produce extended size runs, they’ll sell it, she says.
Retailers can also pressure their suppliers to practice cultural responsibility. “Southwest-inspired” designs riffing off sacred Navajo symbols are rampant in outdoor clothing and gear, and Len Necefer, founder of Natives Outdoors, says he can spot fakes a mile away.
Through Natives Outdoors, he’s working to give power back to Native communities.
Necefer praises MEC for thoughtfully approaching native-inspired gear and apparel to avoid culturally appropriating native art and designs. Natives Outdoors ensures that the artists will retain the copyrights to their designs, as well as see a chunk of the profits.
“Companies go through so much effort to ensure that they don’t infringe copyright but the same effort isn’t used with Native designs,” Necefer says. “When those designs are not given the appropriate recognition, you’re effectively taking away one of the direct sources of revenue for a lot of Native communities.”
The result? All of these individual efforts are adding up, big time. “It’s absolutely incredible
how much growth we’ve seen on this front,” Dial says. “There are small groups and communities forming that are basically saying, we’re not going to wait around for an entire industry to catch up.”
Kassondra Cloos is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado. Her work has appeared in Backpacker, The New York Times, Elevation Outdoors, 5280, Outside Online, SNEWS , Gear Institute, and Travel Channel, among other outlets. She has a slight obsession with snail mail and no longer backpacks without an insulated bottle full of ice cream.