Outdoor gear with a side of politics: More retailers embrace activism

Why We Wrote This

Can an industry that has traditionally been focused on profit lead value-driven change? A cohort of outdoor brands are stepping into that realm, even going as far as endorsing political candidates.

David Zalubowski/AP
Visitors to the Patagonia exhibit at the Jan. 30 Outdoor Retailer & Snow Show in the Colorado Convention Center in Denver were invited to get involved in the company's action network. Many outdoor outfitters are encouraging customers to engage in environmental politics.

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This week, in a show of bipartisan support for public lands, the Senate voted to set aside 1.3 million acres of wilderness in the American West. Outdoor outfitters have long profited from the universal love of nature. In recent years, however, they have been trying to flip the script, taking an activist lead on environmental causes.

When President Trump moved to drastically reduce two national monuments in Utah in late 2017, individual companies – including some that serve more conservative-leaning hunters and anglers – became vocal about the need to protect public lands. More recently, the industry has begun to rally collectively around climate action, an issue with a sharper partisan divide. At the January Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in Denver, three of the industry’s largest trade groups announced the formation of the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership, dedicated to climate advocacy.

In such a polarized political climate, there’s certainly a risk involved. But several advocates say they hope that the action they’re taking will help bridge some of the partisan divides in the United States by focusing on shared values. “When you come across someone on a trail, you don’t think about what party they’re in,” says Peter Bragdon of Columbia Sportswear.

When Columbia Sportswear took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post denouncing the government shutdown last month, it wasn’t the result of a long deliberation.

“That one came more from the heart,” says Peter Bragdon, Columbia’s chief administrative officer and general counsel. The “Make America’s parks open again” ad came together in a few hours, as the result of what he describes as “strong feelings about something that needed to be addressed.”

Columbia was just the latest outdoor-gear company to speak out on issues such as public lands and climate change, in some cases taking on President Trump directly.

While environmental advocacy is hardly new to many of these companies, the industry as a whole is becoming an increasingly important player on a number of hot-button topics.

It’s less clear that such advocacy from retail companies actually changes minds, but experts say it reflects a shifting landscape in which both consumers and employees expect companies to offer up values along with their products, and to stake out a position of leadership on causes important to them.

“A part of what you see is this larger movement in the US, where there’s this expectation that companies will have a certain value set and will speak out,” says Amy Roberts, the executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). She points to one survey that shows that 76 percent of consumers think CEOs should take the lead on issues such as the environment, equal pay, and personal data.

‘The president stole your land’

For the outdoor industry, the first real flexing of collective muscle came in 2017, when Mr. Trump moved to drastically reduce two national monuments in Utah, in part due to pressure from some Utah lawmakers. The industry responded by moving its lucrative trade show from Salt Lake City, where it had always been held, to Denver.

Individual companies – including some that tend to serve more conservative hunters and anglers – became vocal about the need to protect public lands. And the day after Trump announced his decision to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, Patagonia replaced its home page with an all-black background and the stark message, “The president stole your land.” Whether that decision holds up is still being decided by the courts – including through a lawsuit filed by Patagonia.

Public lands are a natural and relatively safe area, politically, for outdoor retailers to focus their attention on. Outdoor outfitters have long profited from a universal love of nature. Their customers, regardless of political views, inherently value spending time outdoors. 

“When you come across someone on a trail, you don’t think about what party they’re in,” says Mr. Bragdon of Columbia.

The near-universal appeal of protecting public lands was on display Tuesday when the Senate voted 92 to 8 on a sweeping public lands bill that sets aside 1.3 million acres of wilderness in the American West, among other provisions. 

Douglas C. Pizac/AP/File
The Trump administration's 2017 decision to reduce the size of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, seen here, ignited an activist spark among many outdoor equipment and apparel brands.

More recently, the industry has begun to rally collectively around climate action, an issue with a clearer partisan divide. At the January Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in Denver, three of the industry’s largest trade groups – OIA, SnowSports Industries America, and the National Ski Areas Association – announced the formation of the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership, dedicated to climate advocacy.

A few ski areas have already been actively campaigning for climate action, both on their own and through the Protect Our Winters coalition.

“We’ve always thought that climate change was the essential problem facing the ski industry,” says Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Snowmass. It became clear that efforts to reduce the climate footprints of individual resorts would be just a drop in the bucket, but that effort could be amplified through advocacy and education.

At Aspen, Schendler notes, one of the biggest points of leverage is the high-influence, high-wealth customers who frequent the resort. “We could just run a ski resort,” he says. “We’re choosing to make them a little bit uncomfortable in order to leverage power.”

But will customers respond?

In such a polarized political climate, there’s certainly a risk involved. When retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has a subsidiary dedicated to hunting and fishing, announced it would restrict its gun sales in the wake of the Parkland shooting, there was a backlash from some customers. It’s not hard to find calls to boycott Patagonia among conservative corners of the internet, and after the company’s “The president stole your land” message, the Republican-led House Committee on Natural Resources mocked the message in a tweet of its own: “Patagonia is lying to you.”

But when it comes to advocating for climate action in general, many Americans may see it as a natural place for outdoor companies to get involved, says Anne Kelly, senior director of policy and the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy network at Ceres, a nonprofit that encourages and tracks corporate actions on sustainability.

“All companies have a vested interest in solving climate change, but for [outdoor outfitters] it’s more immediate,” says Ms. Kelly. “They’re our outdoor first responders.”

Of course, it’s not clear how effective any corporate advocacy is. A 2018 Morning Consult survey showed that consumers increasingly want companies to take a stand on certain issues. But in the same survey, a majority of respondents also said they believe they’ve purchased items from a company whose views they disagree with.

And while the numbers of the outdoor industry may be impressive – 7.6 million American jobs and $887 billion in annual consumer spending – it doesn’t have the sort of clout of traditional big-spending groups like the National Rifle Association or the energy lobby.

But the industry’s biggest lever may be its interface with such a wide swath of Americans.

That became particularly evident in the debate about national monuments. Patagonia and like-minded companies played a big role in mobilizing consumers to submit public comments. In the end, thanks in large part to that effort, more than a million comments were submitted to the Department of the Interior, nearly all of them in favor of keeping monuments intact. “That’s where the real grassroots power is,” says Ms. Roberts of the OIA.

For some, leveraging that power is proving to be good for business.

“Our business has grown since we’ve doubled down on our advocacy,” says Corley Kenna, Patagonia’s communications director.

In select instances, such advocacy may have helped to change the political discussion.

Patagonia took the rare step in the 2018 elections of endorsing two Senate candidates directly, in Montana and Nevada. Both candidates won in narrow elections, and in endorsing Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s bid for reelection, Patagonia helped thrust the issue of public lands to the fore, says Ms. Kenna.

“His opponent, who had not been an advocate of public lands, had to switch his position,” she says. “If we can build that kind of public lands constituency across the country, not just in the West, then I think we’ll make inroads.”

Indeed, several advocates say they hope that the action they’re taking will help bridge some of the partisan divides in the United States.

“There’s an opportunity to bring people together who are otherwise polarized, by being reasonable about some of these things that are shared values,” says Columbia's Bragdon. “I don’t know who can be against parks.”

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