How outdoor brands can broaden their demand

Figure: Courtesy: Collected

Major outdoor brands are taking notice of consumers’ outdoor interest. Over the last decade, The North Face has financially supported outdoor organizations through its Explore Fund and is adding an Explore Fund Council this year to invest $7 million in diversifying the outdoors.

“If you have more people who appreciate the outdoors, you’ll have more people protecting those spaces and driving business for the outdoor industry,” says Director of Social Impact Eric Raymond. “Brands who don’t get that are going to be short-lived.”

Figure: The North Face plans to invest $7 million in diversifying the outdoors through its new Explore Fund Council. Courtesy: The North Face

Skydiver Williams is part of a growing grassroots movement to widen access to the outdoors. Brown People Camping founder Ambreen Tariq joined the movement when the US National Park Service turned 100 in 2016 and ran a campaign to encourage more diverse visitors. Tariq says social media has broadened participation in advocacy, lending nuance and visibility to marginalized communities in the outdoors.

Many outdoor advocates include land acknowledgments in their social media posts, formally recognizing Indigenous people as the rightful stewards of the land. “In the US, we exist on stolen Indigenous and native lands,” says Hike Clerb Founder Evelynn Escobar-Thomas. “The myth that the outdoors are this idyllic place of white privilege is a huge misconception and misrepresentation.”

Outdoors activism is about much more than hiring diverse models for campaigns. Advocates are calling for meaningful collaborations that invest in and support grassroots communities, and a renewed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) inside brands too.

“The people that will keep brands in the business are not the ambassadors and athletes who get products for free,” says Teresa Baker, founder of the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, which now has 180 signatories including US footwear brand Merrell, Swiss sports group Mammut and outdoor equipment brand CamelBak. “It’s people like me — lazy weekend hikers who do it for fun. If you’re invested in people who look like me, I’ll buy your brand.”

Internal change comes first

Since June 2020, many brands have set recruitment and retention targets to address racial inequality in their ranks. The North Face owner VF Corporation has a goal for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) to make up 25 percent of US roles at director level and above by 2030 (this stood at 15 percent in 2019). It also implemented a Racial Equity Council and began unconscious bias training. “If you look at the history of outdoor brands and the athletes they’ve supported, it’s a lot of white men,” says Raymond. “We’re doing more than most but it’s still not enough,” acknowledges senior director of brand communications Amanda Calder-McLaren. Patagonia, another of the biggest outdoor brands, says it is working on diversity and inclusion, but declined to give details.

“The brands doing it right have diversity on the inside championing systemic change,” says Tariq. This shouldn’t mean asking people of color in your organization to do DEI for free, adds Williams. “If you value DEI, pay for it.”

Teresa Baker has partnered with environmental activist and drag queen Pattie Gonia and The North Face’s first adaptive athlete and DEI strategist Vasu Sojitra for her latest training series. The three-part series — which is delivered virtually with ASL interpreters — will help outdoor brands move beyond tokenism. After the training, brands will receive a list of 150 organizations and people to support. “We’re trying to lift as we climb,” says Pattie Gonia.

Working with specialists such as Teresa Baker provides reassurance. “Brands don’t know where to begin,” she says.

“They don’t want to say the wrong thing but they must move beyond that fear to do this work.”

Collaborations guided by community needs

Through its Explore Fund, The North Face has supported grassroots organizations including Paradox Sports (which engages and supports adaptive climbers), Greening Youth (which connects underrepresented youth to the outdoors and careers in conservation), and Outdoor Afro (which creates safe spaces for Black people in the outdoors). Collaboration also has the potential to include merchandise: LA intersectional womxn’s organization Hike Clerb recently created a hiking kit with Nike and a T-shirt with Everybody.World.

“We need to move away from one-size-fits-all marketing solutions and tailor activations to the needs and demands of the community,” says Hike Clerb’s Escobar-Thomas.

Brands can offer resources and reach, much needed by affinity groups, says Williams.

“Everything takes money — a lending library or gear closet, organizing safe hikes for marginalized people who may have experienced harassment in the outdoors, making a film about an athlete’s goal. Brands can offer concrete skills, social capital and connections. Maybe you can’t offer startup costs, but you could offer mentorship.”

Authentic brands look beyond optics and build collaborations around communities’ needs. Sojitra turns down campaigns that seem tokenistic.

“What are you doing for Brown and disabled communities besides putting me in a campaign?” he asks. An example of tokenism might be a brand that reaches out on the first day of Black History Month or Pride Month without evidence of past commitment to diversity, says Pattie Gonia. “If your CEO isn’t willing to work with me, that’s not a partnership. Any partnership I sign includes corporate donations at least matching what I get paid.”

Ollie Olanipekun, Co-Founder of London-based birdwatching group Flock Together, turns down brand collaborations that don’t amplify and advance the organization’s six pillars: building community, challenging perceptions, showing the benefits of nature, championing ecological protection, offering mental health support and providing creative mentorship for the next generation. “Brands normally want us to build on an existing campaign rather than letting us tell our own story. We won’t be their poster boys, we want them to give back to the community,” he says.

London-based birdwatching collective Flock Together plans to expand internationally and develop an after-school and weekend program for the next generation.

How should brands approach these collaborations?

“Ask, don’t tell. Be open to criticism and new ways of working,” says Flock Together’s Olanipekun. This means moving beyond brand competition and exclusivity clauses. “The lack of diversity in the outdoors is a longstanding issue, so it’s multi-faceted,” adds Co-Founder Nadeem Perera. “There’s so much to be done, one brand can’t do everything.”

Active allyship spans every step from equal pay to monitoring backlash, notes Ambreen Tariq, who has been paid less for ambassador roles than her white counterparts. “When a brand shares my story on their channel, there’s often violent, racist and xenophobic backlash. It’s hurtful to work with brands who stay silent.” Sojitra agrees: “We want to see these brands standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us on the frontline, taking the trolls and rubber bullets collectively.”

Products that encourage participation

Behind the scenes, brands can consider investment in inclusive product ranges, from gear for adaptive athletes to plus-size clothing for casual hikers. Tariq has struggled to find clothing that shows her personality, rather than the “pink it and shrink it” approach historically applied to women’s outdoor gear or the khaki and brown favored for men. “Brands are starting to embrace more colors, which is important because it represents diverse lifestyles and expressions beyond the status quo,” she says.

Jenny Bruso, Founder of body-liberating outdoor community Unlikely Hikers, is currently testing how accessible Eddie Bauer’s sleeping bags and tents are for plus-size people, and recently co-designed a size-inclusive trail shoe with Merrell. Most Merrell shoes stop at a US women’s 11 and men’s 13, but the Unlikely Hiker x Merrell shoe runs to a women’s 13 and men’s 16, with wide options available in every size and a gender-neutral colorway.

For the last year, Bruso has also been consulting with Gregory on backpacks for plus-size hikers. The 21-piece collection is adjustable from 2X to 6X (most backpacks stop at XL) and will be available this spring. “A lot of brands make one or two plus-size pieces, but this is almost the whole range,” says Bruso. “With social media, things have to progress faster. I see the desire for plus-size products everyday. A lack of access to gear that will make outdoor adventures more comfortable and safer sends a message that a person is not welcome. It’s hard not to internalize that message.”

Canadian photographer Marielle Elizabeth Terhart — who promotes sustainable and inclusive fashion to her 46,000 Instagram followers — has experienced this firsthand. “Where I live, it’s winter for six months each year. I need a raincoat whether I’m hiking or getting my mail,” she says. “Traditional outdoor brands cap at a 3X, which is a US 22-24. A few smaller brands go to a 6X. It still leaves a lot of people out in the cold. Established brands have the money to offer more sizes and they say their goal is to get more people outdoors. It feels like a choice not to be inclusive.”

“This is not something we can tackle as a diversity issue or marketing initiative,” says Escobar-Thomas of Hike Clerb. “It’s a long game that requires investment in communities on the ground, and accountability inside brands.”