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Outdoor brands are speaking up for national parks during the government shutdown. It’s a good business move.

You can’t have an outdoor industry without the great outdoors.

The outdoor apparel and accessories company Columbia Sportswear is the latest company to become political.
Columbia Sportswear/Facebook

On Friday, January 11, Columbia Sportswear, an outdoor apparel and accessories company based in Portland, Oregon, took out a full-page ad in several newspapers around the country to blast the partial government shutdown (now the longest in US history). The shutdown — which boils down to the fight over spending on a border wall, has affected people’s livelihoods and safety, as well as the nation’s bottom line. It’s also had a devastating effect on national parks.

“Make America’s parks open again,” Columbia Sportswear’s message read, riffing on President Trump’s campaign slogan. “Walls shouldn’t block access to parks, and federal workers shouldn’t be left out in the cold. Work together to open our parks.”

The message, on behalf of CEO Tim Boyle, was posted to the brand’s Twitter and Instagram accounts too.

During the shutdown, national parks have limited staff, which allows troves of visitors to wander unsupervised and leave trash cans and bathrooms with no one to clean them. White Sands in New Mexico has been temporarily closed, while California’s Joshua Tree was partially closed for a short time as visitors wreaked havoc. Parks including Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah, Zion, Big Bend, and Death Valley are still open and struggling through major sanitary and safety issues.

Foundations are attempting to raise money for park repairs, volunteers are cleaning up the land, and some rangers are taking care of the parks paycheck-free. Still, experts believe it could take years to repair the damage the parks are experiencing.

“During the 80 years [Columbia Sportswear has been in business] I’ve never seen our national parks treated with the level of disrespect that’s being shown during the federal government shutdown,” Boyle tells Vox in an email. “To leave the parks open but understaffed is a blatant disregard for our natural treasures.”

Columbia Sportswear isn’t the only outdoor brand speaking up on behalf of national parks in response to the shutdown. The North Face has been using the hashtag #WallsAreMeantForClimbing, a pretty direct response to Trump. It also asked customers to donate to the National Park Foundation, noting that the care of national parks is being attended to not by the government but “through genuine human action and kindness.”

Earlier last week, the national outdoor retailer REI shared its own report on the damages national parks were enduring because of the shutdown. In a blog post from Friday, CEO Jerry Stritzke encouraged shoppers to volunteer to clean up the parks, and that he would be joining a team to do so in Washington state; he also shared that REI would donate $250,000 to restoration efforts.

Outdoor brands have been stepping up for the environment for years, but increasingly so under the Trump administration. As more companies today are becoming politically active to achieve a “woke” image, it’s a good branding move. It’s also smart from a business perspective, as you can’t have an outdoor industry without the great outdoors.

Outdoor brands have become more political under Trump

In an email to Vox, Boyle, of Columbia Sportswear, said the decision to speak up against the shutdown came down to politics, but also to money.

“We’re an outdoor company, so our national parks are tied to our business,” he said. “That’s where many of our consumers — whether they’re U.S. citizens or international visitors — use our products. As a longstanding partner of the National Park Foundation, we’re doing everything we can to protect America’s iconic outdoor spaces. When these fragile environments are threatened, we simply cannot stay silent.”

Columbia’s newspaper ad was a small gesture compared to efforts other outdoor brands have taken around national environment and climate discussions during the Trump era. Outdoor brands have said they intend to “organize in the same way that the [National Rifle Association] and the right-to-lifers have, and make public lands a primary, binary voting issue.”

For Patagonia, resistance to the Trump administration’s approach to environmental issues has become one of the cornerstones of its identity. After the president announced in December 2017 that he would reduce the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, Patagonia’s homepage message read, “The President Stole Your Land.” (The company is now suing the Trump White House in an attempt to protect Bears Ears.) After Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord, Patagonia put out a statement about the decision, categorizing it as a sign of “absence of leadership.”

Hikers explore the cliffs and canyons of the Cedar Mesa, which is no longer part of the Bear Ears National Monument under Trump’s ruling.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

In early 2018, Patagonia began pairing shoppers with environmental organizations; its promotional video showed photos of Trump as Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard said “things aren’t going very well for the planet.”

Companies like the Seattle-based REI and the VF Corporation-owned the North Face have also gotten political under Trump. Both issued email blasts to millions of customers in 2017, urging them to reach out to the Department of the Interior over the review of public lands. The North Face, along with outdoors brands like Black Diamond and Osprey Packs, also pooled together funds to build Bears Ears a new education center.

In one particularly heated exchange, brands like Patagonia, Arc’teryx, Polartec, and the North Face supported the decision to move the popular outdoor apparel show Outdoor Retailer from Salt Lake City last year. The Outdoor Retailer show had been in Salt Lake City for 21 years, and had delivered about $45 million annually to the city, but the organizers of the show decided to move it in response to Utah’s political support for the downsizing of national monuments (Outdoor Retailer now takes place in Denver).

Two months ago, Patagonia announced it wouldn’t pocket any money it had saved under Trump’s corporate tax cuts and would instead donate it to environmental groups — using that opportunity to steer the conversation back toward the environment.

“Based on last year’s irresponsible tax cut, Patagonia will owe less in taxes this year — $10 million less, in fact,” company CEO Rose Marcario wrote on LinkedIn. “Instead of putting the money back into our business, we’re responding by putting $10 million back into the planet. Our home planet needs it more than we do.”

Why outdoor brands are becoming more political

While companies like the North Face or Columbia Sportswear might be able to get away with sitting by quietly during national debates about the economy or immigration, situations involving national parks and the environment affect them directly.

“The industry is galvanized,” Alex Thompson, REI’s vice president of brand stewardship and impact, told Racked in 2017. “It’s more united than ever by what it perceives to be an unprecedented threat to the infrastructure of the outdoors economy.”

With national parks being closed, these tourist destinations are losing foot traffic, and outdoor retail companies are losing business by association. This is certainly one motive for companies encouraging people to visit parks:

Politically active brands can also win over shoppers, especially millennials. Young and cause-focused shoppers tend to flock to companies that appear to keep up with social issues. Supporting a social cause like Black Lives Matter was the message Nike aimed to portray by putting former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in its ad in September 2018. Dick’s Sporting Goods, too, got involved in the heated debate over gun control last year by stopping sales of assault-style weapons in its stores and only selling guns to customers 21 and up.

According to one study, liberal customers are more likely to spend on brands that act on social causes; Patagonia products, for example, have never sold better. Shoppers also feel more aligned with companies that express a sense of corporate identity, which might help explain why Starbucks went as far as closing down all of its US stores for an afternoon of racial bias training in April after an employee called the police on two black patrons for supposedly trespassing at a Philadelphia store.

But then again, in such a divided time, there’s always the backlash to any decision, especially when it’s political, as Nike and Dick’s had to learn. Columbia Sportswear is already being inundated with reactions on both sides. For every comment on Twitter that reads “I support @Columbia1938. National Parks should not be held hostage in a political pissing contest,” there’s a response like “WHAT AN EXCUSE TO FIGHT MY PRESIDENT! NO MORE COLUMBIA GEAR FOR US!!”

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