‘We have to organize like the NRA’: outdoor industry takes on Trump | Environment

One morning in early December, about 50 employees of the outdoor brand Patagonia gathered in front of a projector screen in a building on their Ventura, California, campus. A scene they had expected, but that nevertheless seemed surreal to them, unfolded on television: Donald Trump announced he was shrinking two national monuments in Utah. After he had finished, staff did a final legal review of a webpage they had prepared earlier and published it.

On Patagonia’s site, the words “The President Stole Your Land” appeared in large white letters against a black background.

“We were flattered with how viral it went and how provocative it ended up being,” said John Goodwin, brand creative director for Patagonia.

On Thursday, Patagonia lobbed another volley in the fight for public lands: that message reappeared on the Patagonia homepage, with the addition of “and You Were Lied To”. An accompanying blogpost calls the monument reductions “deliberate and directly influenced” by the energy industry.

In a lot of industries, mixing business and politics so blatantly might seem taboo. But when it comes to America’s protected landscapes, outdoor companies have determined that the benefits far outweigh the risks and launched an unprecedented effort opposing the Trump administration. In the face of efforts to open up public land to mining and drilling, big outdoors has begun to flex its muscles.

“What we have to do as an industry,” said Peter Metcalf, the founder and recently retired CEO of the climbing company Black Diamond Equipment, “is organize in the same way that the NRA and the right-to-lifers have, and make public lands a primary, binary voting issue.”

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The outdoor industry, like many others, is confronting the emerging reality that under Trump, US consumers are looking more and more to brands to take a stand. To the extent that companies are adopting more radical positions than they have historically, “that’s probably a direct reflection of the radicalism, in the other direction, of the Trump administration,” said Marina Welker, associate professor of anthropology at Cornell, whose research focuses on the ethical relationship between business and society.

This has perhaps been most publicly visible in the gun debate, in which even generally conservative companies such as Walmart are taking action that goes against the administration. That debate has also made ripples in the outdoor industry: in early March, REI put a hold on orders from Vista Outdoor, a supplier that owns brands including the water bottle and hydration-pack manufacturer CamelBak but earns the bulk of its profits on guns and ammunition.

For companies like Patagonia and REI, whose employees and customers tend to share the “crunchiness” associated with conservation values and a passion for the outdoors, coming out strongly against the administration’s attacks on public lands was a natural next step. What’s more surprising, however, is the unified way the whole sector has mobilized. Companies that have long been engaged with these issues have turned up the volume on their advocacy, while companies that hadn’t previously taken a strong stance have begun reaching out to their customers.

“For our industry, it didn’t take a lot of discussion,” said Amy Roberts, executive director of Outdoor Industry Association, which represents more than 1,200 outdoor businesses. The fact that the outdoor industry can now make an economic argument for the value of public lands – a recent report from the Outdoor Industry Association says the outdoor recreation economy generates $887bn a year – has also increased its political clout.

The first sign that the industry was mobilizing in a serious way came shortly after Trump was elected. With the backing of prominent brands including Patagonia, REI and the North Face, the Outdoor Retailer trade show pulled out of its longtime home in Salt Lake City following an unsuccessful effort to convince the Utah governor, Gary Herbert, to reconsider his position on multiple public lands issues.

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Patagonia has sued the administration over the reductions of Utah national monuments. Photograph: Patagonia

Since then, outdoor companies have lent their support by donating money, getting the word out and, in Patagonia’s case, suing the administration over the reductions of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by about 2m acres. The North Face, Osprey Packs, Black Diamond, and several other companies were founding partners on a project to build a new Bears Ears education center. Patagonia recently launched a new activism hub, Action Works, with the goal of helping people get involved with environmental issues near where they live.

“We saw Utah’s lawmakers continue to threaten places that are invaluable to our environment, communities, and economy,” Arne Arens, president of the North Face, said in a statement. “When it came to taking a stand on Bears Ears last year,” he explained, “we were most worried about ramifications if we didn’t do something.”

The decision to take any kind of political stance carries risks. When Keen launched its Live Monumental campaign in 2015, the outdoor footwear brand experienced this firsthand. The campaign sought protection for five different landscapes, and the company’s support for one of them – Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands – touched a nerve with some customers.

As a producer of footwear for construction and ranching as well as hiking and boating, Keen has a broad customer base, and retailers from the surrounding region reported negative feedback from a few customers. “It blew over for the most part,” said Erin Gaines, Keen advocacy manager, though she added that a couple of retailers from the area surrounding the Owyhee did sever their relationships with the company as a result.

Yet Keen’s takeaway from the experience is one that has since resonated throughout the industry: the support far outweighed the backlash.

John Sterling, executive director of the Conservation Alliance, which collects dues from outdoor companies to fund grassroots conservation efforts, said the mobilization of outdoors companies only appears extraordinary absent its context. What’s going on is not normal, he argued. Never before has a president, in one fell swoop, stripped protections from 2m acres.

“The election and the politics that have followed have been a direct assault on the lands that mean so much to the outdoor industry,” said Sterling. “The response right now is at the scale of the threat.”