The ultimate business-to-business tradeshow for the outdoor industry in America, Outdoor Retailer (OR) is a place for brands and retailers to meet and exchange ideas. Brands design their booths to display their image as a company, as well as their ethos, through advertising and slogans. Yet many of the images remain too homogenous. The outdoor community includes a notable host of athletes and recreationists across all ages, cultures and identities, and the industry needs to reflect that reality further.
This year, OR continued to host a series of Q&A panels and lectures on diversifying business practices and audiences, promoting female empowerment in the workplace, and publicizing support for public land advocacy. We set out to investigate whether brands were openly demonstrating a commitment to diversity, accessibility, and inclusion through their messaging and their actual hiring practices. In addition, we wanted to tune into the state of public lands awareness, a theme highlighted by the Public Lands March held on Thursday, July 27.
Outdoor Retailer Show Daily Log
Wednesday (July 26)
7:05 a.m. Outdoor Industry Alliance Breakfast
The conference room is standing-room only for the industry breakfast that kicks off the Outdoor Retailer show. Keynote speaker Sally Jewell, the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, addresses the room to discuss the "very real threats facing the public lands that we love so much." In her first major public appearance since January 2017, she highlights the purchasing power of the outdoor recreation economy: "I felt that it was important for me to speak up...with an audience that is so pivotal to building a sustainable economy." Jewell points out that local businesses have benefited from their proximity to federally protected landscapes. In 2016, she notes, visitors to the Grand Canyon "spent an estimated 648 million dollars in local communities." National Parks, Monuments, and other public lands, she explains, have been "woven into the very fabric of our nation; they help shape our identity, they celebrate our history, our culture, our outdoor heritage."
3:00 p.m. Mountain Designs Booth
Australian climber and mountaineer Alyssa Azar, a sponsored athlete with Mountain Designs, tells us of her recent expeditions to Nepal, Russia and the Andes. As a very young female athlete, she says she has experienced resistance from men in her career. "I'm sure people thought 'Oh God' when [I'd] show up on an expedition. 'Can you carry a pack, can you climb?' But I always took my training really seriously, and I [know] the results will show on the mountain."
Azar sees herself as an advocate for women in alpinism: "A mountain doesn't care if you're a man or woman, and the mountain doesn't get shorter and it's not less steep because you're a woman and I quite like the equal playing ground you get to measure yourself against."
LATER THAT NIGHT, we run into Maricela Rosales, the Los Angeles coordinator for Latino Outdoors. The first time she came to the Outdoor Retailer show, she explains, "I was so overwhelmed by how white it was." She says that she never left the MadRock booth where she worked. The event left her feeling "culture shock."
Over her four years of attendance, Rosales says that the trade show has become more diverse every year. "But it has never been about diversity," she says, "It's about who you know and how you can get to where you need to go."
As a Latina, she says, "We're still tokenized.... But [diversity] is still very tough to talk about, and especially because a lot of [the resulting negativity] has do with white fragility,"--a notion, Rosales explains, that is based on the context of white people's privilege, which is inherent in the lack of racial stress for them in most social and economic environments. Fragility comes into play when the privileged become combative or dismissive as they face their own prejudices.
We also stopped James Edward Mills, author of The Adventure Gap, to talk about his experience as a person of color. "I've been attending this show since 1992," he says. "And up until a couple of years ago, I was one of four people of color. I would not have seen you here in the 90s. In fact, you also wouldn't [likely] have been here by [virtue] of the fact that you're women."
"The doors are opening and things are expanding...and that's really exciting." He expresses optimism, something he declares as necessary "because the alternative is unacceptable." He goes on to share an anecdote from when he started his career working for the industry: back in the '90s, he pointed out to his employer that there was an "entire demographic that we could sell a lot of equipment to," but his employer declined to pursue a more inclusive marketing strategy. It became clear to us that many outdoor companies had tended to restrict their target audience to the consumers they believed to be most able to afford outdoor gear and most likely to purchase it--a group that marketers had once traditionally assumed to be white men and (to a lesser extent) white women.
Twenty years later, Mills notes, "the market is indeed expanding, but major companies haven't taken the time to step up."
Mills also mentions other contributors to a growing awareness of diversity, such as the proliferation of urban climbing gyms and the deconsolidation of the market. New, smaller companies such as Machines for Freedom and large discount outfitters such as Sierra Trading Post are producing and curating gear specifically for women and those who desire a wider range of styles. In some cases the products are more affordable, too. "What we need to do [now]," he offers, "is go where people of color are, engage with them in meaningful and culturally significant ways, encourage them to participate, and the better ones will get jobs, the better ones will lend their talents and their expertise and they will lead." So when an organization asks Mills how to diversify their audience, he responds: "Diversify your offering."
Thursday, (July 27)
10 a.m. "Public Lands Advocacy in the Age of Social Media" Q&A
The Public Lands Action Center has been relegated to the edge of the convention center, away from the more trafficked and popular brand booths found in center of the building. (Maybe these political debates are not as much of a priority to the convention as OR lets on.)
Katie Boue, a freelance social media strategist, introduces the panel topic: examining the role of social media in public lands advocacy.
Len Necefer, founder of @NativesOutdoors, advocates for using social media to remind recreationists that "public lands have also been historically tribal lands." Necefer believes that if we can bridge the divide between recreationists like climbers and kayakers, and other public land users like hunters and fishers, the fight for conservation will be much stronger. "For a lot of Native people, the line between outdoor rec and hunting and fishing isn't there. And I think our community is reflective of that; it's all inclusive in [regards to] managing lands."
"We're all here using the same spaces," Boue says. Then Land Tawney, Backcountry Hunters CEO, takes the microphone to point out that hunters and anglers have been public land advocates for over a century, and that social media has been an incredible avenue for promoting activism, creating instantaneous backing for time-sensitive efforts, and simply reaching a larger audience.
2:30 p.m. 'When Women Lead' panel
Five female business owners discuss the importance of mentorship and audacity in the workplace. The standing-room-only crowd is approximately 90 percent women. One of the panelists, Georgina Miranda, founder of the media platform Altitude Seven, points out that the notion of "women in the outdoors" does not just represent consumers--it's also internal to the industry. She poses questions to the audience: "How do we get more women into leadership roles? How do we boost the pipeline of women? How do we boost mentorship?" She stresses that it is the equal responsibility of both men and women to ensure that women as a "Force of Nature" is not just an REI campaign. Businesses in particular, she advocates, need to be "both consumer facing and internal facing, so that we're living what we preach and [living] what we tell our customers we're doing."
4:05 p.m. 'This Land is Our Land March for Public Lands.'
We grab cardboard signs, courtesy of The North Face, and head to the South Plaza. A stream of people bears signs with the slogans:
This is a sign, and so is OR leaving
We Love Bears Ears
We defend Public Lands
Cars honk as 3,000 people cheer and march. We are glad our recycled signs are not only making a statement, but also protecting us from the sun on this 90-degree stroll from the convention center to the capitol building.
At the rally, Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, takes the stage to talk about the legacy of public lands: lands that the US government took without consent from Native peoples. "What I hope we can teach you," he says, "is you need to speak up and you need to be heard."
Other speakers at the rally will maintain that efforts to conserve and defend public land should remain bipartisan.
Friday, July 28
Deanne Buck, executive director of Camber Outdoors--an organization for gender equality within the outdoor industry--takes the microphone and cites an Outdoor Women Industries Coalition "Workplace Study," which reports that in 2012, approximately 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were women, while the outdoor industry boasted 12.5 percent. Even though the presence of women in high executive positions has continued to grow within the outdoor industry since the report was released, these numbers don't yet mean success for Buck. She argues that having more women and people of color in high executive positions drives innovation and makes for a more successful business. A company with a diverse team of decision-makers is more likely to pinpoint consumer desires and trends.
Liz Valentine, CEO of Swift Marketing and Advertising, echoes Buck in a lecture titled, "Why Femininity is Good for Men, Women, and Business." Valentine implores us to reconsider the traditional definitions of femininity and masculinity and how we perceive them, and she explains how everyone can employ qualities from both spectrums to become more successful business leaders and simply better human beings.
Analysis: The Road Home
When we arrived at the conservation-oriented events, we wondered whether the audience was there because of these relatively famous panelists, or because of genuine concern about the topic at large. At the industry breakfast, some speakers referred to Cedar Wright and Alex Honnold as "the ones you're really here to see."
Maricela Rosales sees even more opportunity for OR to become more diverse and accessible: "Even though [OR] seems like a liberal space [full of people] willing to partner and collaborate, they're not opening up to what that means. It's like a clique." She envisions a future outdoor industry that hires more diverse employees and funds organizations working on the ground to increase accessibility. Rosales also proposes that low-income people could rent gear as needed on a "library model." It only feels right to hire a diverse board, she reflects, because we are a diverse country with diverse interests.
Liz Valentine posits that "soft traits" such as collaboration, communication, empathy, and transparency (traditionally "feminine" qualities) are now being employed and celebrated without the accompanying meek, timid or drama-centric stereotypes in progressive, effective business practices by both men and women.
In a PR message from OR earlier this year, officials talked about taking action in unity, how "we have a unique, maybe even singular, opportunity to coalesce, organize, speak and lay plans to make a difference around public land awareness in such a way that it is not only heard but that it can make a positive difference."
We found that advocacy for public lands was indeed the highlight for many of the activities and keynote speakers throughout the week. But events highlighting women in the outdoors had relatively small audiences, and appeared to be a side-project of OR. Only one speaker that we heard addressed inclusion in a broad sense for employers (Deanne Buck). Another speaker asserted that individuals with Down Syndrome are "an untapped resource across all industries." There were no convention-wide events specific to the lack of racial diversity in the outdoor industry, and many under-represented groups were not mentioned.
In terms of the "success" of public lands advocacy, we should factor in non-monetary aspects--the amount of public land a state has preserved, their dedication to sustainability programs or environmental nonprofits, or the opportunities for diverse communities to access the outdoors--to measure the full value of a country or state's contribution.
Here is a poignant quote from Carolyn Finney in an article for Outside Online:
"If, as I have, you sorted through the historical narrative surrounding the national parks, the movies and books about the parks, the magazine and newspaper coverage of the parks--you'd come up with narratives that largely leave out the experiences of people of color. Some might say that many of these works and organizations are about the parks, not people. But I would respond that the parks are about us. And that 'us' has always been diverse, even if those in the positions to write the stories and make the policies have not."
The most important take-away from our experience at OR is that while efforts for inclusion are slowly but surely being utilized in our industry, what has been done thus far is certainly not enough; and as Shaun Chapoose so rightfully stated, we all need to speak up and we all need to be heard.
Sara Aranda and Emma Murray work together on BivyTales.com, "an online storytelling platform for outdoor enthusiasts and supporter of diverse voices, up-and-coming writers, the environment, and dirtbaggerie."