Unbuttoned: A Call to Activism for Outdoor Apparel Makers

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Unbuttoned

By VANESSA FRIEDMAN

There has been much ado over the past few months about the declarations of fashion designers regarding the current administration, but they are not the only members of the fashion world who have been politicized by the actions of President Trump. The outdoor apparel sector is also stepping into the spotlight.

On Thursday thousands of members of the outdoor recreation industry in Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer trade show will “pour out of the Salt Palace and march to the Capitol building in celebration and appreciation of public lands,” in the words of one of the rally’s organizers, Peter Metcalf, the founder and a former chief executive of Black Diamond Equipment. The crowd may not match the hordes that made the Women’s March in January so powerful, but it will be a singular event.

That is because it involves not just the specialized brands beloved by outdoor recreation enthusiasts, but also those with names that resonate throughout the general population: REI, the North Face and Adidas Outdoor. Spurred by the actions of Patagonia, a company with a history of vocally tying its morals to its bottom line, they are publicly putting their positions where their polypropylene pants are.

“We realized somebody had to start making their voice heard,” said Greg Thomsen, managing director of Adidas Outdoor USA. “In my 40 years in the industry I have never seen the industry galvanized in such a way before.”

At issue: an executive order by President Trump in April directing the Department of the Interior to review the status of 27 national monuments created since 1996 and make recommendations to him, possibly rescinding or shrinking the designation of what is now federally protected land. (National monuments are created under the Antiquities Act of 1906 and are similar to national parks, though slightly less protected.)

“It was like a fuse to a Molotov cocktail,” said Christian Beckwith, the founder of Shift, an annual outdoor conference in Jackson, Wyo., which will focus on the case for advocacy during its next incarnation in November.

Numerous monuments are under review, but in response to Patagonia’s publicity efforts, attention has been focused on Bears Ears, a 1.35 million-acre tract in Utah that includes hundreds of Native American cultural artifacts and Navajo tribal lands as well as a popular climbing area known as Indian Creek. It was declared a national monument by President Obama in December.

The Utah governor and the majority of the state’s congressional delegation called the move an example of federal overreach, and have been lobbying to have at least part of the land returned to state control, an effort that caught President Trump’s attention. In June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted an interim report suggesting he would recommend shrinking the borders of the monument, though he has not yet said to what extent. (A recommendation is due in late August.)

The review is being framed as a federal vs. state issue. “The land was federal land before the monument designation and if the boundaries of the monument are modified, the land would still be public land, managed by the agency that previously managed it,” Heather Swift, press secretary for the Department of the Interior, wrote in an email. Nonetheless, lifting the monument status would open the land up to other possible uses. To Patagonia and similar businesses, this poses an existential threat to the thing they hold most “sacred,” in the words of its chief executive, Rose Marcario, with the potential for the land to be leased or sold for mineral and fracking exploitation.

After the order was issued, “I called Jerry and Arne,” said Ms. Marcario, referring to Jerry Stritzke and Arne Arens, the chief executives of REI and North Face, respectively, “to say we were in an unprecedented situation.”

Since then, Mr. Arens said, “we are in touch on a weekly basis.”

The fleece crowd, like most retailers, has shied away from overtly taking sides — land, like fashion, being seen as a bipartisan issue.

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“Politics has traditionally been the third rail,” said Dan Nordstrom, the chief executive of Outdoor Research, a member of the department store family and a former chief executive of Nordstrom.com. “My grandfather and father always said, ‘We don’t take political positions because we have to appeal to consumers on both sides of the aisle.’”

Yet when the monuments issue came to the fore, the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group, wrote an open letter to the Department of the Interior that was signed by more than 200 chief executives. In May, Adidas Outdoor (along with North Face and others) sponsored a lobbying event orchestrated by the nonprofit groups Access Fund and the American Alpine Club called Climb the Hill, which brought industry leaders and athletes to Washington. It was the first time they had done anything other than give financial support to outdoor organizations.

REI sent an email to its six million members urging them to respond to the Department of the Interior’s call for comments on its review and linked to the submission page. In June Mr. Stritzke posted an open letter to Secretary Zinke on the political website the Hill. North Face similarly used social media to urge consumers to send comments to the department and facilitate action. Patagonia created a digital platform so individuals could send their thoughts directly to Washington.

That followed Patagonia’s announcement that it would drop out of the Outdoor Retailer trade show unless Utah’s leadership changed its position on Bears Ears. (The company will not be at the march on Thursday.) For its part, the show decided that as the contract for the twice-yearly event, which is worth $40 million to $50 million to the local economy annually, came up for renewal, Salt Lake City, after 20 years, would not be allowed to bid. Next January, the trade show will move to Denver and Patagonia will be back. Depending on whom you talk to, Thursday’s march is meant in part as an expression of thanks to Salt Lake City for being host to the community for so long, or as a protest against the governor and his supporters.

Indeed, Mr. Thomsen of Adidas said of the march: “It’s being billed as a celebration, but from my personal point of view, it’s a statement. Hopefully politicians will realize the outdoor industry also votes with its pocketbook.” (According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the industry is worth $887 billion in consumer spending a year, employs 7.6 million people and generates $124.5 billion in federal, state and local taxes.)

Most organizations involved are still careful to couch their actions in the language of inclusiveness and positivity; it’s about “values,” not “taking sides;” about “policy,” not “politics;” “pro-public lands,” not “anti-Trump.” But as with the Woman’s March, which was pro-women’s rights but broadly construed as a statement against the incoming president and his priorities, it’s hard to deny that, to the watching world, there are politics involved.

Especially because Patagonia has gone so far as to join nonprofits it worked with over the years in a lawsuit that has been prepared in the event that protections for monuments like Bears Ears are rescinded.

Among the defendants? President Trump.

“We’ve never been directly involved in a legal action before,” Ms. Marcario said.

It may not come to that. Mr. Stritzke said he was optimistic because Secretary Zinke had referred to Theodore Roosevelt, the conservationist president who signed the Antiquities Act into law, several times during the May group meeting in Washington (though Mr. Thomsen, who was at the meeting, said he felt the secretary’s mind was already made up). Ms. Swift pointed out that Mr. Zinke had spoken to numerous stakeholders and “the one thing that everyone agrees with the secretary on is that public access and outdoor recreation is a top priority.”

Thus far, Mr. Zinke has officially recommended that no modifications be made to three monuments: Canyons of the Ancients, in Colorado, Craters of the Moon, in Idaho, and Hanford Reach, in Washington. But all eyes are on Bears Ears and what happens next. Neutrality may no longer be an option.

“I know there may be some people who won’t want to buy our products because of this, but it is a risk we are willing to take,” Ms. Marcario said. “We are woke, we are fighting and we are going to keep doing it.”

As Mr. Beckwith of Shift said: “We’re all activists now. That would not have been possible without Trump.”

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