Every time I see a marketing ad by an outdoor retailer or an outdoor publication, I get more agitated. Not every outdoor enthusiast is an extreme athlete, white, and male, yet that’s nearly always the image displayed as the model for outdoor enthusiasts.
It is extremely frustrating to hear over and over again that outdoor retailers and publications understand my concerns about diversifying that image yet find that they do nothing. It’s one thing to hear me, but it’s another to effect change. We need outdoor retailers and publications to instigate a new normal.
At the recent Women’s Outdoor Summit for Empowerment, more than 100 amazing women convened at the Presidio of San Francisco to discuss issues like lack of inclusion, sexual harassment, and workplace biases. “It was the most diverse outdoor event I’ve been to in the industry,” says Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario. “It’s important to keep coming together in new ways and making our outdoor communities stronger.” Attendees ranged from extreme outdoor enthusiasts to weekend outdoor warriors. They’re mothers, CEOs, government agency employees, grassroots organizers, and more. We all asked the same questions: How do we change this? How do we change a culture of exclusion that hasn’t been called to task in a way that has motivated people to act?
Here’s my first suggestion to the industry if you want to show that you mean it: Diversify your covers. I’ve been told that there is a “model” for outdoor retailers and publications—white and thin (and mostly male). The few women who make the covers of mainstream outdoor magazines are equally young, white, and thin. I have yet to see a woman of color on these covers, other than in a group shot. Backpacker, Outside, Outdoor Life: Are there no women of color making traction in the outdoors who are worthy of your covers? I want to see a woman of color hold that space as an individual kickass outdoor enthusiast. I want to see women with various body types. (Those of us who lead amazing outdoor lives aren’t all a size six.)
I asked summit attendees to share some of their own open letters to the outdoor industry as well. Here are some of the changes they want to see.
Tell Our Stories
Miho Aida: Filmmaker, Environmental Educator, and Outdoor Guide
I founded a media project called “If She Can Do It, You Can Too.” This project aims to empower women, particularly girls and women of color, through outdoor role models who look, sound, and live like them so they know what outdoor adventure, career, and leadership opportunities are possible.
I created my project because often I feel invisible—whether playing outside, attending environmental conferences, or working in outdoor education. For example, other climbers will typically approach my climbing partner to ask questions about the route, even when I’m clearly geared up as the lead.
Why don’t they see me?
Then I stumbled upon an explanation. Typically, the people with whom I interact in outdoor arenas are white. Similarly, the industry’s media tend to showcase scientists, activists, or athletes as white and usually male. No wonder people don’t see me; I am not what they are accustomed to seeing in our field. But I am here, and so are other women—including women of color and those of differing ages, abilities, sizes, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. We all need role models, but if our media continually fail to provide images and stories of people who look, sound, or live like us, we have failed huge portions of our global population.
Outdoor media has enormous responsibility to diversify the images that surround us to be more reflective of our society. We need more outdoor women in the media who are portrayed without being sexualized. We demand more images and stories of people of color, as we are the global majority. We must feature more people of all sizes and abilities.
This work cannot be done without collaborating with the entire outdoor industry. In our ever-divisive world, I would like us to come together to create more inclusive and just outdoor media and industry that welcome and inspire all people.
Chelle Roberts: Blogger and Traveler
More brands have an opportunity to become thought leaders in the outdoor space by embracing diversity in their market segmentation and advertising endeavors. Like the movement happening in the tech industry, there’s an opportunity for introspection about the diversity of internal teams and across the industry at large. I look forward to the day where there are more breakout sessions at industry trade shows focused on diversity and inclusion, more outdoor education events focused on communities of color, more gear options that embrace bodies with curves, and more stories about women achieving amazing milestones in the outdoors. It matters to me—as a human, a woman, a person of color, and a consumer with purchasing power.
Don’t Silo Us
Graciela Cabello: Activist
I’d like to see brands respond to the diversity of the outdoor movement by more accurately reflecting the diversity of consumers who purchase their products. People of color are very underrepresented in mainstream marketing efforts, yet they contribute significantly to sales. According to an Outdoor Industry Association Consumer Vue report, “the outdoor consumer landscape looks like the larger U.S. population, a much broader market than historically targeted by the outdoor industry.” And Latinos spend more than any other group on outdoor gear.
I recently looked at two brands’ social media feeds and had to scroll quite a bit to find a person of color in the images. When I did find two back-to-back pictures, they were images highlighting a program the brand had supported as part of its philanthropy efforts. Same scenario with the second brand. I was disappointed to see this is the message they chose to send to their followers without acknowledging the many people of color who are loyal to the brands and are not part of their charity efforts. What that says to me is, “We’ll take your purchases, but we don’t need to acknowledge you as part of our customer base.”
I don’t think exclusion is the intent—brands just don’t have inclusion in mind or diverse-enough teams to help them shift with the changing demographics. I remain optimistic things are moving in the right direction and such changes will bring about larger impacts in stewardship, recreation, and advocacy—for the greater good of all.
Do Business with Us
Cianna Walker: Community Activist
The outdoors can be a place for individuals to find greater understanding of who they are and connect to something greater than themselves. The outdoors can also be intimidating and exclusionary for those who are are underrepresented in the industry. When the price for “appropriate” gear is beyond your scope of reality and you rarely see a reflection of yourself represented in marketing, the outdoors become inaccessible and unwelcoming.
It is my hope that companies and organizations create access for those who often exist on the peripheral landscape and provide space in the center. A few ways to do this: By creating genuinely affordable gear for low-income communities. By producing advertisements that are inclusive and representative of our global community ethnically, culturally, inclusive of the gender spectrum, etc. By having marginalized groups represented in their agencies—on boards, in hiring committees, as staff who have influence in decision making, and so on.
Acknowledge Us Before It’s Too Late
Glenn Nelson: Journalist
With an administration that is hostile to equity and inclusion in public lands, there is great opportunity for the private outdoor industry. No votes or executive orders are required to make change there. Which makes me wonder: What are y’all waiting for? Why aren’t you courting us? Putting us in your catalogs? Funding us? Hiring us? Consulting us?
The big conceit is that people of color are not outdoors. The hell with that! We’re all people of the earth; of course we’re outdoors—just not always in the way the mainstream likes to define and count. We need gear and supplies like the next (white) person. While you sit, paralyzed, and don’t act, we’re making do with our urban clothing, sneakers, and jury-rigged carrying systems. It might not be long before those become permanent fixtures in our outdoor cultures—and we start our own manufacturing and retail companies. After all, we’re going to be the majority in this country before long. We will represent a massive market that you will have overlooked, and we will use it to serve our own interests, probably in your place.
Don’t Let Yourselves Off the Hook, Ever
Karlee Jewell: Team Leader and Outdoor Steward
We need all parts of the outdoor industry working together, always, to build a better and more inclusive cohort of outdoors lovers.
First: Establish a baseline understanding of how people’s many different experiences and cultures affect how they relate to the outdoors and outdoor recreation. Establishing this baseline will allow us to be more relevant to all.
Second: Outdoor brands need to meet people where they are. This includes addressing and working to mitigate: lack of access to outdoor spaces and knowledge, lack of proper gear, concerns over safety, economic disadvantages, and lack of diverse representation in outdoor spaces, which can lead to an overall feeling of inadequacy.
Third: Advocate for the preservation of cultural dance, storytelling, and legends that connect people with the outdoors.
We need everybody in our outdoor spaces. Our upbringings, cultures, and perspectives contribute to a more comprehensive outlook so we can better protect the places we love.