Op-Ed: Outdoor Companies Drag Their Feet on Inclusion
The industry has moved its trade show, but not its stance on diversity
Congratulations, Outdoor Retailer. You’ve moved your biannual trade show from a state, Utah, whose leadership is openly hostile to the concept of inclusive public lands and pushed the Trump administration to shrink Bears Ears National Monument, which is so critical for its protection of Native lands that a coalition of tribes agreed to co-manage it. You moved to Colorado, a place progressive enough to legalize marijuana and have the inestimable Latino adventurer Luis Benitez in charge of its office of outdoor recreation industry.
Denver is a far more acceptable place to convene more than 1,100 outdoor and active-lifestyle brands, as the industry will do from January 25 to 28. But we haven’t changed the stance we held when the show was held in Salt Lake City for the previous 20 years: We still ain’t coming.
It may be a different venue, but it’s the same old party. Like our president shuttling between the White House and Mar-a-Lago, the places change, but the faces—and results—remain the same. Outdoor Retailer remains a show of whiteness and power in their greatest form—a gathering to promote gear, products, companies, and commitment to the great outdoors that apparently does not include any people of color.
Oh, there will be a smattering of us in Denver, hoping to be noticed. And it will be hard not to notice when the few don’t look like the many. We know the feeling well. We were just part of a panel, along with our friend Scott Briscoe of Patagonia and Expedition Denali, at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. We often were the only three nonwhites wherever we went in the small town of Nevada City, in one of the very whitest counties in California.
Even so, what followed us around in Nevada City were the winds of change. The festival has developed a statement of inclusion and encourages equitable work among filmmakers. It asked us to hold an honest discussion about race, and we did, in a room jammed with people on a sunny day with films showing all around us. People stopped us on the streets to ask for leads, names, and advice. The past few years, the festival roster has included films showcasing people of color.
This is a small organization in a small place making small changes, but as hotelier J. Willard Marriott once said, “It’s the little things that make the big things possible.” We see the bigger possibilities, unfulfilled, in the outdoor industry, which according to its own research contributes billions of dollars to the U.S. economy.
So many outdoor companies have talked to us about the importance of diversity and inclusion that we’ve lost count. We’ve always agreed wholeheartedly. While filmmakers might have an artist’s sensibility about the value of inclusion, the outdoor industry’s is a survival imperative. If your customer base is almost exclusively white and aging out, as is happening with the membership of environmental groups, then you need to ride the coattails of demographic change in this country. If you haven’t courted people of color with urgency and sincerity by the time nonwhites are the majority in the United States, in 2044 or earlier, will you still be in business?
The outdoor industry has talked a good talk, but its actions have been barely a whisper. The racial makeup of management teams and boards of directors speak the real truth. Where are the decision-makers of color? Where are the faces of color among employees and in social media and other marketing materials? American history has us so accustomed to being excluded, all it might really take is just an invitation—to look, to buy, to build loyalty. But we’re still waiting for that first company to publicly and overtly court us.
The lack of attention prompts us to gaze into a mirror and ask: Why has an entire industry looked past us without a second thought of inclusion? Why has an entire industry shown little to no interest in having us as the face of their products? Why has the outdoor media not placed us on their covers? Are we not enough?
Or maybe we’re too much.
We noticed an event at this year’s winter Outdoor Retailer show, “An Industry Reimagined.” It made our hearts skip a beat, but in the end it was yet another slap in the face. A panel of four white executives discussing a new world is not much different than the sci-fi films from most of our lifetimes—neither much envisions people of color in the future. Three years ago, the so-called CEO Pledge touched off a movement for female leadership, and “progress” was made by hiring women executives who were white. The industry has become adept at playing this shell game of intersectionality—cloaking racial inequities with whitewashed choices based on gender, sexual identity, and physical disadvantage.
It’s time to stop the dishonest narrative of nonwhites missing from the outdoors. We’re there, just not the way the country’s default culture likes to define it. Our absence, and the supposed need to get us outside, is a fable the outdoor industry likes to perpetuate to justify not showing us. As such, we find great hope from looking within, from entrepreneurs of color like Len Necefer of Natives Outdoors. If we can’t be written into the script, we might as well flip it. If you can’t join them, beat them. And in a few years maybe, while the show goes on in Denver, we’ll be in a place like, say, Flint, Michigan, telling our own stories and celebrating our own successes.
Glenn Nelson founded TrailPosse.com to cover race and equity in the outdoors.
Teresa Baker is the founder of African American Nature and Parks Experience.