When I last attended the Outdoor Industry Association’s Outdoor Retailer Winter Show (OR) in Salt Lake City in 2016, the companies outwardly promoting themselves as active, responsible brands were few and far between. There was Patagonia promoting their first full-length documentary about dam removal entitled Damnation, and KEEN Footwear’s public outreach to protect more public lands as national monuments with their Live Monumental campaign. The Outdoor Industry Association was primarily focused on sustainable apparel with the launching of the then-new Higg Index. But otherwise, it was business as usual – a normal trade show with buyers meeting sellers and sellers meeting buyers, parties, and networking. And then there was me – one of the few representatives from a nonprofit trying to forge relationships to attract sponsorship dollars and donations.
What a difference a couple of years (and a new administration) makes. With the election of President Trump and the confirmation of Ryan Zinke as Department of the Interior Administrator, things were bound to change. But when Zinke announced his intention to conduct a review of National Parks and Monuments with an eye on raising fees and reducing their size, which would, in turn start to impact the bottom line of an industry that relies on outdoor recreation, things got real. Very quickly it became apparent that two exceptional and notable national monuments located in Utah – Grand Staircase Escalante (established over 20 years ago under President Clinton) and Bears Ears (established last year under President Obama) -- were on the chopping block for massive reductions. And then, when the Utah Congressional delegation along with Utah Republican Governor Gary Herbert supported the reductions of public lands in their state, activist companies took notice and dug in to wield their power.
First, Patagonia’s founder and all-around beacon of morality and light for the industry, Yvon Chouinard, vowed that his company would boycott the Outdoor Retailer (OR) shows long-held in Salt Lake City, unless the Utah politicos changed their tune. Soon after, other companies joined the boycott and still other large retailers like REI and The North Face strongly urged the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) to move the biannual shows. OIA had to directly address the issue -- and they quickly did. After attempting to persuade the Utah delegation to change its position, the OIA announced that it would be uniting with Patagonia and others and leaving Utah.
It made perfect sense that Denver, Colorado rose to the top contender spot to host the OR shows. Colorado had recently enacted the nation’s first state Public Lands Day. While Colorado’s politicians courted the OIA (which, coincidentally, is based in Boulder, Colorado), the Colorado conservation community created a Colorado Outdoor Business Alliance to court more of the outdoor industry to relocate to the state and activate them in numerous public lands issues. Having successfully organized, lobbied, and campaigned for two, new federally protected areas (Browns Canyon National Monument in 2015 and the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Action in 2014), it was clear that Colorado’s credentials regarding the protection of public lands and natural resources were tops in the United States.
So, I went to the OR Winter Show wondering if anything had changed from 2016. It suffices to say that the biggest change was that while sustainability was still a topic high on the OIA’s list of priorities (with a full day of programming plus other workshops around it), the actual companies participating in activism in conjunction with their brands had multiplied by orders of magnitude. Demonstrating the power of this growing, influential partnership was an all-star, kickoff event entitled Night Zero Untamed. This event was a Colorado conservation community welcome party to the outdoor industry, celebrating the partnership these co-dependent interests have with each other. The massive event featured speakers including the Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper and the founder of Black Diamond Peter Metcalf, and was sponsored by nearly two dozen NGOs alongside corporate partners such as New Belgium Brewing Company, The North Face, Columbia, Patagonia, KEEN, Smartwool, Chaco and Clif Bar.
Back at the OR, OIA held workshops on using brands to address climate change, sustainable sourcing, marketing sustainability, and organizing for the protection of public lands. Both Patagonia and KEEN continued to highlight their work around sustainability and activation to protect public lands, but what impressed me was the number of other groups, not normally associated with activism had started to become, well, active.
Companies both large and small highlighted sustainable sourcing and products made from recycled materials. Others, like First Lite and Under Armour, traditionally viewed as being aligned with a politically right-of-center audience, joined in the discussions on public lands conservation. When 4 pm on Fri. afternoon arrived, it seemed as if the entire convention hall floor turned into fundraising parties for environmental and conservation nonprofit organizations. Patagonia held a fundraiser for The Conservation Alliance (as did several other companies), featuring a fiery, call-to-arms speech by CEO Rose Marcario. Sole Footbeds and Scream Agency hosted several B Corps during their “Steps Toward Sustainability” party, giving other equally conscious vendors a platform to talk about their good deeds, all while raising money for Big City Mountaineers. Outdoor Research hosted a party featuring an art auction to raise money for Conservation Colorado’s public lands protection work. Others hosted parties to raise money for Protect Our Winters, the Access Fund, and Friends of Gold Butte (National Monument).
All in all, it seems that OIA’s relocation of the OR shows to Denver didn’t just move a few trade shows to better align them with their core constituents and corporate partners, but in the process, lit a much-needed fire of activism within the outdoor industry – an industry that depends on public lands and a vibrant outdoor ecosystem to survive and thrive.