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REI Is Taking The Fight For Gender Equality Outside

CEO Jerry Stritzke talks about the brand’s new “Force of Nature” campaign to commit investments, product development, and marketing to get more women embracing the outdoors.

According to research done by outdoor retailer REI, 72% of women say they feel liberated or free when they are outdoors, but only 32% describe themselves as “outdoorsy.” One of the most cited reasons for this is the primarily male-dominated news, social media, and marketing around the outdoor industry. In response this week, REI is launching a new initiative called “Force of Nature,” a commitment to making women the prime focus of the company’s nonprofit investments, gear development, and marketing for the rest of 2017.

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“REI can help inspire and enable more women to make the outdoors a part of their lives,” says CEO Jerry Stritzke. “Through ‘Force of Nature,’ women will be front and center in our brand and storytelling spaces, but our commitment goes way beyond a ‘brand’ discussion.”

The initiative includes putting more than $1 million of the company’s community investments directly into nonprofits that get women and girls into the outdoors. It also extends into product development, and while REI has been developing female-specific gear since 2000, the brand acknowledges there’s more work to be done. The brand’s senior vice-president of merchandising Susan Viscon is working to fill the remaining gaps with partners like Arcteryx, Osprey, Outdoor Research, and others. In marketing, for the rest of 2017 REI is putting women first in all its content, including a partnership with Outside magazine to publish its first-ever all women’s issue on April 11. And since the company’s survey reported that 43% of women said finding someone to go outdoors with is a barrier, REI will be launching 1,000 national events and classes for women, starting May 6.

Stritzke says the idea for Force of Nature came from within the company. “More than two years ago, a group of women at REI were thinking about gender equity in the outdoors because we’ve been in this space for decades,” he says. “They asked a simple question: ‘Why are the stories we typically see in the outdoors so male dominated?’ From that seed came the idea for using the power of our brand and storytelling to help change that ‘face’ of the outdoors.”

The company’s research included a survey or more than 2,000 women, but Stritzke says they began by talking to the women already passionate about the outdoors. “We started by listening to the women who are already making the outdoors the center of their life,” he says. “They had some powerful things in common—namely greater confidence and fulfillment across their personal and professional lives. We conducted a national survey and heard the same things. That made our path very clear.”

As a company, REI certainly aims to walk the walk of gender balance, with one-third of its board and 44% of corporate officers being women, including the CIO, CFO, and board chair. Stritzke says that goes all the way back to the co-op’s 107-year-old cofounder Mary Anderson.

Mary Anderson, REI co-founder

“REI was founded by a both a man and a woman. It’s in our DNA,” says Stritzke. “We believe that access to the outdoors is a right that should be available for all—men and women. Force of Nature aims to ensure that women are just as encouraged and equipped to embrace life outside as men. That’s about more than business or sales. That’s about impacting the quality of people’s lives, and as a co-op, that kind of impact is our greater measure of success.”

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Susan Viscon

If last year’s award-winning juggernaut #OptOutside is any indication, Force of Nature will be something to watch over the next nine months and, according to Stritzke, beyond. Even though the new initiative is pegged as a 2017-specific campaign, the CEO says it won’t end in December.

“This year we are swinging the pendulum to focus on women, but this effort has been in the works years internally, and this is just the start of the external push,” says Stritzke. “For example, our merchandising team, led by [Viscon], has been working for more than a decade to address how we create better gear for women that helps them perform at their absolute best.  We’ve made a ton of progress and plan to keep working. So yes, you’ll see more of this type of work from us in the future.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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