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Why outdoor brands like Patagonia, The North Face, and REI will save us

Corporate social responsibility doesn’t have to be just a buzzword, and these major outdoor brands leading the charge in boycotting Facebook are just the latest example.

Why outdoor brands like Patagonia, The North Face, and REI will save us
[Photo: VPanteon/iStock]
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The move was in solidarity with civil rights organizations like the NAACP and Anti-Defamation League, as well as Color of Change, Free Press, Common Sense, and Sleeping Giants, which launched the #StopHateForProfit campaign aimed at holding Facebook accountable for how it enables and benefits from racism and misinformation.

In a statement, Color of Change president Rashad Robinson said, “We have been continually disappointed and stunned by Mark Zuckerberg’s commitment to protecting white supremacy, voter suppression, and outright lies on Facebook. A key way for major corporations to demand racial justice is to withhold their dollars until Facebook becomes more responsible and accountable to Black communities on the platform.”

Soon after The North Face voiced its support, both Patagonia and REI joined the boycott for the month of July. Patagonia’s head of marketing Cory Bayers wrote in a statement, “For too long, Facebook has failed to take sufficient steps to stop the spread of hateful lies and dangerous propaganda on its platform. From secure elections to a global pandemic to racial justice, the stakes are too high to sit back and let the company continue to be complicit in spreading disinformation and fomenting fear and hatred. As companies across the country work hard to ensure that Americans have access to free and fair elections this fall, we can’t stand by and contribute resources to companies that contribute to the problem.”

One of the clichés of modern business and marketing is that brands will too often say all the right things—whether it’s about racial and gender equality, pride month, climate change, International Women’s Day, and on and on—but all too often it remains far more advertising bluster than measurable action.

The North Face’s global VP of marketing and product Steve Lesnard says the outdoor industry has a role to play in supporting the Black community and combating systemic racism.

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“The outdoor industry as a whole has a lot of work to do, but I believe many of our peers share similar values, and it has been great to see companies such as REI, Patagonia, and Arcteryx also pledging to #StopHateforProfit by halting their advertising spend with Facebook,” Lesnard tells Fast Company. “The outdoor industry must understand the urgency when it comes to acting on social issues that affect people, planet, and the places we all love to play, and we want to act as leaders by addressing and impacting change.”

Over the last few years, it’s been outdoor brands like Patagonia, The North Face, and REI that have actually led the charge in speaking out on controversial issues, taking a stand, and translating that into action. There are a lot more companies and brands in our culture that reach more consumers, but when it comes to responsible business, this is where to find optimism for the future.

Outdoor brands are first to climb the summit

“The outdoor brands and retailers have a heritage of speaking out on social issues, starting with conservation and the environment,” NPD Group’s VP and senior industry advisor of sports Matt Powell told AdAge. “It is no surprise to see them take a leadership role in Facebook hate speech and disinformation.”

Outdoor brand activism is understandably primarily focused on just that—the outdoors—where these companies’ products are created for and being used. Their customer base is passionate about wilderness, the mountains, the ocean, the rivers, the forests. So it makes sense that these companies have long been advocating for action on climate change and environmental responsibility.

That environmental conscience has been there since such notions were deemed radical and “crunchy.” Much of the mainstream has caught up, at least in terms of putting some effort into “causing the least amount of harm possible,” as Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard told me last year.

Before brands like Banana Republic and Gucci were using digital-economy consignment services like CaaStle and thredUp, Patagonia had started Worn Wear. These companies promulgated adaptive reuse and building to last and that too has become more common. Now the vanguard is promoting democracy and pushing back against Facebook.

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Since 2016, they’ve all raised the volume of their collective voices. Patagonia has made its longstanding support for grassroots environmental organizations a pillar of the company and its message to customers. In 2017, The North Face president Arne Arens spoke out against then Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments, donated $1 million to The Trust for Public Land, and joined 350 outdoor companies in writing to Secretary Zinke to recognize the benefits that these national monuments provide to sustain jobs and support healthy communities.

Speaking of public lands, in 2018 Patagonia accused the government of lying about its intentions when it reduced federal protection for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments by nearly 2 million acres, launching an awareness campaign, declaring “The President Stole Your Land.”

What matters even more is that this commitment to the environment actually extends to making products that last longer, repairing products, and actively encouraging people to buy less. It arguably started with Patagonia’s 2011 ad “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” but extends to REI’s award-winning #OptOutside campaign in 2015, in which it closed all its retail doors on Black Friday to encourage people to get outside. And this year, The North Face sent its designers back to school to learn how to reuse, repair, and improve the longevity of the garments they make.

Big global brands like Nike and Adidas have made commitments in recent weeks to increase their commitment to racial justice and diversity, such as Adidas committing to filling 30% of its open positions with Black and Latinx workers. This is a great internal move, but more needs to be done about external forces—like misinformation on Facebook—affecting those communities.

Yesterday, another major brand announced that it was joining the #StopHateForProfit campaign, and—you guessed it—it was an outdoor brand, Eddie Bauer.

So why are these outdoor brands leading the way in addressing social media’s climate catastrophe?

Imagining a better world

Outdoor brands have always been about aspiration.

It’s why you have a jacket that can survive an Everest ascent but mostly sees you through a drive uptown or to your local ski hill. It’s also the reason they are the benefactors of modern adventure, sending the likes of Jimmy Chin, Alex Honnold, Hillaree Nelson, Dave Rastovich, and more around the world to surf, climb, bike, and ski the best, craziest, gnarliest, most beautiful corners of the earth.

So when you slide on that T-shirt, jacket, or whatever on, you actually feel a little slice of that adventure in your bones.

Now these companies are taking that idea of aspiration and adapting it—in varying degrees and in their own way—for you to picture yourself as part of a better world. One that relies on more sustainable materials, has better labor practices, and embraces more responsible consumption. One that protects wild spaces. And even one that promotes voting in a healthy democracy.

These outdoor brands are not perfect. Each of these companies has weathered their own missteps, like when Patagonia found exploited labor in its supply chain, or The North Face edited its products into Wikipedia entries.

What helps them stand apart, however, is how they acknowledge mistakes and missteps, then move on. And it still doesn’t stop them from speaking out.

We find ourselves in a time confronted with tough problems, seemingly hitting all at once. From the ongoing complications around the pandemic to the anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests and renewed calls for racial equality to all of their effects on the upcoming U.S. election. There was a time when brands felt comfortable sitting on the sidelines when it came to social issues, perhaps gently dipping a toe in here and there, all in the hopes of not rocking the boat while still balancing on the right side of history.

This is not one of those times.

It will take a lot more than a blacked-out Instagram post to convince consumers and employees that your company not only possesses values that they share but also has the courage and conviction to stand by them. It’s much tougher for small companies to quit Facebook ads cold turkey, as they have neither the awareness nor the marketing infrastructure to replace it.

But embracing the #StopHateForProfit campaign isn’t a controversial take. Just look at the news cycle, with actual Nazi symbols being used (intentionally or not) by a presidential campaign on Facebook.

Brands must face themselves in the mirror and answer the question: If not now, then when?

If you need some inspiration, look outside.

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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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