A new era of activism

Extreme athletes and outdoor companies find ways to protect ‘workplace’ against Trump’s public lands policies

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Professional athletes Caroline Gleich, Sasha DiGiulian, Lynn Hill, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell meet with a representative about public lands issues.
Stephen Gosling

It is common to see professional ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich skiing an untouched line in the Wasatch Mountains one day, and the next day lobbying politicians in the Utah Capitol or Washington D.C. for greater access and protection of public lands.

Gleich made a name in the world of ski mountaineering after becoming the first woman, and the fourth person, to ski all 90 backcountry lines of Utah’s Wasatch Range. But she doesn’t want to be remembered for her sporting achievements.

Gleich sees her legacy in inspiring her followers to actively defend the environment. She wants to achieve change, to be a voice promoting the protection of the environment and public lands.

“I want them to remember me tomorrow as an environmental activist rather than a professional athlete,” she says. With 146,000 Instagram followers, and a public platform as one of Patagonia’s global ambassadors, Gleich is helping transform the outdoor industry as the Trump Administration continually threatens the preservation of public lands.

Trump’s policies, led by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and almost certain to continue with Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, have driven the outdoor industry into a new era of environmental and political activism. Brands are including environmental advocacy in their agendas and in the marketing of their products. The professional athletes sponsored by these companies are increasingly advocating on behalf of their “workplaces” in the outdoors. And the largest U.S. outdoor trade organization, Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), has used its economic power to engage in politics with unprecedented force.

OIA’s Outdoor Retailer (OR) returns to Denver, Jan. 30-Feb. 1, with its annual winter tradeshow, after relocating from Utah as a political statement in 2017 in response to state officials encouraging President Trump to reduce the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Colorado is now the headquarters of an industry that generates 7.6 million jobs and $887 billion in annual profits, and plays host to the most crucial event in the industry. OR alone has an economic impact of around $110 million, bringing an estimated 85,000 visitors to Denver per year, all shows combined. As the current federal government shutdown continues, underfunding the Department of the Interior and thus the National Park Service and some of the U.S.’s most revered public lands, the show might get even more political.

When the Trump administration slashed the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, the landing page of Patagonia’s website had one message: “The President Stole Your Land,” while The North Face launched a more understated campaign, “Walls Are Meant for Climbing.” Last November, for the first time ever, OIA started a campaign — #VoteTheOutdoors — to support candidates in the midterm elections and achieved “unprecedented success,” as 20 of its 23 endorsed candidates won, according to OIA.  Plus, a recent study from the Center for Western Priorities revealed that support for public lands and outdoor issues were part of the winning campaigns across the West in last year’s mid-term elections.

Rob Lea
Professional ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich may be known for her sporting achievements, but she wants her legacy to be one of environmental activism as well.

For athletes like Gleich, being part of a company like Patagonia makes advocating for environmental causes easier since they are on the “same page.” Other athletes have broken up with longtime sponsors due to differing stances on such issues.

Jason Kruk, a retired professional alpinist and skier from Canada, drew international attention in 2012, along with the late Hayden Kennedy, for removing bolts — permanent hardware drilled into rock for protection — along the “Compressor Route” on Cerro Torre, in Argentina.

Kruk refers to his ascent with Kennedy and their removal of the hardware from the route as a “fair means ascent,” because they were trying to mitigate impact on the environment as much as possible. That same “environmental awareness” led him to break eight years of professional relationship with the Canadian outdoor brand Arcteryx.

“We had been diverging regarding our core beliefs for a couple of years,” Kruk says of the reason for ending his relationship with the brand in January 2018. He was trying to implement environmentally conscious practices that he thought were important for the brand, without getting much traction, until he could not find any “value” in his job anymore, he says.

But his decision goes beyond political activism, as he feels he was “part of the problem,” too. He struggles with a paradox many outdoor recreation consumers face: Gear is often “directly in conflict with our love for what we do outside,” he says, referring to the use of plastic and materials that are not environmentally friendly.

Kruk admires Patagonia’s leading role in environmental advocacy and he thinks it’s working for them; customers are “buying the message,” he says, while the company builds something more significant than a brand — a movement that other companies are now following.

In more than 20 years as a professional athlete, alpinist Steve House says he’s never seen such political movement in the outdoor industry. But for him, the motivation is simple:

“Historically, no president has ever attempted to shrink public lands protections,” he says.

Known for multiple self-sufficient, first ascents in Alaska and around the world, he won the 2006 Piolet D’or — the highest international honor for mountaineers — after ascending the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat in Pakistan. House has been an ambassador for Patagonia since 1999, working on marketing, developing and testing products.

He understands why it is easier for Patagonia to take a political stand compared to other major companies: Patagonia is an entirely private company managed by its founders Yvon and Malinda Chouinard. As a B (Benefit) Corp, Patagonia includes its impact on society, workers, the community and the environment, in addition to profits, as part of its legally defined goals.

Hans Cole, director of environmental campaigns and advocacy for Patagonia, explains that the company pursued its B Corp status “in order to further incorporate our values into a legal framework so that we’re not just doing this today, but even a hundred years down the road.”

To this end, Patagonia is driven not only to produce high-quality products, but also to minimize its environmental footprint while operating as an activist company working to solve environmental crises.

Other companies, like The North Face, House says, cannot engage in the same political activism as Patagonia because they are publicly traded and its executive teams are legally obligated to make decisions that maximize profit to the corporation.

Still, though not as straightforward as Patagonia, The North Face is taking a political stand through its “Walls are Meant for Climbing” campaign. The company donated $1 million to the Trust for Public Land to help develop public climbing walls in order to connect communities to the outdoors and to each other. Though it never explicitly names the president, or his proposed border wall that is promulgating the current partial government shutdown, The North Face recently tweeted, “We’re building free, public climbing boulders in Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago and Denver, as places to unite us.”

The tweet includes a quote from President Trump from a speech in 2014, in which he encouraged students to work through or around concrete walls as a metaphor for overcoming hardships. This tweet is a potential clue to The North Face campaign’s underlying mission.

Twitter screenshot

Like the companies that sponsor them, political actions frequent the social media feeds of the most important names in the industry. Climber Tommy Caldwell posts about going to Congress in D.C. to lobby for public lands. And last year, Alex Honnold posted about attending the Woman’s March, which created immediate backlash for the infamous climber.

Some of Honnold’s Instagram followers called him a “snowflake” that makes the rest of the world believe that Americans are “total idiots;” others posted “Stick to climbing” messages. Honnold responded by publishing a photo of himself free soloing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, with a caption about the importance of freedom of expression and standing up for one’s convictions.

When people say that an athlete should stick to their sport, they are trying to quiet a voice they don’t agree with, “Full stop,” House says.

“Should Colin Kaepernick also stick to football?” House asks, emphasizing the importance of the NFL star’s message that brought racial injustice to the forefront of American political commentary.

For House, the world is not a better place when someone sends a route or scores a touchdown. “Social injustice is real. Environmental degradation is real. Athletes, as public figures, have platforms, and a moral obligation to use their voice to call for what they believe is right.”

But not all athletes in the outdoor industry participate in political-environmental activism. Professional skier and BASE jumper Matthias Giraud, who represents several brands in the U.S. and Europe, hasn’t joined the political activism trend in the outdoor world.

“I am an environmentalist at heart. But, I choose not to take part in political debates,” he says. He occasionally posts “stuff” about the nonprofit Protect Our Winters, but you won’t see him lobbying anytime soon.

Even so, Giraud is aware of how the Trump administration’s decisions are helping to unify the industry. He sees the move to Denver as a strong environmental statement, “especially with our disrespectful government right now.”

On the same page as Giraud is Benjamin Rueck, a professional rock climber who works with brands such as Adidas-Terrex and La Sportiva. Rueck is also avoiding political and environmental activism, at least for now.

Rueck believes that to advocate for a cause he needs to know both sides of the argument. On the issue of public lands, for example, he admits he doesn’t have the “drive” to do the research required to make an informed statement.

Yet he doesn’t feel pressure from sponsors or his peers to publish activism in his social media, he says. Nor does he see anything wrong with industry athletes engaging in political debates. But in the end, he says, “I would rather not deal with it.”

House says he also has never felt any pressure to publicly advocate in political debates from sponsors. While Patagonia does provide content and resources to post anything related to political activism, it is “always clear that is optional.”

According to Cole, none of the athlete ambassadors of Patagonia are required to work or participate on the campaigns. But the company does try to partner with athletes who are engaging in activism on their own. Additionally, when the company engages with an activist campaign, “We make an effort to educate our employees, ambassadors and the community. We invite people to participate and usually folks step up,” Cole says.

While he remains somewhat removed, Rueck, like Kruk, believes that examples of companies like Patagonia will expand more and more in the industry. If other companies want to continue to do well, they’re probably going to have to take a stance on environmental issues.

For Rueck, it’s essential to remember that since the outdoor industry has such considerable leverage now as a “political power house,” as opposed to the past when athletes were seen as a “bunch of hippies,” political activism needs to be addressed with care:

“I hope that there is a large responsibility between the companies and the athletes to be projecting the right messages, as opposed to whatever is popular at that time,” Rueck says.

House, on the other hand, doesn’t have much faith that most brands will take a firm stand on political issues the way Patagonia has because of fear of potential downsides to their financials. For him, to make the “right moral decision,” companies cannot have their judgment swayed by a legal obligation to return the highest profit to the corporation.

“You have to not give a fuck about any of that and only care about doing the right thing,” he says.

As the battle over public lands continues, outdoor athletes — and the companies they represent — could be crucial players in the protection of wild places against the effects of the Trump administration’s public land policies. It is not only about the destruction of natural monuments due to potential fossil-fuel extraction, but also about the economies that surround the 17 national monuments that might suffer, since population, employment, personal income and per-capita income growth normally increase around monuments, according to a research conducted by Headwaters Economics, an independent nonprofit research group.

Outdoor athletes are in these places on a daily basis, and they understand first-hand the threats and the need for protection of public lands. But also, Cole says, they have people who follow them on social media and are inspired by their technical abilities and amazing athletic feats. “They have an incredible opportunity and a voice that will be heard if they choose to step up.”

Correction: The original story incorrectly stated the outdoor industry generates 7.6 billion jobs. It is in fact, 7.6 million American jobs. We apologize for the inconvenience.