Outdoor Companies Address Their Lack of Racial Diversity

Racial diversity concerns aren’t foreign to the footwear industry. Specifically, athletic heavyweights, including Nike, Under Armour and Adidas, have come under fire as of late for their lack of inclusion at the top levels of the companies. 

But the athletic industry isn’t alone. Experts point to a long-standing racial divide in the outdoor industry, as well. 

“You walk around ISPO, you walk around Outdoor Retailer, and it’s not representative of everyone,” said Keen’s senior director of global marketing, Ashley Williams. “It wouldn’t even be representative of the U.S. Census.” 

Traditionally, the image of the typical outdoor enthusiast has been white and male, but the numbers don’t actually back that up.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2018 Outdoor Participation Report, 34 percent of African-Americans, 49 percent of Hispanics and 51 percent of Asians in the U.S. ages 6 and up participate in outdoor activities. And while the number of African-Americans over the past five years dipped 0.4 percent (the same as whites), Asian and Hispanic participation has risen 0.9 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

The report also states that the number of times whites get outside annually (76) is trumped by both African-Americans (86) and Hispanics (87). Only Asians get outside less (74).

But while people of color are active outdoor enthusiasts, they remain underrepresented within the ranks of outdoor brands and retailers, and have been noticeably absent from many marketing initiatives, creating a notion that enjoying Mother Nature is not for them.

“If you don’t see yourself within magazines, marketing or in-store materials, then you don’t think something is for you,” explained Yanira Castro, communications director for the nationwide African-American advocacy nonprofit Outdoor Afro. “People want to see themselves represented in the places they shop, the things they do, the places they visit.”

Wendy Yang, president of Hoka One One, Teva and Sanuk, agreed. “Consumers want to emotionally connect with brands on a deeper level, and being able to see themselves represented in the brand helps to build that connection for the consumers,” she said. “Failing to demonstrate to large swaths of consumers that they can participate — or that this activity, brand or equipment is meant for them too — can inadvertently turn people away.”

REI Force of Nature
An image from REI’s “Force of Nature” campaign.
CREDIT: REI

Values Have Power

For Nina Thiebert, a career with an outdoor company was never a consideration.

A person of color, she has served as an Outdoor Afro community leader in Santa Cruz, Calif., since 2013. But she hadn’t thought about pursuing a job in the industry — until she saw a posting on social media.

“Some of Keen’s leaders are part of the Outdoor Afro leadership Facebook page, and that was one of the first places the person in charge of hiring for that position posted the job [for a field service rep],” said Thiebert, who previously worked in the restaurant business and for nonprofits. “[The hiring exec] intentionally was trying to diversify the workforce, knows our leaders and what we represent, and thought it was the perfect place to post.”

Thiebert added that what encouraged her to take the chance on a new industry was knowing Keen’s values aligned with hers.

“I’ve never had this experience before, working at a place that reflects my values of equity, inclusion, being stewards of the land. It excites me,” Thiebert said. “Since I got there, I have felt supported. I knew they would support me because they have been trying to celebrate and inspire black leadership and connection to the outdoors.”

Andy Shearer, director of talent acquisition at Keen, said the company is working to enact internal career path plans and more inclusive policies, though it still has a long way to go.

He noted that the company has a diverse workforce in its Portland, Ore., manufacturing facility and distribution center in Louisville, Ky.; however, where a racial mix is lacking is in its Portland headquarters.

“We’ve got a long-range strategy that has elements and mentions of diversity,” Shearer said, “and we’re changing our brand platform — our mission, vision and ambition statement — to reflect diversity, as well.”

People Want to Be Seen

In recent years, companies have been taking steps to create an image of inclusivity through marketing featuring a range of individuals.

For instance, Merrell’s “One Trail” campaign in November tasked photographers in each state with capturing images of people they encountered on the trails, showcasing the diversity of outdoor enthusiasts.

Brand president Sue Rechner said the goal was to broaden the definition of what outdoor recreation looks like. “I don’t think we’ve embraced the larger meaning of getting outdoors,” she explained. “It’s not just the core enthusiasts at the top of the mountain, extreme activities. It’s also a walk in the park, a short 2-mile hike, and I’m not sure [the industry has] presented that properly as an opportunity as it relates to inclusion and diversity. We haven’t embraced it.”

Experts also lauded The North Face’s “Move Mountains” and “Walls Are Meant for Climbing” campaigns, which have been similarly inclusive of diverse persons, as have ads from REI and Patagonia.

José González, founder of the grassroots community organization Latino Outdoors, recalled when he began to see the shift in marketing. “About four years ago, one of our community leaders texted me a photo of an REI catalog,” he said. “She excitedly said, ‘There’s a brown girl like me on the cover — I never thought I’d see the day.’”

Since then, González has personally participated in an REI campaign and witnessed the retailer incorporate Latinos on the covers of several other catalogs.

However, the group’s leader believes the industry needs to deepen its commitment to this cause to further distance itself from the burdensome “white male on a mountain” narrative. Marketing alone won’t resolve the feeling of being an outsider.

“To make it authentic, hire Latinos in the production of content. Their experience will be an asset,” González said. “And you do not have to have niche marketing representation. It’s not: ‘We have to get a Latino for every shoot.’ That borders on stereotyping and misrepresenting.”

Mountaineer Jimmy Chin The North Face Walls Are Meant for Climbing
Mountaineer Jimmy Chin for The North Face’s “Walls Are Meant for Climbing” platform.
CREDIT: The North Face

Change Starts From Within

Indeed, to build a strong connection to all consumers, outdoor brands must take a good, hard look at their workforces and hiring practices.

Recently, leaders have shown a growing commitment to addressing this longtime problem. In July, African American Nature & Parks Experience founder Teresa Baker unveiled the Outdoor Industry CEO Diversity Pledge, aiming at giving historically underrepresented groups a stronger voice and presence in the marketplace.

A year earlier, The North Face’s parent company, VF Corp., signed the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion pledge and set up two councils in its Inclusion & Diversity team to bolster its efforts in the workplace.

Other industry heavyweights, including Keen, REI and Merrell, have partnered with outside activist organizations and internally boosted efforts to promote racial diversity in every aspect of their businesses.

But creating policy is time-consuming and intricate. Jaime Klein, founder and president of consulting firm Inspire Human Resources, said there are ways to expedite the process.

“Blind interviewing is No. 1. Set a goal of one or two diverse, qualified candidates for every job opening,” Klein said. “Two, perform training on unconscious bias to heighten your awareness that you might be searching for sameness. And three, look for people who are diverse in the company and see how their careers are going, invest in them, find them mentors and make sure you’re looking for them to be potential successors to senior leaders.”

Another important step is to widen the geographic scope of candidate searches. Many outdoor companies are based in cities that have predominantly white populations, so leaders may need to examine how they advertise openings.

“Where are these jobs being promoted? How do people know about these jobs? This is no different than other fields. If you’re only advertising in the same channels as before, it won’t work to get more diverse candidates,” said González.

Brian Linton, founder and CEO of United by Blue, an ocean conservation-focused apparel brand, pointed out that racial diversity is not only the right thing to do, it is also a benefit to business.

“In Philadelphia, we’re accessible to [racially] diverse talent, but we’re also looking for people that bring a different perspective to the table,” he said. “We’re not just hiring from within the outdoor industry, which is notoriously not diverse. We’re looking for perspective that is different from who we compete with. There’s big opportunity for new and fresh ideas that often don’t come from within the outdoor industry.”

Experts agree another surefire way for brands to engage with racially varied groups is to partner with grassroots nonprofits dedicated to inclusion efforts. “If brands believe the outdoors is for all, and they know they have a diversity problem, this is how you speak to more demographics of people,” Castro said.

González concurred. “Everything a brand is looking to do and establish can only get better and easier by working with a community grassroots organization,” he said.

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