The great outdoors: the ultimate teacher, adventure destination, and…profit? Our connection to the outdoors has been tenuous at best over the past few decades, and plenty of companies choose to take advantage of that for capital gain. As humans, we long for a deep connection to nature—even if we’re sitting at our desks from 9-5 (or longer) then going home to binge-watch Netflix. We buy candles with refreshing, nature-inspired scents; we plaster our water bottles and laptops with aspirational outdoor activity stickers or those from all of the places we’ve been; we buy t-shirts that say “The mountains are calling and I must go”. But, at the end of the day, where does that money go? What does it say about us to have all of these nature products if we aren’t going out into nature itself? Or worse, what if the price of enjoying the outdoors is becoming more than we’re willing (or able) to pay?
According to Outdoor Industry’s 2018 report, outdoor recreation is more than a $400 billion industry—that’s roughly 2.2% of the United States’ GDP (Gross Domestic Product). 146.1 million Americans age 6 or older participated in at least one outdoor activity over the course of the year, which is great! That means that approximately 49% of the population went outside (at least once) and did something- maybe they went for a hike, or a walk around their neighborhood, or whitewater rafting. Whatever it is, they did it—they got up and went outside for the sole purpose of enjoying our planet and all the beauty it has to offer. But what about those who didn’t get outside, or only went out a few times? 11% of people cited that access to places for recreation cost too much, and 18% said outdoor equipment is too expensive. The experiences we have while in nature are personal, and companies have found their own ways to make a profit from our desire to feel connected, whether that be from access to nature itself, or creating memorabilia that reminds us of our time outside.
By acting as a barrier to nature, or a gatekeeper, companies can control the number of people who have access as well as the price they pay for the experience. Colorado is known for having some of the best skiing in the country, and people travel hundreds of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to shred the gnar in the Rockies. The average price for a one-day pass for a Colorado ski resort is $114.05, and that’s just to get onto the mountain. Rentals, travel expenses, the very necessary après ski drinks, and lessons (if you need or want one) are all extra. To ski at one of the most well-known resorts like Beaver Creek or Vail, a single day pass is $185. The high price of entry discourages many people from trying or enjoying the sport simply because they cannot afford it.
Other companies prefer to make their money by tapping into our emotional connection to the places we’ve been—especially within the National Parks System (NPS). From patches and stickers to blankets and t-shirts, there is a retailer that has an NPS product for you. One of the top producers of National Parks merchandise is Pendleton. Their minimalist, striped designs are inspired by different parks and can be purchased as socks and beanies for most parks, and even dog leashes and jackets for others. They are most well known, however, for their blankets. They have designs for 11 out of 58 national parks, and 10 of those have a blanket (Rocky Mountain National Park was snubbed). Each blanket costs between $229 and $299, depending on the size, and can be customizable with a monogram or embroidery for an extra charge. This singular piece costs more than a day of skiing, but there is a silver lining- some of that money is donated back to the parks.
Now, before we get too far and you think I’m being too cynical about all of this, I fully recognize that some brands are doing incredible work to give back to the parks, and the natural world as a whole. Through their partnership, Pendleton has given over $800,000 to the National Parks Foundation, and specifically helped with the historic Many Glacier Hotel Stairway Project and the Grand Canyon Train Depot Project. Parks Project states that they have a give-back portion of their sales, and they act as a channel for people to find volunteer opportunities within their favorite parks. The Landmark Project donated over $35,000 to the US Forest Service to help with wildfire restoration and prevention. Patagonia was part of the coalition that sued President Trump and the Department of the Interior when Bears Ears National Monument was reduced, and they recently donated their entire tax cut to environmental groups. There are brands that are walking the walk and making sure they give back to the landscapes they are profiting off of, and we love them for that. It’s the best of both worlds for customers—we get a piece that reminds us of our time in that area as well as the knowledge that the brand is working to help keep that special place around for many years to come.
It’s awesome that there are brands who are giving back, but how do we get more people out into nature in the first place, and how do we keep it affordable? For one, we can volunteer for local conservation nonprofits or parks to help keep the cost of entry low. We can respect the parks and natural spaces we inhabit by following Leave No Trace protocol. And, we can donate our old, used gear to nonprofits dedicated to getting people outside who may not have access to expensive gear or the knowledge of how to start. When those of us who already have a passion and love for the outdoors help pave the way for everyone else, we get a domino effect of people who continue to volunteer, donate, and take action to protect the world we live in. I’ll take that over a $5 sticker any day.
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