Who do you imagine when you imagine a mountain climber? A backcountry skier? A world class cyclist? In the last century, the most common images related to nature, adventure, and exploration were disproportionately white.
The topic of diversity in the outdoor industry is not new, but over the past year companies operating in the field have been forced to reckon with their approach to diversity, equity and inclusion – not just within their own walls, but also in terms of their way of portraying outdoor enthusiasts in their advertising and the partners they work with.
Last week, North Face announced that Oscar winner Jimmy Chin and Emmy award winner and actress Lena Waithe would head their Explore Council. The council, established last fall, will advise the company on providing opportunities for different communities, improving access to underserved communities, and broadening the definition of exploration.
Chin is an obvious choice as he was a longtime brand ambassador for the North Face and his climbing film Free Solo (directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) won the 2019 Oscar for Best Documentary. Eric Raymond, Director of Social Impact and Advocacy at North Face, says the company sees Waithe as a voice from outside the traditional outdoor industry. “While we’re working to open up the port for outdoor exploration to increase representation, Lena’s Hollywood experience is incredibly valuable,” says Raymond. “It offers a unique perspective on how to influence culture, create opportunities and tell stories.”
In setting up the Explore Council, the North Face cited research showing that people of color have far less access to parks and outdoor areas. The parking system and the outdoor industry, like many others, face their own history with systemic racism. Myron Floyd, The Dean of the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University and a member of the Explore Council noted this Segregation was common in outdoor recreational agencies, including the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Park System. “The underlying rationale for creating parks was this idea of US nationalism to promote American identity, and American identity was mostly white, male, and young,” Floyd told NC State.
Early American conservationists had a history of racist ideology. Madison Grant founded organizations dedicated to the conservation of the American bison and California redwoods. In 1916, however, he wrote the book The Passing of the Great Race or The Racial Basis of European History, in which he warned of the decline of the “Nordic” peoples. Gifford Pinchot was the first director of the US Forest Service, but was also a delegate to the first and second International Eugenics Congresses in 1912 and 1921. John Muir, one of the pioneering figures of the environmental movement and founder of the Sierra Club, had a deep history of racism and exclusive views. “The way we created the wilderness areas that we are now right to cherish has been racist,” Stanford historian Richard White told the Associated Press.
These views set the stage for today. According to a 2018 study, people of color make up nearly 40% of the American population, but they only make up 30% of outdoor recreation. “Between 2008 and 2012, 95% of visitors to the National Forest and Wilderness were white. In 2011, researcher Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces: African American and the Great Outdoors, examined 44 issues of Outside magazine between 1991 and 2001 and found that of 4,602 images published in both ads and the Editorial staff only 103 were from African Americans.
Outdoor brands have been criticized for not acting as urgently on issues of diversity and representation as they are on climate change and nature conservation. Last June, Burton board chairwoman Donna Carpenter posted a blog post complaining about the lack of progress in her own company and pledging to improve. REI has worked with organizations like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, the Venture Out Project, and Improbable Hikers, and has worked on the image of nature in films like Brotherhood of Skiing and Do Better Together. REI is also working on new guidelines for its partners to ensure that race, age, gender identity and expression, height and disability are represented differently. She has told her partners that they expect controls to protect against cultural appropriation.
For North Face, one of the best-known brands in the outdoor industry, the goal is to bring these efforts into full swing in order to put the Explore Council Hollywood in the spotlight. The council also includes Wildlife ecologist and National Geographic explorer Rae Wynn-Grant, and Alaska Wilderness League board secretary and President and Co-Founder of Data for Indigenous Justice Jody Potts. As part of its efforts, the company has allocated $ 7 million to help improve outdoor equity.
“It has been said that you cannot be what you cannot see,” says Raymond. “Representation is an important pillar in supporting an inclusive nature. And while representation has been a focus of the north face for years, it is a process of continuous improvement. “