Anti-Trump outdoor retailers go hard left to sell their products
Those taking to the great outdoors to escape politics may find it’s not as easy as it sounds, especially if you’re toting an REI sleeping bag, a Patagonia jacket or a Black Diamond headlamp.
At Outdoor Retailer, a premier trade show opening Monday in Denver, discussions of the latest gear and business practices were interspersed with panels on environmental giving, climate change, identity politics, workplace gender equality and “advocacy training,” courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation.
“Across the country, the outdoor industry is quickly becoming a political force,” the Outdoor Industry Association said in a Monday press release. “From defending our public lands, to working for smart trade and climate policy, the industry’s voice is being heard.”
That left-of-center political bent may come as a surprise to hunters, ranchers and anglers who wore their North Face fleece jackets to cast ballots for President Trump, but not to others who have watched the $887 billion outdoor-recreation business hike its progressive activism since he took office.
Makers of duffel bags, hiking poles and pup tents have challenged the Trump administration on issues such as climate change and steel tariffs, culminating in last year’s high-profile battle over public lands.
Organizers pulled the popular trade show out of Utah after 20 years in response to a disagreement with Gov. Gary Herbert over his support for reducing the Bears Ears National Monument designated by President Obama shortly before he left office.
Leading the fight to leave Salt Lake City was Patagonia, which sued in December to block the Trump administration’s order cutting the size of two vast national monuments in Utah: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Patagonia posted on its website the message, “The President Stole Your Land,” prompting the House Natural Resources Committee to fire back by tweeting, “Patagonia Is Lying To You.”
While Outdoor Retailer made a political statement by leaving Utah, the industry may have muddled its pro-environmental message by relocating to Colorado, given that Patagonia opposes fracking and Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is famously pro-fracking.
Another problem with Colorado: The state is home to a booming oil and gas industry whose leaders were quick to point out the irony of the Outdoor Industry Association’s stance on keeping public lands roped off from mineral development.
“The Outdoor Retailer show is in Denver after OIA chose to punish Utah because its elected officials have different opinions on public lands issues,” Kathleen Sgamma, Western Energy Alliance president, said in a Denver Post op-ed. “We urge OIA to stop exacerbating contentious public lands issues as a means to sell more products and recognize the balance that is achieved when multiple uses on public lands coexist.”
Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, argued on Twitter that without fossil fuels, “the outdoor industry & its customers couldn’t enjoy the outdoors,” given that their vehicles are powered by fossil fuels and most outdoor clothing is petroleum-based.
Those include “spandex, nylon, Gore-Tex, plastics, high-tech lightweight fills, and other synthetic materials,” said Ms. Sgamma.
“Despite that symbiotic relationship, the Outdoor Industry Association and some of its member companies are often at odds with the oil and natural gas industry. From advocating against hydraulic fracturing to opposing responsible energy development on non-park, non-wilderness public lands, the outdoor industry often opposes the oil and natural gas on which it depends,” she said.
“Is it a cynical ‘greenwashing’ ploy to sell more of its petroleum-based products while hoping the public doesn’t notice the hypocrisy?” Ms. Sgamma asked.
The alliance said it asked to speak at the trade show about the public lands issue, and never heard back, but the OIA did host a panel on the issue Monday featuring representatives from the American Farm Bureau, timber industry and oil business.
Outdoor recreation representatives made it clear that they are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, releasing a sustainability report Monday that sought to “quantify the outdoor industry’s long-time collaborative efforts to reduce the impacts of its products and processes.”
“The outdoor industry has done a fantastic job flexing the muscles of the $887 billion outdoor recreation economy to protect our public lands; now it’s time to showcase how we have led on another core effort that directly connects to environmental conservation: product and supply chain responsibility,” said Beth Jensen, senior director of sustainable business innovation.
“This first-ever comprehensive industry report begins to do just that, and our goal is to use this — and future reports — to measure progress, identify areas for improvement and illustrate the importance of sustainable practices as a business imperative,” she said.
The association, the show’s title sponsor, also released Monday its first “bipartisan” congressional inaugural report card on outdoor recreation, which gave most Democrats grades of A or B while dinging most Republicans with grades of D or F.
“The outdoor industry and anyone concerned about public lands is gearing up and preparing to vote the outdoors in the 2018 election,” said OIA political director Alex Boian. “Voters want to know and need a resource where they can find how their representatives voted on issues like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, climate change and the protection of our public land.”
The association’s PAC has funded Republican candidates in the past but so far has donated only to Democrats in the 2017-18 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records.
That includes $500 for Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, who is facing a tough re-election bid against Republican Matt Rosendale. Mr. Trump carried the state in 2016 by 20 percentage points.
The association gave its Friend of the Industry award in April to Mr. Tester.
Certainly the outdoor industry isn’t alone in its political advocacy. Many corporations have jumped in recent years into the public fray on matters that extend beyond their immediate bottom lines, including hot-button social issues.
“You have to kind of be in a hole in the ground if you’re not aware that more and more companies are being expected to compete not only on price and product, but also on their environmental and social performance,” Danielle Cresswell, sustainability manager for Klean Kanteen, said at a panel discussion.
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