Last February, the CEO of Patagonia, perhaps the world's most conservation-minded outdoor gear and clothing company, spoke to eager business students and outdoor-industry professionals at the University of Colorado at Boulder. CEO Casey Sheahan's message was simple: Companies can do right by the environment and society and still turn a profit.
Sheahan's talk was peppered with examples of Patagonia's investment in conservation. Its parking lot is covered with solar panels; it supports efforts to restore the desiccated Colorado River Delta. But the tension between commerce and conservation surfaced when Sheahan showed an ad the company ran in The New York Times the day after Thanksgiving. Below a picture of a cool, new Patagonia jacket, the headline blared, "Don't Buy This Jacket." The text explained:
"Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time - and leave a world inhabitable for our kids - we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else."
Somewhat to his surprise, Sheahan said, the ad "didn't hurt us a bit. Sales were up on Black Friday 19 percent; sales for Cyber Monday were up 28 percent. ... It was reverse psychology - an interesting experiment."
To the cynic, this kind of "experiment" simply reinforces the notion that companies' green leanings only go as far as the bottom line. But the reality is more complicated than that. The industry first flexed its muscles in Salt Lake City back in 2003. Spurred on by CEO Peter Metcalf of Black Diamond Equipment, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) confronted Utah's governor over a deal he'd cut with the Bush administration to remove protection from millions of acres of public lands.
The industry said, in effect: "Back off, Governor, or we'll take our industry's lucrative Outdoor Retailer trade shows to another city." The governor did back off, even setting up an outdoor industry advisory committee to give industry leaders a voice on public lands decisions.
Since that showdown, the industry's commitment to conservation in the West has grown. Through the OIA and its sister organization, the Conservation Alliance, companies regularly funnel grants to conservation groups, send delegations to Washington, D.C., to lobby for protection of the public lands used by their customers, and back sympathetic political candidates through a political action committee.
Yet, ultimately, the industry's contribution to conservation remains minuscule. The roughly 200-member Conservation Alliance doled out only a little over $1 million in grants last year. This is welcome money for lean nonprofits, but it's also pocket change compared to what extractive industries spend to gain access to public lands. A new OIA report calculated that consumers spend some $646 billion annually on outdoor recreation, generating more than 6 million jobs and $80 billion in state and federal taxes. Surely an industry so robust could do more to support conservation, both financially and politically.
Now, Utah is once again giving the industry an opportunity to step up its game. The current governor, Republican Gary Herbert, has rekindled the debate over wildlands protection by laying claim to 19,000 miles of rights of way across federal lands and signing a bill demanding that the federal government cede 22 million acre of national forest and BLM land to the state.
Peter Metcalf, whose $150 million climbing-gear company is based in Utah, is once again speaking out. On July 12, he quit the governor's advisory group and called on his industry to take a stand in support of wildlands. Meanwhile, the Summer Outdoor Retailer show, which starts the first week of August, says it may need to find another home than Salt Lake City, which lacks space for a growing number of vendors and attendees. The departure of the two annual retailer shows, which generate approximately
$40 million annually in direct spending, would be a bitter economic pill for Salt Lake and the governor to swallow.
Will the outdoor industry have enough power and determination to get the governor to back down? Whatever happens, the outdoor recreation industry needs to start walking its talk to become the force for conservation it claims to be.
Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado, where he is the magazine's executive director.