My break from blogging the past few weeks gave me a chance to ruminate on REI’s new Force of Nature campaign, working through articles that discussed its flaws, some condemning it outright, and other pieces that highlighted the campaign’s merits, articulating why Force of Nature was a necessary step for the gear outfitter. For those that have not seen the campaign video yet, I would recommend checking it out (link below). I tend to react exuberantly to projects that excite me, and as I watched REI’s introduction video for the campaign, I felt my smile widening.
My happiness continued to grow as I started doing research into REI’s specific campaign goals and began to see changes in the REI Instagram feed, which now features both images and stories of professional and non-professional outdoors-women of a diverse set of ages, nationalities, races, body types, and experience levels – all of whom are pictured IN ACTION in the outdoors. Each of these Instagram posts also gives credit to the woman pictured* and the photographer, and there are no mentions of specific REI products associated with any post, leaving the focus on the featured woman. REI’s president, Jerry Stritzke, enumerates the campaign’s four primary initiatives: ‘changing the narrative’, ‘creating community’, ‘closing the gear gaps’, and ‘investing in communities’. Through Force of Nature, Stritzke states that REI will strive to tell stories of outdoors-women in all of our diverse glory for the entire year, offer specialized and technical gear made for women with extended sizing options in order to provide women with great gear that actually fits, as well as allotting one million dollars towards supporting groups working to increase gender equality in the outdoors. Another added bonus is that the Force of Nature campaign was designed and led by two women, Laura Swapp and Susan Viscon.
The reason this made me so happy? When large gear outfitters or ‘outdoor lifestyle’ media collections feature women in their advertisements and on their Instagram feeds, they typically stick to highlighting pro athletes who often fall into the category of white, skinny, under-30, extremely fit, and able bodied. Many times, those images don’t even involve that woman in action, instead picturing her from behind as she stands pensively atop a mountain with her long hair streaming in the wind and a flannel tied around her waist, all of which gives one the impression that the ethereal lady just floated to the top of the peak**. An important fact to note is that these companies and media outlets have similar issues in failing to picture men of various races, abilities, body types, experience levels, etc. – and the overall lack of diversity in the outdoors community is a necessary conversation for another post. However, it seems to me that one of the primary differences in gendered media representation is that women are featured significantly far less often than men, and these large companies hardly ever feature transgender, gender ambiguous, and gender non-conforming outdoors-people.
As many have said before me, representation matters. In a society where media inundates us, the images espoused by large gear outfitters, pro outdoor athletes, and outdoor lifestyle groups work subliminally to shape our understanding of who is an outdoors-person – or, by these sources’ omission – who is not an outdoors-person. The feeling that you don’t fit under the category of ‘outdoors-person’ can definitely discourage people from pursuing outdoor activities or add to the discomfort of learning new outdoor skills. So, seeing women of many different backgrounds pictured on REI’s Instagram feed (a feed which, by the way, has over one million viewers) challenges the predominance of the outdoorsman, and highlights that women other than ultra-fit, white, twenty-somethings also get out and enjoy the outdoors in a multitude of ways. Sunny Stroeer summarizes why a lack of representation can deter people from taking on outdoor activities, and conversely why increased recognition of the diversity of the outdoors community can encourage higher participation:
“Because when I look at Sharma or Adam Ondra or Tommy Caldwell, I think to myself ‘Wow those guys are incredible. They’re so strong. I could NEVER do that.’ When I look at Beth Rodden or Margo Hayes or Libby Sauter, I think ‘Wow these girls are incredible. They must have put a ton of work into getting where they are. If they could do it, I wonder how far I could get if I really focused and got after it?’ Inspiration is a powerful thing.”
Many people, however, do not share my positive feelings towards the Force of Nature campaign, and have some compelling explanations for their dissatisfaction. Erin Monahan, editor of Terra Incognita Media, argues that REI’s campaign “does nothing to mention the systemic issues at the root of the lack of women in the outdoors,” and states that “the racial divide is not noted once. Black women, people of color, economic disparity, are not discussed.” I definitely agree that REI could have dug much deeper in explaining the systematic reasons behind the lack of female participation in the outdoors, and how these systematic disadvantages differ base on race, wealth, ability, and sexual orientation, among other factors. As noted by Emily Zak in a piece about systematic inequalities in outdoor recreation, 80% of those who visit National Parks are white, and 75% of young adults who participate in outdoor recreation are white. Zak cites factors such as rape culture, equipment and access costs, exclusive outdoor cultures, fat shaming, lack of representation, and other factors as impediments to marginalized groups in terms of outdoor participation. REI’s new campaign is not equipped to solve systematic inequalities in outdoors communities, but I also would note that REI is probably aware of this, too.
Monahan’s argument goes further, however, asserting that “there is nothing anti-status quo about this ad campaign.” But if we consider who promotes the status quo, I would argue that with this campaign REI has ruffled a few white/male feathers. With 16 million members, REI has the ability to reach a huge chunk of the outdoors community, many of whom are completely unaware of inequalities of any kind in outdoor recreation. This lack of understanding is exhibited by (mainly male) reactions to Stritzke’s explanation of the campaign. For example, one user commented in response, “The great outdoors has always been available without prejudice for women and men,” and another writes, “The reason women have fewer options with regards to sports and outdoors, is because fewer women engage in those activities when compared to men. The irrational claim that everyone is discriminating against women is not based on fact, and in fact you can see that companies have provided products geared toward women.” Maybe REI’s Force of Nature will not succeed in changing these members’ minds, but at least it will not continue to allow members to remain completely oblivious to these discussions. No, REI is not smashing the status quo, but the campaign has at minimum rattled it around by introducing concepts of outdoor inclusivity to those who might have previously been able to ignore them.
In some ways, I think Monahan’s assessment of the Force of Nature campaign sells it short. She writes, “[REI has] become such a huge company at this point that reaching out and giving away some of their pocket change will in turn allow them to ring in millions of new loyal consumers.” Personally, I would not describe donations totaling $1,000,000 over the course of a year as pocket change, especially when considering that REI also donated almost 70% of its profits last year to outdoor groups, including organizations dedicated to increasing outdoor access and environmental preservation. She states, REI “promise[s] to offer classes, workshops, and routines, all through REI no less, that ensure women getting outside, but only if they pay REI for these opportunities.” Yep, REI does charge for some of the classes, as some courses require that REI provide food, gear, and an educator for its participants (all not free, even for REI), but Monahan overlooks the many courses that REI is offering for free, that are open to people of all genders despite being specifically aimed at women. I have now attended three of such free events and, despite not charging an entry fee, REI put on high quality, informative events that featured women panel members and were led by female facilitators – it seems to me that REI takes its free events as seriously as its more costly events.
Even if the goal of the Force of Nature campaign is to increase sales (which it probably is, because REI is a company that needs to continue making profits in order to exist), I as a female consumer can reap the benefits from the campaign – high quality gear tailored to women’s needs and diverse body types, classes designed for women, my Instagram feed filled with images of women getting after it in the outdoors – while remaining skeptical and cognizant of REI’s motives, and understanding the shortfalls of the campaign. Monahan disagrees, providing a grim assessment of my ability to understand REI’s marketing strategy, “women believe they are being seen and heard through this kind of advertising. Women are convinced that this is, if nothing else, a step in the right direction.”
Acknowledging that imperfect progress is better than none at all does not preclude us from critiquing REI’s Force of Nature campaign, however. Criticism does not mean that the campaign is useless, or that REI should not have taken on the project, but serves as a means of increasing the success and forward motion of future campaigns. One major criticism of the campaign, is that REI forgets to acknowledge the many groups that have already been working to increase diversity in the outdoors and in the representation of outdoors-people within the media. A few of those groups include, but are not limited to: Unlikely Hikers, Melanin Basecamp, Natives Outdoors, Indigenous Womxn Climb, Black Girls Who Hike, Outdoor Afro, Brown People Camping, Latino Outdoors, Women’s Outdoor Alliance, and Fat Girls Hiking. Some of REI’s campaign language seems to suggest that it felt it was covering new ground, rather than taking time to acknowledge those that have been out breaking trail for diversity and inclusion in the outdoors for years. Monahan highlights this point in her analysis: “These companies use strategically written ads in a way that alludes to them being the first ones to address these issues when in reality there have been decades upon decades of struggle against misogyny and racism.”
In future campaigns (or in future publications related to the Force of Nature campaign) I would love to see REI use its platform to support these groups, and highlight what they are doing each day for the outdoors community, particularly for those groups that are consistently underrepresented. Essentially, I feel that REI is really just joining the conversation, rather than starting the conversation, as some of the undertones of its campaign might imply (however unintentional those implications may be).
I think that this debate over REI’s campaign brings up a few key questions. What is the role of corporations in terms of forwarding social equality? What do we expect from corporations in terms of enacting positive social change? Do these companies have a duty to enact change, or should they stay away from social change entirely in order to avoid potential commodification of social movements? Can companies promote social equality agendas without commercializing them? Is commercialization always wrong if the campaign provides significant tangible benefits to the targeted community and we are simultaneously aware of the commercialization? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and would love to hear your opinions.
In conclusion, my reaction to the #ForceofNature campaign is to say, “Welcome to the conversation, REI.” This campaign is neither the start nor the finish of the discussion concerning gender equality and diversity in the outdoors, and we as a community have a lot of work to do. I am glad, however, to have one of the major outdoor gear outfitters onboard, and using its enormous platform to call attention to these issues. Imperfect progress is still progress. In climbing a peak, I would rather take one shaky step up and slide halfway back, then to stand paralyzed, waiting for the perfection, while looking at the summit from far below.
*Update (5/1): It seems that REI hasn’t been perfectly consistent in attributing credit to the athletes pictured in their Instagram posts. They consistently credit the photographer, but some posts do not credit the athlete.
**I have yet to see a version of this photo composition that pictures a man standing pensively atop the peak instead of a woman.
Barronian, Annie. “Digging Deeper into REI’s Major Women’s Initiative.” Adventure Joural. April 26, 2017. https://www.adventure-journal.com/2017/04/digging-deeper-reis-major-womens-initiative/
Becker, Kraig. “REI Has Best Year Ever, Donates 70% of Profits to Outdoor Projects.” Gear Institute. March 16, 2017. http://www.gearinstitute.com/gear-news/gear-spotter/item/rei-has-best-year-ever-donates-70-of-profits-to-outdoor-projects
Heller, Laura. “REI’s Force of Nature Wants to Change the Game for Women Outdoors.” Forbes. April 3, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lauraheller/2017/04/03/reis-force-of-nature-wants-to-change-the-game-for-women-outdoors/#7df77f2e3cdb
Monahan, Erin. “Actual Empowerment Doesn’t Matter You Can Buy it at an REI Near You”. Terra Incognita Media. April, 10, 2017. https://www.terraincognitamedia.com/features/actual-empowerment-doesnt-matter-you-can-buy-it-at-an-rei-near-you2017
Stroeer, Sunny. “Because who wouldn’t want to be a Force of Nature.” #PUREJOY. April 14, 2017. http://www.sunnystroeer.com/blog/2017/4/14/force-of-nature
Stritzke, Jerry. “Force of Nature: Let’s Level the Playing Field.” Co-op Journal. April 2, 2017. http://blog.rei.com/news/force-of-nature-lets-level-the-playing-field/
Zak, Emily. “Outdoor Recreation Isn’t Free – Why We Need to Stop Pretending It Is.” Everyday Feminism. April 8, 2017. http://everydayfeminism.com/2017/04/outdoor-recreation-isnt-free/