by Sara Aranda & Emma Murray
Emma and Sara were on assignment with Alpinist Magazine to report on the 2017 Outdoor Retailer Summer Show through the lens of diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility. While that report is now published online and maintains a very traditional and appropriate journalistic approach, here are other moments that either didn’t make the cut or were left for the voice of this blog. These candid and reflective snapshots of instances derived within or around the OR space hopefully give special insight into its daily, unspoken thrum.
It’s a Monday in Salt Lake City when we arrive and we’re sweaty and pressing Hydro Flasks into bathroom sinks, pens full of ink for the pages in our palm-sized notebooks and stacks of freshly-printed business cards. Locals always know when to cross the streets before we do. Exhibitors in the Salt Palace are in a mad dash to finish their booths and large crates of gear line the streets. We pick up our badges and wander around an outdoor mall. In true dirtbag fashion, we raid the free-samples of iced-tea at a boutique, make multiple rounds. Ingredients for one of the samples reads: black tea, citrus, and “golden monkey?”
“It tastes like monkey feet,” I retort. Emma sips. “Yup.” And the mall fish swim so simply. And the city shops close their doors early. We hang out of Sprouts for a couple hours, eat our fill of vegetables and lunch meat. Little did we know that it was Pioneer Day and after fighting our way through traffic and driving in reverse down closed-off neighborhood streets, we slept to the sounds of pelting rain, its undulate thunder, and the static prayers of fireworks.
Tuesday, we show up to a media preview, where a group of brands meet with attending media to discuss their newest products. Media members then vote on the product they find to be their favorite.
We wonder what the selection process was, or maybe these brands paid extra to be here? Regardless, there are many products that just seem absolutely superfluous or designed to be used for outdoor recreation ventures occasionally—such as water filtration bottles with rubber, removable boots on the bottom to prevent slippage on a table. Without these boots, however, the bottle won’t stand up anymore. So imagine the dirt and grime to be collected! Now imagine losing the rubber boot!
The majority of these newer companies were started by men who either already have other successful business ventures or recently moved from a different industry, but are thusly well-off from their past. It comes to us as no surprise that many target audiences for the apparel and products were those of high-income. One gentleman, from abroad, equates his line of apparel to that of the “medium price range of Arc’Teryx.” We politely inform him that we, as outdoor enthusiasts of the states, actually consider Arc’Teryx to dominate the podium when it comes to cost.
“This is basically a room of successful, old, white guys jerking themselves off again.” Of course there are the few women entrepreneurs, such as those behind the company Aladdin, which has partnered with The Nature Conservancy; and obviously there are men that firmly believe in their work and their cause, such as BLDG Active, which manufactures hospital-grade skin and wound repair products for the masses. Another brand, Mountain Designs, boasts sustainability by way of using oysters to distill a new fabric for their lifestyle apparel. Despite efforts on all fronts, the majority of companies attending OR will undoubtedly exude capitalism and how it is not worth while to market to low-income, underprivileged communities for profitable reasons. But we are optimistic that business ethics are changing, that systemic privileges will be sanded away, and the stereotyped attributes of masculinity versus femininity will be reassessed.
“Leadership is more than being a hardass,” Gloria Hwang states, Co-Founder and CEO of Thousand, a new company designing fashionable helmets to appeal to those who find traditional helmets appalling and “dorky.” Hwang was a finalist at the Camber Outdoors Pitchfest held at Petzl America Headquarters earlier in the day. We catch her at the media preview chatting with other finalists from the event. Elizabeth Bordessa, Co-Founder of UpcycleItNow, expresses her dislike for “venture capitalism” and traditionally (white) male agendas, and that she sees women as more likely to establish business practices that are community oriented and socially conscious. “It’s passion versus making money.”
Later that evening we head across town to The Front Climbing Club, where Shelma Jun is to give a talk about women in the outdoors. On our way, we notice the tents of the homeless, how they form clusters of alternate livelihoods in Pioneer Park, a stark contrast to the empty, newly stitched tents pitched on demo outside the Convention Center.
The climbing gym outdoor garden area is packed by the time we arrive.
“We’re working media,” Emma nonchalantly states to the front desk while biting into an apple. “Oh, well, then come right on in.” The young gentleman waves us by and Emma and I fist-bump as we enter the crowd.
Sports bras, tattoos, beer. Muscular female bodies. The audience is not surprising, the energy, empowering. Throughout Jun’s speech, women cheer and clap. “Women are looking for ways to come together,” she states, and events like this are certainly a result of that. Thus far, Jun is the first person we have heard mention the importance of accessibility via adaptive climbing, in addition to general diversity concerns. Male presence is slim, yet Emma stumbles into one while trying to catch a free chalk bag thrown into the air.
“No offense, but I was hoping there would be all men here listening to this,” Matt expresses to us. “But I admit that I purposefully came to feel uncomfortable and learn something new. I definitely feel more comfortable sharing emotional stuff with women over men.” He explains this is also his dilemma. He feels like men don’t have the same allowance in society for emotions as women do, especially in all-male spaces. He states that he would love to be able to have emotional outlets established for men in the same effective way as these events are serving to provide for women—particularly in the sense of exploring issues on inclusivity, diversity, and overall empathy. Otherwise, it might just be another bro-fest full of chauvinism in which emotions are negatively dictated as “gay,” weak, or feminine.
“Climbing is this perfect, vulnerable human space and it allows us to open up and access moral truth and responsibility no matter how we identify,” Jun summarizes, establishing how the usage of the sport for advocacy is an appropriate means.
Wednesday, at 3PM, we are introduced to Alyssa Azar from Brisbane who, in 2016, became the youngest Australian woman to summit Mt. Everest at age 19. When she was 14, after years of trekking with her father, she completed Kilimanjaro and decided to further pursue climbing, taking a 10-day course in New Zealand and fine-tuning her skills on expeditions to Nepal and the Andes. As she recounts her experience, we’re curious as to whether she was met with resistance during these courses and expeditions, due to her not only being a woman but also being atypically young. “Definitely,” she replies, “I’m sure people thought ‘Oh God’ when [I’d] show up on an expedition.”
Azar just returned from topping out Mt. Elbrus in Russia, her fourth of the Seven Summits.
How could we—two young women, young writers—comprehend the aggressive hustle and bustle without understanding all of its nuances? We wanted to investigate, ford the industry river, and instead of asking how the hottest products might interest us or other consumers, we wanted to ask those difficult diversity questions. People talk about OR as this pivotal and industry-defining moment every year, a huge social networking opportunity, the ultimate business-to-business trade show, and how the after-parties are loud and never truly remembered. So we indulged in the human humdrum of casual conversation, yet we made sure to ask those questions, even to ourselves, wandering through the commercial maze, examining the thousands of booths and products and people, taking note of what we paid attention to.
We wrap up the evening after a long and thoughtful interview with both Maricela Rosales (Latino Outdoors Los Angeles Coordinator) and James Edward Mills (journalist) at the Black Diamond booth, where earlier, Alex Honnold sat to sign chalk bags for the OR masses.
Our heads swim, our legs ache, as we’ve somehow managed to also trail run at dawn the past two mornings. Across the street, KeenFest is live with music, beer, and dancing. We meet up with our new friends and hosts for the week, Megan and Coby Walsh. The evening wanes to a DJ mix of classic 90’s hits, and we can’t help but watch a drunken woman dance around, kick into the air, flashing her undies with no fucks given. Yet, for some reason random men see this as opportunity, and try to dance with her and get so close. We notice another woman dancing happily alone, facing the stage, rocking out unabashedly with a crowd of men watching like hungry lions from a few paces behind. Our own experiences are also strewn with circling men. They just suddenly appear. One critiques me, uses his elbows to egg me on, to dance more enthusiastically, and I tell him, “No, thank you” multiple times, refuse eye-contact, dance with Emma to close them off.
Weather rolls in and the DJ shuts down early. Megan asks us to drive her car home so she and Coby can hit up a karaoke bar. Thunder shakes the car, wind slashes rain sideways across the freeways. We crash on Megan’s pull-out couch near Millcreek Canyon, let the words and the sounds sink in. Of the thousands of people at OR that we were probably passersby to, there were very few that could likely share experiences similar to Rosales and Mills, as marginalized, often tokenized, people of color.
We think of another man we met just prior, how he talked about his backpacking TV show, in which he (the single, white male hero) travels to other countries to document rugged trails.
“Are the locals and the communities a mere backdrop?” we asked him. “What is truly your target audience?” He laughed at himself because he realized how narrow his story was starting to look to us.
“I don’t know what my audience is, I suppose it’s…people here at OR: white privileged males,” he abashedly admitted.
“Why don’t you bring light to diversity issues in your show?” we asked.
“Oh I’d love to, but I’m sure it’ll just get cut out [in post-production]… But I understand that the message needs to come from those oppressing.”
What he fails to identify is that those instituting oppression wouldn’t necessarily know what the “message” is, or should be, would they? It’s communion, from both sides, dialogue and self-awareness. His statement only keys into the credit that he’s used to, that those privileged must, again, be the only heroes in this mess.
And to this we sleep and dream of green, jingling lanyards and echoing voices off tall and indeterminate walls.
Thursday, we attend a panel entitled “When Women Lead.” (While a portion of this panel and its context will be mentioned, among many other things, in our article for Alpinist, we thought it would be fun to mention a take-away quote here:)
“It’s not the penis, it’s the patriarchy.” – Jennifer Gurecki, Co-Founder of Coalition Snow
4:05 PM, and the Salt Palace’s loudspeaker booms, “Hellooo OR!” and a voice informs us it is time to gather for the “This Land is Our Land March for Public Lands.” We grab our cardboard signs, courtesy of The North Face, and head towards the open air. A stream of people press their chosen messages skyward, to the likes of “This is a sign, and so is OR leaving,” “We Love Bears Ears,” “We defend Public Lands.” We jump in, the flow of mutuality igniting a sense of a cause bigger than ourselves.
Cars honk their horns with excitement, we cheer, and we march, admittedly glad our recycled signs are not only making a statement, but also protect us from the sun on this 90-degree day. It’s a 1.1 mile stroll from the Convention Center to the imposing and colonial Utah State Capitol building. There are more than three thousand of us, and the air spins an eclectic mix of frustration fueling protest chants and the silent mantra of camaraderie. And of course, there’s the lone fella with the megaphone preaching anti-women sentiments. “Women are breeders,” he screeches, explaining how our worth is determined by how many children we birth and by the man who father’s them. Cedar Wright, who is among the crowd, playfully shoots him with his water gun.
Earlier in the day, we had expressed to our friend Eliza Earle that we wanted to attend the Reel Rock 12 Sneak Preview Party but didn’t have tickets.
“Let me ask my connection,” she stated, and one minute later, “You’re in!”
Thus, after the Public Lands rally, we show up to the Megaplex Theater down the street from the Convention Center. Outside, it’s like a small garden party with free drinks and too much sun in your eyes. Every and any sponsored athlete currently in the area is there, including Chris Sharma, Matty Hong, and Lindsey Tjian. And even the minds behind diversity-focused groups such as NeverNotCollective, Brothers of Climbing, AdaptClimbingGroup, and Latino Outdoors are in attendance. I am thoroughly impressed with the guest list.
Eventually we make our way inside to preview two new films. The first, without giving too much away, is on Chris Sharma’s newest work in Mallorca and how family has influenced his climbing. The second, is a film by Cedar Wright which debuted at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival this past spring, entitled “Safety Third.” It’s actually quite a morbid film and left many of us nauseous as it closely follows Brad Gobright’s fervor for climbing and his bold free-soloing. The part that actually did the stomach-churning was of a ground fall Gobright endured while trad climbing, something very well documented, and witnessed, in the film. And to top it off, Wright captures a moment of hesitation during Gobright’s radical free-solo of Hairstyles and Attitudes, 5.12b/c. It is almost as if Gobright is about to lose it, hand paused and wavering before successfully making a crux move, however brief; yet he somehow managed to maintain composure. It’s impressive, incomprehensible, albeit controversial for such a film to be made. We all seem to leave the theater rather uneasy and unsure as how to effectively react—but maybe that is a success in of itself, to challenge our guts in such a way?
Friday, we’re hungry and we attend the annual Social Media Lunch, seating ourselves at a large, round table with a white table cloth. Our boxed lunches are shit food and lots of packaging. Three other women join the table, all from the corporate space of social media management. They ask what Emma and myself do and we reply with, “We’re freelance writers.” We are met with calm, yet empty stares and polite smiles, then the three women continue the conversation amongst themselves. We are apparently not relatable, laughably so. The women boast about what their jobs entail, realize that maybe each one of them and their goals are too similar, so they dig deeper and deeper into their backgrounds. One of them drops the social media bomb, “I think I was hired because of my Instagram following,” chuckle chuckle chuckle. “Well I—” another one adds, “I think I was really hired because of my blog.” The gutteral, throat-filled and undeniably fake laughter rings in our ears and Emma and I stare in disbelief. We are currently witnessing our first, blatant example of a female pissing contest.
To top this experience off, a very quiet man had joined the table, eating quickly, slurping up mayo packets, crinkling his chip bags, eyeing the extra cookies in the center of the table, only to promptly reach over to claim and consume them. All the while, a presentation is being given by women from the Outdoor Industry Association regarding the importance and power of social media as a tool for companies, particularly when it comes to activism and a brand’s ethos.
The tidbits and the nuances of the show are very interesting, or the types of people who are in attendance. There’s quite a bit of social media “fame” present and sponsored athletes—all these otherworldly public figures. What are their reasons for being at a business tradeshow? Many, as Luke Mehall, publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Climbing Zine explained, are mainly here to reestablish, maintain, or create new relationships with sponsors. Understandable, and maybe that’s why OR gets such an aura of also being a social event.
Many booths strangely have treats and candies in bowls for people to grab, as if there are trick-or-treat-ers walking around. We, personally, have understood a big factor in the outdoor industry to be of health and well-being, no? Assumptions! What assumptions we are guilty of! This quick-fix, instant gratification attitude is also apparent in many of the statements given to us from brands or retailers regarding their lack of diversity when we ask why their booth marketing or passed-out booklets only display white people. One man from Germany, who came representing an apparel company, even blushed, completely caught off-guard. “Since you’re trying to move your business to the U.S., did you know that right now diversity and inclusivity is a huge topic and is of growing importance to consumers?” we asked. “Well…you know, the models we used are our friends. Plus, we’re in Germany, where everyone is mostly white. But we’re working on it.” If we had to pinpoint a motif for OR, it would be that: we’re working on it.
Another funny detail is how people often talk in other, general, social situations that surround business, politics, or matters that are built on a perceivable hierarchy, such as the sport of climbing even. Everything is prefaced with authority: “I used to be or do blah blah, so thusly…” Why do we feel the need to justify ourselves before offering advice or in directing a conversation? “Pure human intuitions don’t hold weight, apparently, unless they come with a title,” Emma notes, and “to care about the human versus the status of the human” is hard, has always been, and may very well continue to be if things don’t change.
“It was hunters that started duck stamps that taxed ourselves… to make sure that we put those resources back on the table… [And] the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act? We worked with the environmental community to pass those laws,” Land Tawney, CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, states during a panel. While the history of hunters and advocacy may be true, it’s still important to remember, as Len Necefer, Founder of @NativesOutdoors, and his peers express authentically, that Native American heritage has largely, if not always, been one of leaving things better than found.
Kenji Haroutunian, the President of the Access Fund, agrees that having conversations with allies and partners to the public land cause will be pivotal to strengthening the conservation movement. In regards to the relationship between our perception of outdoor recreationists (e.g. climbers, hunters, and kayakers) and native tribes, Haroutunian states, “Now we’re dancing partners, so we need to learn to dance.”
Considering the fact that the outdoor industry includes a notable host of ferocious women, world-record-crushing people of color, impassioned para-athletes, dedicated families with people of all ages, and Natives who don’t necessarily delineate between outdoor recreation and their means of subsistence, we arrived to the Outdoor Retailer Summer Show wondering if we could discern any noticeable change within the industry to reflect the reality of the demographics of its users and recreators. It is obvious how marketing efforts and leadership roles are still dominated by white men and a few white women in the outdoor industry. So it is a welcomed fact that OR is hosting a series of Q&A panels and lectures for the sharing of ideas related to diversifying business practices and audiences, female empowerment in the workplace, and their publicized support for public land advocacy.
But how much is actually gained? Changed? The Public Lands Advocacy Center was tucked away in a corner, not front and center as The North Face booth was. Granted, while The North Face had Alex Honnold and Cedar Wright talk about Public Lands at their booth, we felt that their presence was a huge reason (and benefit depending on how you look at it) for the large attendance. Audiences for many other panels and lectures proved small, or were examples of people “preaching to the choir,” in which messages only met the ears of those who didn’t need convincing.
Liz Valentine, Co-Founder, CEO of Swift and a well-celebrated entrepreneur, gave a talk about redefining what is deemed feminine and what is deemed masculine, particularly in the workplace and overall business ethics, and how we can become more empathetic human beings. There were eleven of us in the audience, three of which were male. We asked her if she had any inclination as to why this was such an under-attended event.
“I don’t know, maybe you can tell me,” she replied and expressed how she had given talks all over the country to large audiences, but never in the context of the outdoor industry.
We left the Salt Palace at the end of the week with only one product sample (a muscle roller), too many business cards to wedge into our pockets, and enough ideas, thoughts, and concerns to ruminate over the entire drive home. For us to witness how and where diverse human-to-human dialogues can fit into business, money, and traditionally “masculine” spaces taught us a lot about how politics, ideologies and stereotypes currently intersect in the outdoor industry, and how there is still so much more room for growth.
Focusing on the multitude of facets that make up the reality of consumer and recreator demographics will undoubtedly build a stronger, more resilient backbone for the outdoor industry than money will ever do alone. The power of diversity and inclusivity are part of a larger, more holistic movement that many advocates talk about—how it encompasses the reality of what it means to be someone born of the land, or of a land far away; how these two sides need to effectively communicate and relate; how we all need to think long-term and about each other, never just about ourselves.
Thus we believe the future is empathy, it is transparent and personable; the future is accessible and shared; and what makes these conversations so important is the fact that they’re happening. Sally Jewell, former Secretary of the Interior, in her speech the first morning, stated a quote she’d heard: “If you’re not at the table, you’re part of the menu.” We all need to engage and be a part of the dialogue in an equal manner, or else the mountains we all try to summit when fighting for a cause, or a notion, or a friend, will always seem taller and steeper for those unwilling to test their own character, and even more so for those whose voices are left unheard on the other side.
For more on this investigation, and to further a complete and focused picture, make sure to read our article published on Alpinist.com