“OPTING IN” TO OUTDOOR EQUITY AND ENGAGEMENT: A Conversation with REI’s Jerry Stritzke

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

The Children & Nature Network is grateful for REI’s support of the children and nature movement, and for its role as a sponsor of the 2016 C&NN Conference, which was the network’s biggest conference yet. Richard Louv, co-founder of C&NN and author of “Vitamin N” and “Last Child in the Woods,” sat down (virtually) with REI president and CEO Jerry Stritzke, who has led several major companies. The main topic of the conversation: How can we move the new nature movement from greater public awareness, which it has achieved, to more direct action by families and communities?

SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 27: Specialty Outdoor Retailer REI announces Black Friday closure at 143 stores nationwide with unveiling at Seattle flagship store as part of #OptOutside initiative on October 27, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Suzi Pratt/Getty Images for REI)
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SEATTLE, WA – OCTOBER 27: Specialty Outdoor Retailer REI announces Black Friday closure at 143 stores nationwide with unveiling at Seattle flagship store as part of #OptOutside initiative on October 27, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Suzi Pratt/Getty Images for REI)

I’d like to start by asking you about REI’s #OptOutside campaign. According to Advertising Age, “In the retail world, REI has done the unthinkable: On Black Friday in November, once deemed the holiest day in all of shopping,” the retailer closed its doors and paid its employees to connect with nature. In fact, Advertising Age called it “a model for the future of marketing.” We’re wondering what the results of that were.

It exceeded our expectations. We had about 1.4 million people who took some action vis-à-vis social media to indicate their intent to opt outside on Black Friday. More than 170 organizations, a lot of them outdoor-related, participated in some way. There was a lot of media attention (7 billion impressions). And there was a great deal of dialogue that surfaced around the idea of spending time with loved ones outside. The campaign literally spread beyond the borders of the United States. Hundreds of state parks opened for free on that day, and a number of national parks as well. And it was just delightful to hear from the directors of these parks that those were record attendance days for them.

Will you be doing it again?

We are in the middle of planning and we can’t share a concrete commitment yet, but we will move in that direction and are excited about the prospects. One question we have been asking is how can we engage more organizations who care about life outdoors to get involved in this movement to help people choose life outdoors and we are open to thoughts…

I’m interested in the approach that the corporate world would take to broaden public awareness of this issue, applying the techniques that are used in marketing and for building followers. REI’s membership program is in some ways similar to what environmental organizations do. Although the Children & Nature Network doesn’t have a direct membership approach, our purpose is to help build a new nature movement. Are there ideas that you have had, not only at REI but at some of the other companies that you have worked with, about marketing and sales that could be applied to that cause?

I subscribe to the idea that, if your story is just about making money, it’s not compelling. Young people, in particular, are really looking to identify with, and have relationships with, organizations that stand for something. They want to be a part of a community. The Millennial is becoming an increasingly important driver of the economy, and they are deliberate and thoughtful about purpose.

One of the things that I have loved about being part of the REI Co-op — which was organized more than 75 years ago — is that it’s based on our common passion for getting outside. It’s an enduring passion and principle that resonates deeply with people.

Movements are more about pull versus pushing messages. Pushing a message is tough. You have to continue to put fuel in that fire, to feed it, to put dollars behind it. Whereas, if you are able to articulate something that resonates with people, they can choose to be part of it. That’s when you start getting pull and that is much more powerful. Understanding those two different models is important. It’s about asking yourself if you’re taking something that you are passionate about and just pushing it at people, or are you creating a conversation that is compelling for a community of people — a community that actually draws more people into that conversation?

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The children and nature movement is at a pivotal moment in which we need to transition from public awareness, which has improved over the past decade, to more active encouragement of specific actions that people can take in their own interest. It’s the primary reason we’ve launched the Vitamin N Challenge. How could we do a better job of turning awareness into direct action?  

That is a big question. Some of the ideas we have had in the past are probably not going to be the answers with which to move forward. I think about two things. Community is a very big word to me so I think about what creates community? And how do people begin to identify with communities? One of the things that we do at REI (that we probably don’t talk about enough) is to put hundreds of thousands of people through outdoor classes. Some of that effort is just about giving someone the confidence to go do something, like ride a bike for kids and adults.

At REI, we pay a lot of attention to the on-ramps to the outdoors. One of the biggest challenges around getting kids outside is getting their parents outside. This goal requires becoming very deliberate about what the on-ramps are and how to enable them.

A couple of years ago, we started a camping program where anyone could sign up and go camping. To our surprise, we started seeing single moms show up with their kids. We learned many of these moms didn’t have the confidence to go camping without us there as a backdrop. They thought, “If I camp with REI, I’ll stay warm, or there will be somebody there I can ask about camping.” So some of it is just instilling confidence yet the possibilities of this approach are almost limitless.

What about the use of technology? I was in Vancouver BC speaking at a conference recently and I met a young high school biology teacher who is making great efforts to get his students outdoors to learn in nature. He said something interesting that I’ve also heard elsewhere. He told me that his students don’t seem that impressed with computers but they are curious about nature. When I was a small boy, my grandmother would stop in her tracks and point at the sky and say, “Look Richy, there’s an aeroplane!” To her, airplanes were still new but, to me, they’d always been there. I’m wondering if something similar, generationally, is going on now. To people my age, computers are still new, and amazing. To younger people, maybe not so much. Maybe they take them for granted. But to them, nature is novel. Nature is something they haven’t done.

I have always wondered if it’s really us against technology, or is technology just an amplifier. As technology becomes so ingrained in our lives, could it actually enable outside experiences?  When I was growing up, I could put water, matches and ten essentials into a backpack and be confident that I could spend a night outdoors and make my way back. But there are a lot of people today who don’t have that confidence outdoors. Is one way to address that lack of confidence to make technology more available — so that people who have a higher comfort level with technology feel more comfortable experiencing the outdoors?

I think all of these approaches are going to be in play. I don’t think connecting people to the outdoors should be about demonizing technology. You and I have seen the advent of the personal computer. We have seen the advent of cell phones. We have seen the advent of a smartphone. Who knows what the technology curve is going to be in the next 20 to 30 years? But I do know that the transformative power of being outside is going to still be there in 20 to 30 years.

How do we create a kind of contagion around the new nature movement that doesn’t ultimately depend on programs or foundations or government?

As more people are concentrated in major metropolitan areas, we need a disruptive view of what it means to be outside. We have to become more deliberate about creating outside opportunities in cities and then bridging out of those metropolitan areas into a deeper experience with the outdoors. An easy example of that is a climbing gym. Does that become an environment that’s aspirational and interesting? Does it create a generation of kids that then aspire to climb on rock? How do you bridge someone from a gym to rock? But if you don’t have that gym, do you ever get them to consider bridging to rock, or to learn about the ethics of being outside, and about the transformative outdoor experience? REI has demonstrated that we can be in major metropolitan areas and create bridges to the outdoors.

I want to ask you about the equity issue. While the children and nature movement may be more diverse than the general environmental movement (and REI has been very supportive of C&NN’s diverse Natural Leaders), we still have a long way to go. The outdoor equipment industry faces some of that challenge as well. As you know, entry-level equipment almost disappeared from the market a few years ago, in favor of high-end equipment. How can the outdoor industry, and also the new nature movement, meet that challenge?

Regarding accessible gear and equipment, on behalf of the REI Co-op, we do several things that are important. One is our outlet business channel for surplus goods. We have some of the best buyers in the industry and they’re out there scouring for high-caliber products. We make the best of those products available to our members at great prices. We’re also looking at used gear, and at how we can bring our expertise to bear in that area. Because we have one of the most powerful return policies in the country, we already push millions of dollars of used gear back into the market at great deals through our Garage Sales. But we think we need to be more articulate about what we are doing there.

We’ve all got to be committed to reaching out to as many young people as we can, from whatever environment they’re from, into the outdoors. Recently, I was in Yosemite participating with a program to take 8th graders in California through a week-long experience. This was a very diverse group of kids. But you know, that really wasn’t the storyline. The storyline was that there were a bunch of 8th graders in the California school system who were out in nature and having a great experience. It was an awe-inspiring experience for all of them. It was an awe-inspiring experience for me.

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