Force of Nature: This is Just the Beginning

REI’s director of next gen marketing reflects on the start of Force of Nature and what’s to come in 2018 and beyond.

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There’s something about the end of a year that compels us to look back so that we might look forward with clear vision. At this time last year, we were dreaming about the spring launch of Force of Nature—our stake in the ground to declare gender equity in the outdoors. From the outside looking in, you might imagine our effort to create the world’s largest level playing field was a response to the political environment and the groundswell of women’s empowerment that swept large parts of the nation. But it wasn’t. We’d been working toward Force of Nature for well over a year before we launched, and in so many ways much, much longer. The political climate informed the context of our efforts but it did not define them.

As our energy built toward spring, we were ready to take action in four key areas and invited our community to join us. Leveling the playing field is not a solo sport. At the co-op, we committed to changing the narrative by putting women front and center in everything we did in 2017. First, this meant we took over our social channels, the Co-op Journal and as much media as we could. Many of you helped create and share stories.

Second, we helped build community through events and experiences for women. When we were prepping for Force of Nature, one of the primary things women told us is that they were looking for other women to get outside with. We responded with 2,700 events in 2017, and nearly 48,000 women joined in.

REI Flash 45 Pack design drawings

A third focus: closing the gear gap. Turns out, there’s more depth and breadth in outdoor assortments for men. We set about finding, offering up and telling the stories of gear designed by and for women, and we pushed the outdoor industry to do the same.

Lastly, we invested in creating more opportunities for women and girls to get outside. For the first time ever, we issued an open call for grant applications and received more than 500 requests. We read every single one, looking for innovation, diversity and impact. Ultimately, we awarded grants to 26 incredible efforts supporting everything from garden programs in women’s prisons to boatbuilding and sailing in the Bronx.

As with anything worth doing, the road was not without its bumps. Looking back, a couple of challenges stand out. When we started to “take over” all our social feeds and media, we could not have anticipated how hard it would be to find and elevate images of strong, empowered women outside. The images were almost nonexistent, and we quickly realized we’d have to create them and ask help from our community to do the same. By September of 2017, The New York Times was covering the evolution of women in stock photography and declared that, “In 2017, the most purchased photo for the search term “woman” in Getty Image’s library is of a woman hiking alone in Banff National Park.” We aren’t claiming credit for this, of course, but we are noting with some encouragement an evolution that is flowing in the right direction.

Things heated up as our community began to call us out for our limited assortment of extended sizes. We were aware this was a weakness as we began Force of Nature, but we had not anticipated the passion with which women reminded us that all good deeds are viewed with a side eye if they can’t walk into a store and buy a pair of hiking pants. Fair. This outpouring from women has expedited change.

Hiking in the woods

When we set out with an intent to declare the outdoors “the largest level playing field on earth,” we knew we were entering a long game. We’ve never called Force of Nature a campaign, and there is no end date in sight. In 2018, we will continue dedicated work in each of our four areas. We’ve moved from a women-only takeover of our channels to what we call the “new normal”: a commitment to highlighting women at least half of the time from here on out. We are committed to shining a light on women and their stories inclusive of race, age, gender expression and size. We are dedicated to not reinforcing the stereotypes of women who love the outdoors.  You will also see a much broader assortment of sizes from the REI Co-op brand and many of the brands we carry. We will also increase our events, classes and experiences designed for women year over year by 10 percent, and we will continue to invest in opportunities for women and girls through our partner organizations.

Here’s the thing. We can’t do this alone. We need your support, and there are many ways you can help level the playing field.

As a woman, your very presence on the trail, slope or desert crag is an act of affirmation to other women who are looking to see themselves in the outdoors. Consider taking someone with you who might be new to the outdoors the next time you venture out—women have told us they appreciate learning from other women. Share your pictures with the world. Please. (We love the #ForceofNature hashtag but encourage you to share in whatever way makes sense.) Join us at one of our events in 2018—there will be plenty to choose from. If you are looking to give, consider donating directly to one of the Force of Nature Fund recipients or other efforts in your region that create opportunities for women and girls. Vote with your dollars. Since the launch of Force of Nature, our women’s business has outpaced our men’s. While this was never intended to be about sales, there is strong evidence that consumers align their values to their spending. Choose brands that share your commitment to a level playing field.

Mirna Valerio Hiking

Ultrarunner and Force of Nature Mirna Valerio.

Fellas, we need you too. Be an ally by challenging gender stereotypes in the outdoors. Take a few minutes to learn directly from women like Flash Foxy founder Shelma Jun or ultrarunner Mirna Valerio or renowned ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich about their experiences outdoors. Show respect when you’re outside by not making assumptions about women’s interests or competency level. And make space. Women’s desire for conversation, community and camaraderie is not anti-man; it’s pro-woman. We’re all in this together and the more we understand each other, the better off we will be.

Finally, to all of you: thank you. Thank you for joining us online, in the mountains and on the trails. Thank you for writing to us, and watching our films and sharing your stories. This is just the beginning. #ForceOfNature

Read and watch all of our Force of Nature stories.