Force of Nature: REI Advances Gender Equity in Gear and Support

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A look at what REI has accomplished since 2017—and what's in store for 2020.

Since launching the Force of Nature initiative in 2017, REI has steadfastly worked to broaden the narrative about who participates in the outdoors and to level the playing field for women. In the past three years, the co-op has promoted gender equity outside by closing the gear gap, offering more sizes in apparel, creating women-only events, promoting internal opportunities for women working at the co-op, dissolving unnecessary gender labels on gear, supporting organizations that promote inclusivity and spotlighting the many women crushing it outside.

The historical lack of diversity in outdoor media and marketing has long sent the message that women don’t belong, said Stephanie Clare, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Washington. “To put women in the outdoors is really changing that discourse,” she said.

The Force of Nature effort supports the notion that the outdoors is for everyone. Three years into the commitment, here’s the progress the co-op has made.

More Sizes for Women

An obvious barrier to spending time outside is having few options for gear and apparel that fit, which is a reality for the nearly 70 percent of American women the industry estimates wear a size 14 or larger. Sam Ortiz, an REI Co-op member and founder of Climb Big, a community for plus-size climbers, said there is a lack of specialized gear—such as rain pants, sleeping bags and climbing harnesses, to name a few—for people who wear plus sizes. Though Ortiz has seen progress in the last couple years, she said the historical lack of extended sizing in outdoor apparel promotes the idea that the outdoors are only for people who wear sizes within a standard industry offering. 

“If you can’t find things that are warm or waterproof, you don’t get to participate in that activity,” she said.

As part of the Force of Nature effort, the co-op committed to expanding its apparel option count for women who wear a wider range of sizes by 20 percent in 2020 across technical categories, including rain and insulated jackets. Sizes will range from 1X to 3X and 16W to 24W for plus; 0S to 16S for petite; 0T to 16T for tall; and 5 to 12 for wide shoes. In November 2020, REI will be adding women’s plus-size snow pants, bibs and jackets to its technical offerings. 

In 2018, REI doubled its sales of apparel in extended sizing and held trunk shows at six stores across the country to allow women to ask designers and brands questions and provide them feedback. Informed by the commentary, in 2019, REI also increased by 50 percent the clothing options for activities like hiking, swimming, running and yoga. 

But there’s still room for progress. Ortiz points out a major one: a need for plus-size clothing in every brick-and-mortar outdoor store, not just online shops. Plus-size people “come in many more shapes and sizes than a typical straight-size person, so trying on clothes is even more important for us,” she said.

The co-op will be offering extended sizing in 31 stores by spring of 2020, up from the current 26. The modest expansion is mostly because the co-op is still testing and learning about the products people want, said April Zito, REI senior category merchandising manager. Plus, the process of creating a new productfrom ideation to executiontakes months. There is at least one store that offers extended sizing in each regional market REI serves. People also have the option to order and ship items to an REI store, where they can try on the clothing before buying. 

“We still have the opportunity to feel more confident in the assortment we’re offering,” Zito said. “We really want to get that right first before we continue to expand further and further.”

Closing the Gear Gap and Dissolving Gender Labels

Over the past three years, REI has made progress working across the outdoor industry to close the gear gap between the depth and breadth of men’s and women’s gear assortments, and to elevate outdoor entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses by supporting initiatives like Women-Led Wednesday.

Today, that commitment to close the gap is part of a broader effort to eliminate gender labels on gear, such as snow goggles, helmets, snowboards and bikes, when the distinction is unnecessary. However, it’s still uncertain when these changes will happen. It’s a work in progress, said René Costales, a senior category merchandising manager at REI. 

Bike manufacturers have long produced women’s bikes to accommodate an assumed physical difference among genders, such as shorter torsos or longer arms. But those physical measurements vary by person, not by gender, said Cyndi Mundhenk, senior product manager in Co-op Brands. Gear categorized as men’s or women’s creates barriers for people who may feel better using an item not marketed as their identifying gender. Segregation also feeds the idea that women’s gear should be different and, in some cases, lower quality. There is an exception to some gear, like backpacks and sleeping bags, that are made differently to accommodate anatomical differences. For instance, the chest strap on a woman’s pack is higher than on a man’s pack. 

“It’s kind of condescending to offer something that’s different—maybe lesser—when you don’t really need to,” Mundhenk said. There are still some “women’s” Co-op Cycles bikes on clearance or soon-to-be on clearance at REI stores and online. However, the bike brand is not producing additional gendered bikes. Several other bike brands sold at REI will continue to sell bikes marketed by gender; however, REI is working closely with its brand partners to progress the industry as a whole on topics like gender, extended sizes and more. 

“What this conversation does is erase that kind of outcome that says women can’t have the highest-performance product in categories like bikes or snowboards,” Costales said. This gives “women access to the very best products that are available in the market.”

Funding Inclusion Efforts

In conjunction with promoting inclusivity in apparel and gear, the co-op made a commitment to support organizations taking their own strides to improve outdoor access. In the first three years of the Force of Nature initiative, REI donated more than $2.5 million to more than 80 organizations that promote inclusivity outdoors. The donations were made through the Force of Nature fund and other philanthropic efforts. The groups—including Latino Outdoors and Ice Age Trail Alliance—support women, girls and other underrepresented groups.

Wisconsin-based Ice Age Trail Alliance, for instance, used the donation to support its Trailtessa retreats, which teach women skills like backpacking, snowshoeing and tree felling along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, a 1,200-mile trail through the state. 

Another recipient, West Town Bikes, a nonprofit that teaches job skills to youth of all abilities and backgrounds in Chicago, used the funding to open its doors to girls and women. The money supported Girls Bike Club (GBC), a drop-in program open to all girls and young women in the community to ride together and learn to build and repair bikes. The program created a space for girls to explore what are often male-dominated interests, like mechanics and cycling.

The kids “realize that a bicycle is a tool for achieving so much in their lives,” said Garth Katner, the organization’s resource development manager. “It exposes them to neighborhoods and nature they wouldn’t have been exposed to.”

Kristen Ragain, manager of REI’s philanthropy and community partnerships, said that while it’s important to support gender equity outside, the co-op is expanding its efforts to support organizations that connect historically underrepresented groups to the outdoors. This includes women and girls, as well as Indigenous people, people of color, veterans, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and those with physical challenges, among others. Funding organizations that are dissolving barriers is an intentional way of supporting people who want to enjoy the outdoors, she said. In keeping with this, REI’s donation approach has also changed since 2017. The FON fund was discontinued at the end of 2018 as the co-op expanded its funding priorities to serve underrepresented groups.

“Some people do not feel safe or welcome in the outdoors for a number of reasons,” Ragain said. “That is why it is so important for REI to help create equitable access to the outdoors for all.”

Spotlighting Women

Since 2017, REI has emphasized creating opportunities for women to grow and be noticed.

The co-op doubled down on programming for women in 2017, offering nearly 2,700 classes, outings and events that year that served roughly 48,000 women. The available programming has continued to expand since. For co-op employees, a quarterly women’s roundtable began in 2019 as an opportunity for employees to discuss topics such as taking and receiving feedback and being a better self-advocate.

Women also gained a spotlight in podcasts, films and narratives. Whether it’s setting speed records, challenging outdoor stereotypes or promoting diversity on the rock wall, women have long made major strides in the outdoor space. As an extension of the Force of Nature effort, women have taken center stage in many stories produced by the REI editorial team since 2017. The short film Do Better Together went behind the scenes with pro cyclist Ayesha McGowan as she talked about the importance of becoming the first female African-American pro road cyclist. An episode of REI’s Wild Ideas Worth Living podcast featured Sarah Herron, founder of SheLifts, a nonprofit organization that helps women and girls with physical differences embrace outdoor activities. Meanwhile, the Co-op Journal published hundreds of narratives by women and about women illustrators, runners, moms, climbers, mountaineers and more. 

Even still, the effort to spotlight women is ongoing. Many of women’s remarkable stories are missing from history, and REI wants to continue changing that. Starting March 2, the co-op is inviting forces of nature everywhere to share their untold outdoor stories, which will be amplified later this year to inspire more women to form their own bond with the outdoors. 

Progress has been made, but the effort is far from over.

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