An open letter to the outdoor industry from veteran and Sierra Club Outdoor Director, Stacy Bare
Dear Outdoor Industry,
I love you. I have found a home amongst your puffy jackets and underneath your polyester tents. I have water bottles and hydration systems in a dozen different colors and designs that I think all have their best uses for specific activities in the outdoors. I’ve eschewed the one ski quiver and the notion that one backpack, or one pair of long underwear can do it all so I can revel in the joy of determining which piece, which item, will best suit the conditions for any given expedition.
At the trade shows and various gatherings throughout the year, we’ve laughed together as we make fun of ourselves in our plaids, our beards, and our flip flops. We’ve mourned our friends who have been taken from us. We’ve schemed and planned, and even executed on a few grand expeditions around the world. We’ve talked about how we can change the world and we’ve put our plans in action.
In a few brands I’ve found even more of a home, being brought on as a Brand Ambassador and given the keys to the kingdom and it’s been a fantastic ride, an incredible journey, but as an industry, as a collective group that I consider my tribe and my family and in no small part, the reason I am alive today, I can’t help but think some of you are a little embarrassed about who I really am and who I always will be. Not just me, mind you, but a lot of us who are a lot like me.
And because of the last several years of war, a lot of brands and manufacturers have made a lot of money getting those of us who served in the best possible gear. We were warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer, drier in the rain, better hydrated, and slept better than our brothers and sisters who served before us because of you and your hard work and innovation. Thank you.
In an era of story- and narrative-driven marketing however, relatively few brands, and it seems even fewer brands that have significant government and military sales accounts, have embraced returning veterans or veterans at all, as part of their brand narrative. Why?
My fear is that there are brands who might be concerned with alienating their traditional customer base by embracing the military and veteran community loudly and openly. Would a brand who sells to the military be concerned that it might be projecting an image as a war profiteer or pro-war business? Are brands worried core costumers might see engagement with the military and veteran community as somehow antithetical to the expressed values of a specific brand? And if a brand is really worried about these questions, why engage in selling to the military or government or police in the first place?
On the other hand, I’ve worked with brands that were hesitant to engage the military and veteran community not because they didn’t want to, but because they didn’t want to exploit veterans or the trauma and challenges many of us face when coming home. These brands however, were at least willing to engage in the conversation of how to embrace our military and veteran communities and over time, create relationships that felt comfortable for both the brand and veterans.
I would sincerely hope the lack of engagement is more of the latter and less of the former, but given our industry's demonstrated struggle to embrace change and diversity, I’m nervous about what the real answer might be for many companies. As a side note, the veteran community, as a full representation of America, is a repository for all the demographics a company could ever be striving to reach. Young, old, and a blending of all races, religions, gender and sexual identities, and political viewpoints all bound by a love of country, a love of service, and a love of gear that works!
So what’s to be done?
In the same way most outdoor companies have made commitments around connecting youth and diverse communities to the outdoors, as well as pledging vast resources and time to lands conservation and environmental work, that companies, especially those who have had success selling to the government and military, would be willing to commit a portion of their philanthropic and marketing dollars to supporting service members, veterans, and their families in connecting to the outdoors and integrating that support into the larger brand narrative.
I would also hope that HR professionals and those responsible for hiring for companies and looking for great talent, would consider exploring the benefits, both in government programs as well as in great employees that are available due to hiring military veterans.
If you don’t know where to start, the Outdoor Industry Association has taken a leadership role in supporting veterans in the industry. You can learn more about that initiative and get connected to a handful of the many veterans working either in the industry or in some of the organizations connecting veterans and the military community to the outdoors by contacting with myself or Andrew Pappas at the OIA (firstname.lastname@example.org). You can also ask around in your own company. You may have a veteran or a military family member or just a veteran ally sitting next to you or just down the hall.
And if you’re wondering how to thank a veteran—use the rights we at least nominally fought to defend. Go vote and get outside and onto your public lands. After all, what’s a better representation of all our nation’s highest ideals, if not the freedom to roam in our physical country?
See you out there and thanks for giving me a home upon my return!
Stacy Bare returned home from a year in Iraq in 2007. Prior to that, he served in Bosnia from 2003-04 and worked in land mine clearance in Angola and Abkhazia in the Former Soviet State of Georgia in '04 and '05. He now serves as the Director of Sierra Club Outdoors, and along with Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center, founded the Great Outdoors Lab in 2014 to put evidence-based research behind the power of the outdoors to heal.