Activism is hip. You can buy into social movements with something as small as a t-shirt and send the message that you’re engaged with current events and trying to make a change in the world. The problem, though, is that a t-shirt declaring “feminist” doesn’t actually do anyone any good. Aligning yourself or your brand with a cause is a great way to gain clout among consumers or viewers with a conscience, but stepping outside superficial social positioning and actually getting something done is a whole different story. That’s why REI’s new women’s initiative, launched on Equal Pay Day in early April, is so darn cool.

As a woman raised skiing, backpacking, fishing, and exploring the wildlands of Washington, I’ve always, unconsciously, been a part of the conversation about women and the outdoors. And despite the many hurdles women in action sports and outdoor endeavors face, my favorite part of that conversation has always been the positive side of things: what the outdoors has to offer us. It gave me a sense of confidence and respect for my body and its strengths from a young age, taught me how to set goals, conquer challenges, and deal with setbacks, and showed me what freedom feels like. My time on skis, or neck-deep in the Pacific Ocean, or with a pack on my back miles into the backcountry has bled into every aspect of my life, lending me a sense of self-sufficiency, competence, patience, and humor that I might never have found without wilderness.

That’s where the founders of the initiative, dubbed Force of Nature, started. They wanted more women to feel that liberation. Inspired by REI’s long history of female leadership and gender equity, the co-op did extensive research, including a national survey of women analyzing how their relationship with the outdoors impacts their well-being with a focus on confidence and contentment, to identify the key benefits of and barriers to getting outside. Moving forward, REI is addressing those barriers with a four-fold approach: great women’s gear, a pledge to support non-profits encouraging women’s participation in the outdoors, programming specifically for women, and a commitment to more diverse and representative advertising. And sure, REI knows that buying into something you believe in feels good (after all, they’re still trying to sell you gear). But this campaign isn’t just pretty pictures of outdoorsy women and feel-good monikers. It has its feet on the ground.

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We interviewed two of the leaders behind the movement, REI’s director of integrated marketing Laura Swapp and senior vice president of merchandising Susan Viscon, to learn more about the motivation behind Force of Nature and where they’re headed with the initiative.

Where did Force of Nature originate?
Swapp: Women’s leadership and the spirit of gender equity has been a big deal at REI for a long time, so even though we’re just now talking about it in a more consumer facing way, this is part of our heritage. We were founded by a woman in 1938, Mary Anderson, with her husband Lloyd. Susan and I both had the opportunity to work with [Former CEO] Sally Jewell, who went on to become the secretary of the interior. Having a woman CEO was pretty unusual and very exciting. Half of our current reports to our CEO are women. Almost half of our board of directors are women.

About a year ago we began really talking more about our brand and storytelling and broader impact to consumers and to the industry, and how we might take our internal work into an external conversation. During that we came to understand a really critical insight, and that was that women who spend time outdoors have a sort of sense of confidence and contentment that they brought to all areas of their life, not just the outdoors. We’re surrounded by these women in the thousands of employees at REI and that’s kind of where the idea of “Force of Nature” came from.

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AJ: Can you lay out the basic tenets of the program for us?
Our effort is really how do we shine a light on that woman, on that force of nature, and inspire more women to get outside and to find that freedom? It’s multi-faceted. The core components of it are tackling the male dominated imagery that exists in the outdoor industry, which doesn’t really reflect what we know to be true in what stories there are to tell and who’s actually out there, the actual narrative of the outdoors. An investment in women and girls in the outdoors, a dollar commitment to nonprofits supporting women and girls. The launch of over 1,000 events designed for women, and we’ve already really amplified our events designed for women. Of course, last but not least, foundational to us is the best gear and apparel for women and understanding and closing gaps where we can. So those are the four pillars of what we saw had to be a holistic effort so that it wouldn’t just be a marketing campaign.

What non-profits will you be working with?
Swapp: What’s exciting is for the first time ever we’re actually doing an open call. There are two parts: we’re committing a million dollars but about half of that will be dedicated to organizations we are already working with through the REI foundation. We’re opening up the other half a million dollars in an open grant process, the portal for which will go live online soon. It will be called the Force of Nature fund, and we’re looking for unsuspecting partners, ways to get outside of our bubble, cool organizations that are creating opportunities for women and girls in the outdoors. That might be an activity like skiing but it also could be an arts or spoken word program that happens to be in the outside for girls.

In your research, what did you identify as key factors holding women back from engaging with the outdoors, and specifically how are you combating those?

Swapp: There was a whole list that came out of the survey and we’re combating those that we think we can most directly impact. Of course, weather and time were two big ones, and while we think we can address those in a tangential way by having incredible gear that can keep you cool or keep you dry, it’s hard to make time in the day but we can certainly make your scheming and your participation more efficient. But there were other things, like “Where do I go, and who do I go with? I don’t have any role models. How am I treated in an outdoor store?” And those are things we know we really can tackle.

So the creation of events designed for women, our women’s adventure travel program, our [women’s only] Outessa weekends are really designed to say “We hear your desire for a broader community.” At Outessa, half the women came alone. We really hope to see that. We can provide great information about where to go in your neighborhood and do that locally in a really relevant kind of way. And a big part of what we’re tackling are these role models. This idea that you can’t be it if you can’t see it. We’re going to tell the story. We’re going to make women the voice of the expert. We’ve really heard from women that the ability to see themselves in that narrative was inspiring and in itself tackling a barrier. Those are things we saw in the research that we felt among many things that can get in our way of getting outside that we could take on.

What results from that research were most compelling to you, or did you find illustrated your own experiences in the outdoors?

Viscon: Being a mom myself, we purposely made this study for women and girls. There was a lot of conversation around the organization about whether speaking to girls was in our sweet spot or not. And I think when you see this research, you see that [engaging at a young age with the outdoors] is instrumental in someone’s success or their engagement later. Speaking to that next generation that’s coming up is important, making sure that we built in a program that welcomes young women and girls into our events that we’re going to have, so parents can think about “what’s my role in passing this on to my child?”

Swapp: Before we did this national survey we did dozens of focus groups. We did focus groups in Seattle, we did listening sessions with our consumer panel at REI, we also did many focus groups at Outessa. There was this relationship that we heard women speaking about, about the pressures of daily life, this list which seems never to relent about all the things they should be doing and all the ways they should be: I should lose weight, I should get married, I should have kids now, I should make more money, I should be sexier. And then they spoke to us about this freedom and liberation they felt outside from that daily pressure. What was interesting in the survey for me was to see the juxtaposition of those things. This pressure and liberation. And we think that’s a liberation that’s really unique to the outdoor space, that its not this human, man-made space. Women really felt they could be themselves. That’s a pretty powerful concept. And we feel that, we know our members feel that, women of REI feel it, but it was interesting to see in a national survey.

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Let’s talk more specifically about gear. What’s so important about having women’s specific gear in the first place, and what’s different about the gear you’re highlighting as a part of Force of Nature?

Viscon: We’ve had a long history in supporting women’s gear. About 15 years ago there was actually only unisex product. REI was the leader in asking the market to create women’s specific gear, especially where fit mattered: in backpacks, in footwear, in bikes. We do have a lot of influence and being the largest specialty retailer at the time, asking our vendors to make this and committing that we would not only buy the product but that we would create the space in-store gave them a soft landing pad to invest more, and then we saw huge success.

We made huge strides but we continued to hear that we do a great job up until a point, but when she’s progressed or she wants a more technical product, either we’re not offering it or the marketplace doesn’t offer it. So that’s where we’ve been focused the last few years. We worked with teams and said we want you to make tech pieces for women but only for women, not just make a female companion to a men’s boot but come at it as if you were only making it for women. Instead of thinking “I have a men’s product, how do I make it a women’s?” think about making it from the ground up. Another area that was really underserved, if you were a women under 5’5″ and you wanted a full suspension mountain bike, there really was nothing out there. So we partnered with our two top mountain bike brands, with Ghost and Cannondale, and came to market this year with full suspension products that fit women who are under 5’5″.

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From our own brand, the Magma sleeping bag and the Flash 45 [pack] are pinnacle pieces. Those are both products that were offered only in unisex in prior years. The Magma is a top technical piece that we really wanted to have available in both men’s and women’s. And the design team, the engineering team, wanted to address how a woman expels heat differently than a man.

What does REI’s approach to designing gear for women look like?

Swapp: What’s been exciting with REI’s brand and our conversations internally is to really push on where design for women matters and where it doesn’t. Getting really crisp about understanding that pink as a colorway doesn’t make it designed for women. Pushing back and working on when design for women counts. The hip belt on your pack is different because of how women carry weight. That counts. And then there are times where it doesn’t count. How can we develop more specification and nuance around that and not take shortcuts like a colorway as meaning designed for women? Just being much smarter about it as time moves on.

What are your hopes for the future of the Force of Nature initiative?

Swapp: We want to be successful, but we also believe this is something the industry needs to take on. Across the board when we look at marketshare, REI tends to have more market share in women’s product because we give proportionate attention to that. My hope is that all vendors and retailers will really look at participation and make sure that their stores and their brand lines represent it. So, it’s everything from the products we offer to the advertising we do to the stories we tell. Our goal is to really create a movement across the industry.

Photos via REI

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