Here at Autostraddle, we are experts at discerning authenticity. It’s kind of our whole thing. As an independent lesbian-owned queer media company in 2019, we don’t have time for bullshit. If you’re pandering, we can tell. If you’re not putting your money where your mouth is, we know. That’s why working with REI has been such a dream. When the co-op approached us and offered to sponsor not only our Outsiders issue but also A-Camp 2019, we were blown away because REI is a huge deal – but more than that, they are the real deal.
REI’s Force of Nature, the on-going initiative that in some ways spurred the co-op’s desire to partner with companies like Autostraddle and support marginalized voices in the outdoors, may seem at first glance like a flashy advertising campaign capitalizing on modern feminism and women’s anger at this specific moment in time. But if you look deeper, it becomes clear that Force of Nature is not an anomaly for REI – rather, it’s the culmination of the company’s ethos from day one.
The REI Force of Nature initiative is powerful and authentic. Here’s everything you need to know about how it came to be.
A leader in the outdoor industry and a member-owned co-op since 1938, REI has always been a pioneer when it comes to putting women in leadership roles and listening to what is best for all of its members, not just the elite athletes among us. I spoke to multiple REI employees when putting together this story, and the passion and sincerity each one felt about REI’s Force of Nature initiative was palpable.
Andreea Niculescu, the brand strategist behind Force of Nature, said that in 2014, REI hired a new CEO, Jerry Stritzke, who had the sense that “the co-op had a responsibility – a calling, really, – to help folks live a life centered on the outdoors, based on our collective belief that a life outdoors is a life well-lived.” She described how the co-op set about demonstrating what it stood for through actions, not just words.
The first action the co-op took was the decision to close all stores on Black Friday 2015, and REI has closed every Black Friday since. The decision not only encourages all of its members to get outside on that day, but also allows its employees the same privilege.
Niculescu said that not only did the OptOuside initiative of 2015 resonate deeply with REI’s members and employees, but it also sparked recognition about something else: “somehow, through a million choices and decisions, this thing that was meant to truly be the world’s largest level playing field – the outdoors – had become gendered…As the leader of our industry, we knew we had not just an opportunity, but really a responsibility, to model and drive change.”
Laura Swapp, Director of Experiences Marketing & For All, led Force of Nature from its infancy (and actually celebrated her last day with REI on Friday, June 21 – after 8 years with the co-op she is on to new adventures!). She described how Stritzke encouraged an internal initiative, which Swapp would lead, called the Mary Trail – named after REI co-founder Mary Anderson. The initiative aimed to examine gender equality throughout the business. Swapp remembers Stritzke said, “There’s always work to do.”
Examining the entire company meant looking inward and assessing REI’s brand and marketing, the product assortment, and the people and culture both working and shopping at the stores. “We looked to see where we were strong, where we could build, and where we had opportunities,” Swapp said.
Aer Parris, an REI content specialist who has worked on Force of Nature from the beginning and also attended A-Camp with a group of REI staff this year, told me: “It’s not often that companies talk about a cause and do the internal work needed to truly stand behind it.” They emphasized that the work REI has brought to the industry as a whole now is work they have been doing as a co-op for decades. “Force of Nature was a natural extension of the behind-the-scenes work REI had been doing quietly for years,” they said. “It simply made sense.”
The thoroughness of the internal examination and the willingness of all employees at all levels to support the work is a huge part of what has made the public initiative so successful. Susan Viscon, senior vice president of merchandising and co-op brands, has worked proudly at REI for 22 years because she wanted to have a career with a company she really believed in. Speaking about the Mary Trail, she said, “It was amazing to see what it unlocked in the company. Everybody thought about what they could be doing differently.”
Both Niculescu and Swapp have fond memories of the focus groups that created the original kernels that would eventually explode into Force of Nature as we see it today. Once the Mary Trail internal project was underway, REI committed to leading many, many focus groups to understand what women both wanted and needed from the company.
“We had conversations with our employees and with women who had really chosen to center the outdoors as a character in their lives,” Swapp said. These women let their passion for being outside dictate how they spent their extra time and money, where they chose to live, and sometimes even which jobs they chose to work. “Somebody said the term ‘Force of Nature’ – we came to understand that these women had derived an energy from their relationship with the outdoors that they took to all parts of their lives. And we heard that time and time again,” Swapp said. “Force of Nature was an internal working title, which we eventually came to use outside.”
Niculescu remembers a specific moment during a creative workshop, when a colleague said under her breath, I’m so tired of ‘should.’ “It proved to be the nugget that then led to the entire multi-faceted launch initiative – this idea that the further outside you get, the quieter the ‘shoulds’ become, often disappearing altogether. And what would the world be like, we asked ourselves, if a whole generation of women and girls who came after us lived life without ‘should’? What would that mean for dreams, ambition, opportunities?”
REI quickly realized that in order to lead the conversation about gender equity in the outdoors industries and leave a lasting legacy, they could not simply have one single idea. From the research they led in 2017, they knew the meta problem they were trying to solve was that nearly ¾ of women feel they’re under more pressure to conform to social norms than men, with pressure coming from all directions, and at the same time women across demographics see the outdoors as an escape from that pressure and a space to be the most free – but access to that space was not equitable. “We needed a whole ecosystem to make a real change,” Swapp said. That’s how they came up with the five pillars that would guide the entire Force of Nature initiative.
The five pillars are as follows: changing the narrative, creating community through events and experiences, closing the gear gap, investing to create more opportunities, and developing people and culture.
Here’s a deeper look into each of those pillars. Changing the narrative focuses on the stories that we see when we think about being outside. For a long time there was an exclusive definition of the outdoors and who it’s “for” – outdoor media was dominated by the idea that outside is a place for white, cis, achievement-oriented men to pursue extreme sports. Putting women, girls, and non-binary people front and center in stories of the outdoors (like, for example, Autostraddle’s Outsiders issue!) changes what those groups feel they can experience. Creating community through events and experiences speaks to women wanting to find other women to get outside with – as a means of facilitating this REI now offers more than 1,000 workshops, events, and classes specifically for women and non-binary people (though it should go without saying, the classes are inclusive of trans women). Closing the gear gap addresses multiple issues – first, that there is a big gap in quality and variety of gear designed for men and women, and second, that until recently it was almost impossible to find outdoor clothing and gear for plus sized bodies. REI has done a lot within their own company and throughout the industry when it comes to extended sizing – you can read about it in detail on their blog. Investing to create more opportunities for women and girls is really REI putting their money where their ideals lie – the co-op has invested more than one million dollars in grassroots organizations doing work on the ground to help more women and girls get outside, along with launching the Force of Nature zine last year where paid artists were able to tell their stories of what a Force of Nature means to them followed by REI making a grant to their favorite Force of Nature fund grantee in their name. And finally, developing their people and culture to create the world’s largest level playing field at the co-op – that’s more of the inner work that is so impressive to me. REI is really looking inward and connecting outward to create lasting ongoing shifts and changes throughout the industry.
With these pillars helping to shape the new ecosystem REI wanted to create to nurture Force of Nature, the co-op has started to change the reality of what feels possible for women and non-binary folks who want to spend time outside.
Sally Johnson, senior manager of local brand engagement, impact and experiential marketing at REI, said that one of her favorite parts of Force of Nature is the acknowledgement that being outdoorsy can be a way of life for many women even if they do not self-identify as such. “I’ve met so many women who hike, ride their bike, and ski as much or more than REI employees and they do not identify as hikers or cyclists or skiers,” she said. “Up until Force of Nature, they just didn’t see themselves represented in the imagery or stories of the outdoors.”
We all know that language and representation in media and beyond can do so much to create a sense of comfort and security in community. The benefits of spending time outdoors are huge and research-based – more than 85% of all women surveyed by REI believe the outdoors positively affects mental health, physical health, happiness, and overall wellbeing – but affirming to marginalized groups that the great outdoors is not just a place for thin, wealthy, cis, white men to take up space can be the difference between someone feeling like they belong or not. Force of Nature is effectively changing the conversation.
Paolo Mottola Jr., director of content and media at REI, said that some of his favorite work with the Force of Nature initiative has been creating the media that helps communities see themselves in the outdoors in ways they hadn’t often before, like with the short films REI has created such as Within Reach, Mirnavator, I Am Here, and Follow Through. “We need to change the narrative that the outdoors is about the same looking people conquering mountains,” he said. “Outdoor experiences happen at parks, plains and on beaches, too. This isn’t an exclusive club limited by where you live, what you look like, or where you come from.”
True to former CEO Stritzke’s original statement that there is always work to be done, REI shows no sign of slowing down with its Force of Nature initiative. In fact, this is just the beginning.
Under the leadership of the co-op’s current CEO Eric Artz, who is incredibly invested in the Force of Nature and Outdoors For All initiatives, the co-op has big plans for the future and a team that truly wants to serve its members and other customers. The two most exciting things I noticed when talking to REI employees for this piece was the passion each member felt for the work that they do and the openness with which they receive feedback. In an internal slideshow REI shared with me, there is a list of suggestions on a slide titled “where do we go from here?”
Bullet points on the slide include directives such as, “be a learner, not a knower,” “equity is a long game – begin by doing the doable thing,” “listen up – there will be a conversation and you won’t anticipate the volume or the passion,” and “you will make mistakes,” among others.
As a queer fat femme who does not always feel welcome in outdoor spaces but loves being there when I am included, it feels like REI’s Force of Nature initiative is inviting me to a table where everyone seated is actually listening and actually cares. That’s huge. That is what I mean when I say REI is the real deal.
When I asked Niculescu to name the most rewarding part of working on Force of Nature, an experience that she calls “the most humbling, most exhilarating work of my entire career,” she recalled an Instagram post from a customer on the day she received the announcement of Force of Nature by mail. “She wrote, ‘Dear REI: thank you for getting us. Love, women.’ It quite literally doesn’t get better than that!”🌲
edited by rachel.