Younger generations want to save crumbling federal institutions. Retail brands like Parks Project use a give-back model to help them do that.
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America loves its national parks. In 2019, 327.5 million visits were made to the system of protected public lands, up 2.9% from 2018, according to the National Park Service. 2020 is shaping up to be a massive year for the country's parks too, as hiking and camping were two of the safest ways to take a summer vacation during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the chronically underfunded National Park Service has been steadily accruing a backlog of vital repairs, restoration, and maintenance projects totaling $12 billion. These two factors — the people's passion for national parks and the parks' lack of funding — led Keith Eshelman, a retail veteran, to an idea. What if he could translate that passion into money, in a way that's fun, engaging, and educational: swag. Eshelman had spent time volunteering at various parks around California, like Muir Woods and Yosemite, and found it hard for the average outdoor enthusiast to discover the conservation groups managing these projects. They didn't just lack funding, they lacked visibility. "Why can't we take the idea of creating newer, fresher, better-made products that would in turn fund some of these projects I was learning about?'" Eshelman said. That question led him to cofounding Parks Project. "We thought we could make a better product, and we thought we could connect people with parklands," he told Business Insider in an interview. In 2014, he launched Parks Project, a national-park apparel and home-goods brand that funds projects at various public parks around the country, along with his cofounder Sevag Kazanci. Today Parks Project has put more than $1 million into various conservancies and parks. Eshelman and Kazanci are alumni of Toms Shoes, which popularized the "give a pair, get a pair" model that's also been used by other major retail brands like Warby Parker. Parks Project employs a similar "give-back" model: Each item on the site is connected to a different conservation nonprofit or project that each purchase helps fund. For example, buying this Yosemite T-shirt helps support Yosemite's visitor programs through the Yosemite Conservancy. But what makes Parks Project unique is that it single-handedly brought national-park apparel to the people. "You couldn't really find a park product outside the park stores," Eshelman said. "We kind of were the first to crack that." Even though passion for parks was there, swag was limited to gift shops and tourist kiosks within national parks or nearby towns. Eshelman saw the opportunity to create great park- and conservation-inspired apparel and find customers where they were already shopping: online. The interest took off, and in addition to direct-to-consumer e-commerce, which makes up the majority of the company's sales, Parks Project signed partnerships with the outdoor retailer REI, as well as the hipster fast-fashion brand Urban Outfitters. The latter demonstrates that beyond the crunchy consumer set, protecting mother earth is trendy. Parks Project isn't the only startup trying to aid the underfunded and oversubscribed national-park system. Hipcamp, which has been hailed as the "Airbnb of camping," connects landowners who list their properties as campsites with outdoor enthusiasts looking for a place to pitch a tent. Founder Alyssa Ravasio initially created the site to aggregate campsite booking for national parks into one user-friendly website but quickly found that campsites within parks were always booked up. She turned to private landowners to supplement the strapped system and help tourists enjoy nature in a sustainable way. Eshelman says the private sector's nimbleness means startups like his and Ravasio's are able to jump in and help when the public sector is struggling. "By design, they both move at different paces," he said. "The public sector is supposed to be slow and steady." They're also not the only retailers trying to save a troubled federal institution. Earlier this year, the US Postal Service's grave financial situation came to the fore, worrying the public over the effect it could have on the presidential election, which will heavily rely on mail-in ballots because of the pandemic. To support the institution, socially conscious young people snapped up Postal Service swag like limited-edition stamps or an envelope crop top. On October 7, the funky California retailer Fred Segal announced it was partnering with USPS to create five new pieces of USPS-branded clothing, including another crop top and a tie-dye shirt (Parks Project also sells tie-dyed shirts).
"For years, we have wanted to join forces with the USPS," Jeff Lotman, the CEO and owner of Fred Segal, said in a press release on the collaboration. "Considering the major impact of the pandemic on their business, we knew the timing was right." The timing is right for consumers too. Giving a damn is more popular than ever — younger generations are passionate about social and environmental issues. In the Taking Stock With Teens fall 2020 report by Piper Sandler, surveyed teens ranked racial equality as their top concern and the environment as their second. In the two prior reports, the environment took the No. 1 spot. Parks Project and Fred Segal have both tapped into the zeitgeist: Young Americans, stuck at home and often feeling helpless, sometimes turn to consumerism to feel like they're making a difference. Eshelman, who has conversations with Parks Project customers every Friday, said they often tell him, "I'm trying to figure out a way to put my dollars into mission-based brands, things that I believe in." But for Eshelman, he hopes that people buying a tie-dye shirt emblazoned with the phrase "Defend Our Parklands" is just the beginning. "We're a gateway, really," he said. "Some people use mailers; some people use content. We use apparel and home goods to bring you into a journey about learning more about parks. We can bring people down the pipeline to becoming supporters, voters, and activists."Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why thoroughbred horse semen is the world's most expensive liquid
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