In recent years, fly fishing brands have felt compelled to voice their opinions in the halls of power.
[By Zach Matthews]
The day after the 2016 Presidential election, a memo circulated inside the halls of Patagonia’s headquarters in Ventura, California. Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario let her team know that the company would be doubling down on its efforts in environmental activism, even if taking more openly political positions might mean a hit to short-term profits. A few months later, the company’s website went dark, with a stark, black-and-white sentence replacing the normally colorful scenes of climbers and rafters amid incredible landscapes. That sentence pulled no punches: “The President Stole Your Land.”
Meanwhile, across the country in Vermont, Orvis CEO Perk Perkins was hearing a lot from guides in South Florida. The Everglades were drying up, they said, and a disgusting tide of algae was wiping out days and even whole weeks of prime fishing time in Florida Bay. Something had to be done, and they were looking for help and leadership anywhere they could get it. In coordination with a campaign launched by the Everglades Foundation and Captains for Clean Water, the Vermont-based CEO hopped on a plane for Tallahassee, hoping to make the pitch to Florida lawmakers that local issues weren’t really as local as they seemed.
Unquestionably, outdoor companies have been more willing to make political stands in the recent years—about such issues as Pebble Mine, climate change, and more local environmental concerns. As corporations, these businesses ultimately all answer to their owners or shareholders, raising the question: Why go political at all? What is important enough to risk public blowback from customers, who can now so easily set off social media firestorms, even if everyone at the company feels strongly about an issue?
“A lot of people say to us, ‘You guys make fleeces—why don’t you just go back to doing that?’” explains Patagonia spokesperson Corey Simpson. “But they need to remember, this is also a bottomline decision for us, too.” Patagonia, Simpson points out, relies heavily on actual outdoorspeople, both to purchase its products and to carry its lifestyle message into more pedestrian venues.
“Most of the people we sell products to really do use public lands,” Simpson continues. “They are hunters and anglers and climbers and boaters, and when politicians attack the places they go to pursue their passion, that has a real impact on our entire industry. History teaches us when federal lands get turned over to the states, pretty soon there isn’t enough state money to maintain that land. That leads to sale of the public lands to private industry. Once there’s a uranium mine on the property, nobody wants to go hiking there anymore.” Patagonia’s brass believe this strongly enough that they put their money where their mouth is by initiating a lawsuit against the Trump administration. Patagonia’s suit challenges the president’s authority to redesignate millions of acres of land within Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments.
Surprisingly, the backlash Patagonia expected has not materialized. “We were prepared to take the hit,” Simpson says, “but the outdoors community has rallied around us. We may have actually gained from taking a stand, even if that wasn’t our short-term goal.”
Orvis CEO Perkins also found a very different reception than he expected. “What we look for when we pick out an issue to become involved in are unassailable facts that we can use regardless of party or beliefs,” he explained. “Lake Okeechobee used to drain south in highwater events, replenishing what they call the Sea of Grass before flushing through the Everglades. People with good intentions over a hundred years drained the Sea of Grass for agriculture, rerouting that water east and west to the coasts. Because the water never filters through marshes, it stays rich with nutrient and fertilizer runoff, causing the red tides. Those are all facts everyone agrees on.” The solution, as many in the outdoor industry see it, is pretty simple: redirect the water.
“When I met with lawmakers in Tallahassee, I was expressing our support for the plan to build a redirection reservoir on state land south of Okeechobee. They took it very well; they listened and seemed impressed that this was an issue important enough to bring someone down from Vermont to discuss with them.”
Like Patagonia’s defense of national monuments in the West, Orvis also points to the Urged by guides and anglers, Orvis’s Perk Perkins (right) met with Rick Scott, governor of Florida, to discuss protections for the Everglades. Soon after President Trump shrank two national monuments in Utah, patagonia.com changed the look of its landing page. collective goal: “There are three national parks in South Florida. That land belongs to everyone, and if our customers can’t access it to pursue the recreation we help outfit, everyone loses.” Perkins noted that the South Florida hotel industry was equally interested in this issue: “The hotel guys were great; they showed up with charts of reservation days lost, real bottom-line impacts. Local guides did a great job, too, pointing out that if they can’t guide, you know, that’s a family that is losing income. This is about environmentalism, yes, but it’s also about practical effects on real people.”
The answer to the question “Why go political?” seems to have deep roots, going all the way back to the foundation of the outdoor recreation and conservation movements as we know them. After all, it was a politician—Teddy Roosevelt—who originally sponsored the Antiquities Act, which is the subject of Patagonia’s suit.
Customer response to corporate activism is as varied as the customers themselves. (And these days, since every company also has a website, it’s easy for a customer to make his or her opinion known.) Some challenge their own representatives’ authority: “Who gave this governor permission to sign for all Florida residents?” asks commenter Tracey Putman on Orvis’s website. “He’s drowning the state.” Others are quick with the attaboys: “I worked in the Everglades thirty years ago and learned what a special place it is,” says Jeff Mosier. “I am very pleased that finally something is being done.”
Ultimately, as in all things political, there seems to be little consensus. That leaves companies following the lodestar of their own best judgment. By “going political,” companies are effectively taking the long-term view, even if it hurts them in the short term, and thereby making sure the public lands and waters that are the basis of their own livelihood remain available for everyone’s enjoyment.
Zach Matthews is an attorney, a freelance writer, and the host of The Itinerant Angler podcast. He lives in Atlanta.