Fostering a Sense of Belonging in Your Outdoor Business

By: Myra Strand

The Great Outdoors—it's a term that conjures images of majestic landscapes, open skies, and the freedom to explore. Nature, in its boundless beauty, does not discriminate or have the tendency to prejudge. However, the outdoor industry, which serves as the gateway to these natural experiences, has not always been as inclusive as the landscapes it encourages people to explore. In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness of the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the outdoor sector. This article delves into why these elements are not just ethical imperatives but also crucial to the industry's growth, innovation, and sustainability, especially through the lens of intersectionality.

5 individuals of varying ages and races huddle together on a trail smiling

Diversity: The Varied Faces of the Outdoors

Diversity in the outdoor industry is about representation. It's about ensuring that people from all walks of life—regardless of race, gender, age, sexuality, ability, nation status or socioeconomic status, etc… have access to outdoor spaces, activities, and narratives.

Historically, the outdoor industry has been more accessible to able-bodied and affluent individuals and often the marketing and representation reflects this gap. This narrow depiction not only alienates potential participants but also overlooks the rich tapestry of various people that also find solace, healing, and joy in nature.

By actively promoting diversity, the outdoor industry can break down the barriers that prevent underrepresented groups from participating. This includes showcasing diverse role models, creating gear that caters to a variety of body types, and telling stories that resonate with a broader audience. When people feel represented, they are more likely to see outdoor activities as accessible and welcoming. 

Equity: Leveling the Trail for All

Equity goes hand in hand with diversity. It's about creating fair opportunities for all individuals to access and enjoy outdoor experiences. This means not just opening the doors to diverse populations but also providing the support and resources needed to walk through those doors.

For instance, outdoor gear or trips can be prohibitively expensive, and many natural spaces are not readily accessible to those with physical disabilities or those who lack transportation. The outdoor industry must strive to address these challenges, perhaps by offering gear libraries, advocating for accessible trails, and supporting initiatives that help underserved communities engage with nature.

Inclusion: Cultivating a Community Where Everyone Belongs

“Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”-Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, watch the video.

Inclusion is the active engagement with diversity and equity. It's not enough to simply invite people into a space; the outdoor industry must foster an environment where everyone feels valued and heard. Inclusive practices could involve training staff on cultural competency, implementing feedback systems that listen to diverse voices, and creating platforms for collaboration and advocacy among different communities.

Inclusion in the outdoor space also means celebrating the varying ways in which people engage with nature. From urban gardening and local parks to mountaineering and backcountry skiing, validating a wide range of outdoor experiences encourages participation and underscores that there's no single "right" way to be outdoorsy.

Intersectionality: The Interwoven Dimensions of Identity

Intersectionality—a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989—refers to the idea that social categorizations such as race, class, gender, and others intersect to create overlapping systems of discrimination or disadvantage. In the context of the outdoor industry, recognizing intersectionality is paramount. A black woman, for example, may face both racial and gender biases that shape her experience in unique ways. Similarly, a person of color who is also in a wheelchair may navigate a complex array of challenges in accessing outdoor spaces that are not readily apparent to those who only consider one aspect of their identity.

The outdoor industry must consider these intersecting identities to create truly inclusive and supportive environments. This means going beyond one-size-fits-all solutions and recognizing the nuanced needs and experiences of everyone. By doing so, the industry can address the root causes of inequality and build a community that not only tolerates diversity but celebrates and learns from it.

Programs and initiatives that focus on intersectionality might include partnerships with organizations that support marginalized groups, scholarships for underrepresented individuals in outdoor leadership roles, and events that highlight and educate on the diverse cultures and contributions to the outdoor world. Education on intersectional environmentalism, which acknowledges the ways in which injustices affecting marginalized people and the earth are interconnected, can also be integral to these efforts.

The Business Case for DEI in the Outdoors

Beyond the moral imperative, there's a strong business case for embracing DEI in the outdoor industry. A diverse customer base expands the market and drives innovation in products and services. Companies that prioritize DEI are often more creative and resilient, as they draw from a wider range of perspectives and experiences. Moreover, consumers are increasingly seeking out brands that align with their values, and companies that are proactive about DEI are likely to build stronger, more loyal customer relationships.  Everyone wants to feel like they belong.

Moving Forward Together

As we look to the future, the outdoor industry has the opportunity to be a leader in fostering a sense of belonging. By committing to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and by embracing the principles of intersectionality, the industry can create spaces where all people feel they have a place on the trail, in the water, on the slopes, and in the great expanse of nature.

The journey toward a truly inclusive outdoor industry is ongoing, but each step taken is a step toward a world where the boundless wonders of the outdoors are matched by boundless opportunities for everyone to explore, enjoy, and protect them. This is not just a call to action for the industry's stakeholders; it's an invitation for all of us to be part of a movement that enriches our lives and ensures the sustainability and vibrancy of the natural world for generations to come.

About the Author

Myra Strand, MA, CA, is the proud owner of Strand² Squared Solutions, a company specializing in training and providing technical assistance.  The mission is to pave a path from trauma to transcendence through training, education, and technical assistance.

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