The National Park Service is turning 101 this year.
To celebrate, parks across the United States will host the annual Free National Park Day on Aug. 25. The event is designed to encourage people to interact with nature and support conservation efforts to keep at least parts of America wild. And these days, national parks can use all the support they can get.
Which is exactly why Keith Eshelman and Sevag Kazanci started Parks Project, an apparel and accessories business that donates a portion of every sale to various park conservancies.
Being a consumer and an activist are no longer mutually exclusive. By changing our shopping habits, we’ve begun to change how goods are produced—and what the sale of those goods supports. In the last year alone, 25 percent more companies took strides to sell fair trade, eco-friendly products that supported living wages for workers all along the supply chain. That news works in tandem with another study that shows 75 percent of millennials consider sustainability to be a shopping priority. And those are just the kind of stats Parks Project is banking on.
Several years ago, TOMS employees and friends Keith Eshelman and Sevag Kazanci decided to volunteer at a national park. That’s how they discovered the lack of support for these landmarks by the younger generation, and learned about all the projects desperately in need of funding. It was through that experience that they came up with the idea for Parks Project: T-shirts, drink ware, stickers, candles and (of course) national parks passes that all contribute to specific causes within our national parks.
The idea is loosely based on TOMS’ “one for one” sales philosophy, in which each purchase supports a person in need. Parks Project uses a similar model to offer support to various projects at national parks in the United States. Each Parks Project sale directly contributes to one of more than 30 different national park conservancies in the country; from restoration projects at Acadia National Park to urban youth outreach and education at Arches National Park.
The company’s Defend our Parkland collection, for example, directly promotes defending and preserving our parklands by affording the Parks Project the chance to organize volunteer days and trail crews within parks. Over the course of the next decade, Parks Project hopes to fund 100 projects and generate 100,000 volunteer hours.
Green Matters caught up with Parks Project co-founder Keith Eshelman to talk nature, legacy, and what he is most taken by when it comes to the abundance of America’s national parks.
GREEN MATTERS: Of all the causes out there (both environmental and social), what is it that resonates so strongly with you about our national parks?
KEITH ESHELMAN: Some habitat restoration projects could take decades to restore balance in an ecosystem. The other projects that support youth engagement are also more of an investment in the next generation. I have joined some of these trips where we fund busloads of inner city kids to get out to a national park for the first time and it is a mind-blowing experience. If your world just consisted of an urban concrete area, 40 blocks by 40 blocks, seeing the purity of the outdoors can expand your reality. Though this project to engage more and more youth will take time, there are immediate rewards in creating a more healthy society. The long-term effect of having more park advocacy is really powerful too.
As a father of two kids, I see the importance of introducing them to pristine nature and hope everyone in this world has the ability to connect with the outdoors. It puts the world into perspective, and hopefully down the line they will support these places because they had great experiences in them.
Why do you think it is that so many people know of our national parks, but so few people are involved with helping to protect/maintain them?
I’m not sure everyone knows the history of out parks and how much went into establishing them. They’re America’s best idea! We have unfortunately been surprised with how hard it is to educate people on how they should be so honored to be in one of the only countries in the world where we actually own our parks. They are of the people, for the people. In many other countries around the world, parks are the queen’s land or owned by the government. It's really up to us to take ownership and ensure they are taken care of for the generations to come, especially right now with the current administration!
That is definitely one of the inspiring things about this project: We can celebrate their raw beauty and uniqueness while educating people about what they can and should do to promote and protect these amazing places.
Do you personally have a favorite park? If so, what about it makes it so special to you?
Growing up in Northern California, it’s hard not to have an affinity with Yosemite—but off-season of course! It can become quite a madhouse in the summer… It’s the combination of all the elements: earth, water, air, yikes, fire sometimes too! Powerful walls and massive waterfalls can make you just stop and sit there for a long time. Humbling and beautiful at the same time, there is just something about the sierras. John Muir was drawn to them for a reason, right?
What is your first memory of going to a national park?
My first memory was a backpacking trip to Yosemite, up in the Tuolumne area. It was out of the valley, and up in the pristine wilderness. Long days of hiking, bears at night, bad instant food from the ‘90s, and amazing stream water slides to cool down and revitalize. I think everyone should try to experience a national park outside of the “main attractions,” so that they can see the rawness of wilderness. See what else that needs to be protected, and what wilderness is all about.
Do you have a cause (art in parks, park experience, etc.) that is closest to your heart?
Just the raw concept of leaving it better than we found it, really. It's our mantra, really the vision behind the brand, and something we put on our products and promote to our following. We promote leave no trace which is super important, but the idea of leaving it better could make the world such a better place. Every week, we feature a “park champion” and try to highlight folks who are actually doing this out in the parks, and we are working on a film series of folks who do this behind the scenes too. We think it will be powerful to tell these stories of unknown heroes, so we look at these selfless people with a new perspective and admiration.
Besides raising funds for these causes, what do you love most about your line?
I really dig our sweatshirts. We invested in a real high-quality, comfortable fleece and everyone I have spoken with says they live in it when the weather gets cold. Also, we are in love with the All Parks Enamel Mug—and it took a long time to get it right! It lists all of the 59 parks on it and some of us in the office have even colored in the parks that we have visited so we can keep track of how many more have to see the park system as a whole.
I think products that have all the national parks on them speak to the vastness and diversity of the park system and encourage folks to get out there and see them all. Man, I could go on and on here, we try not to make anything that doesn’t pass the “awesome test” so it's all our favorite things really!
What do you think is the single greatest threat to our national parks?
Great question. How can we bridge the digital and analog is an interesting concept. Our phones have become part of our reality, and can we find new ways to connect the next generation with the outdoors? Like getting outdoors and not just taking a selfie at a landmark. We as a society own these places and that's so unique and important.
We have to create that connection - without a connection to these special places, they will fall into the wayside of not being a priority for American citizens. We all need to get engaged, vote, hey—and wear one of our tees, too!
It's time everyone starts thinking about how we want to hand down the parks to the next generation: I say, better than we found them.