National parks are getting revitalized

About eight years ago, Keith Eshelman and his wife took their newborn on a hiking trip to Big Sur, California. This Los Angeles couple used their final days of paternity leave to introduce their daughter to one of their favorite trails, only to find it closed due to lack of maintenance. Eshelman, then 38, had something of an awakening: How would he leave parks and trails for his daughter and the next generation?

I've sat around the dinner table and pondered similar questions, but I was a generation removed from a generation for whom the decision of whether to have children was even a point of discussion. So my question is not about imagining a very real child's future, as Eshelman did, but more theoretical: about widespread climate anxiety and the ethics of deliberately bringing another human being into such an environment.

My racking my brains was largely in vain. Eshelman took him and started a company—one that was quickly adopted by the fashion world and became a seasonal gift-giving favorite. This is a story about a hippie startup.

“We saw a lot of people scrambling to buy all their camping gear at the height of the pandemic.”

The Parks Project was born in 2014 with a group of volunteers that Eshelman and co-founder Sevag Kazanci would gather regularly for trail cleanups. Both were employees of TOMS, and within two years their fledgling team had grown into a social good brand of its own. They began designing clothing and accessories related to the national parks, many of which used retro-style graphics to label attractions such as "Yosemite" and "Mount Rainier."

“The early days were very bootstrapped,” Eshelman said. "We had no investors. I took my own cash as start-up capital. We operated out of garages, plural."

In 2016, the company became an official partner of the National Park Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the National Park Service, where they designate funds from each purchase toward specific backlog projects in the national parks. (For example, a pair of high-waisted biker shorts with a collage of earth-tones inspired by Zion National Park’s narrow straits will help fund Zion’s new visitor center.)

The park project enters the commercial market at a time when President Trump is rolling back environmental protections and auctioning off public lands. “People increasingly want to know and really care about what brands stand for,” says fashion editor Aemilia Madden. “It’s not enough to be a cute, beautiful or popular brand.”

Purchasing an item from Parks Project is actually a political stance, similar to the "protest T-shirts" seen on the fall 2017 runways. Before long, the brand was appearing in avant-garde fashion houses like The Cut and Fashionista, and was included in the gift guides of Vogue , The Strategist and T Magazine.

That was before March 2020.

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Much has been written about the impact of the pandemic on our national parks. Those in lockdown are seeking solace outdoors out of claustrophobic needs. American influencers swapped international backdrops like the Louvre for domestic counterparts like Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, which now has its own label.

“We saw many people scrambling to buy all their camping gear during the height of the pandemic,” Katherine Everett, senior marketing director for park projects, said in an email.

Many parks welcomed record numbers of visitors in 2020 and 2021, some of whom queued for hours to get in. Trash turned into ground cover, people damaged the earth's crust, and unattended campfires sparked a veritable wildfire near two national parks in southeastern Utah. National parks need support, and American consumers are happy to help. It's a way to help, no matter how small, at a time when people feel helpless. I bought my brother a baseball cap.

In a 2020 article, Véronique Hyland, fashion features director at ELLE , talked about popular fashion during this period: "This new wave of merchandise didn't feel as exclusive as designer logos," she wrote. Refers to sources from the Parks Project, the UK's National Health Service and the US Postal Service. “When so many people are suffering from economic devastation and health issues, shaking up a huge brand name can feel like tone deaf — unless, of course, it’s actually saving lives, protecting the land, or enabling us to, you Got it, email.”

Clothing-wise, the timing is perfect: public institutions can display their names in large, bold fonts in a way that feels natural to them, but that also fits within the wider fashion of supporting causes through clothing trend, whether it's calling for an end to systemic racism or supporting local small businesses.

“I’m looking for ways to let our customers experience my personal journey.”

Since March 2020, the Parks Project's visual template has changed slightly. Now, retro patterns have been joined by wool jackets, woodcuts and some psychedelic, psychedelic imagery that evokes counterculture sensibilities. The company recently collaborated with the Grateful Dead.

"The one that immediately comes to mind is Online Ceramics, which has a similar aesthetic," Hyland said of the brand's new look, referring to the Los Angeles-based brand whose pieces have been worn by the likes of Emily Ratajkowski and Kaia Minimalist tie-dye piece. Gerber. "I'm thinking of all the people who are 'cheating their status,' like Sandy Leung, who's been doing it for a while. But there's something very '90s about it, too."

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Eshelman's long-term goals extend beyond apparel and accessories. He hopes to create a channel for customers to become environmental volunteers and activists, returning the brand to its early mission. Everett said it's a vague but ambitious goal shouldered primarily by 25- to 34-year-olds, with Gen Z and Millennials making up the majority of the brand's customers.

"It's interesting to see these '60s designs coming back because you could say we're in a similar era with youth movements, like the youth climate movement," said Hyland, author of "Dress Codes : Unlocking the New Look to Millennials" The book "Fashion" by Pink analyzes clothing trends in the social and historical context.

Gen Z is more concerned about climate change than older generations. A 2021 Pew Research Center study showed that 67% of Gen Z respondents (born after 1996) said they had talked about the need to take action on climate change at least once or twice in the past two weeks, This compares to 50% of the population born before 1964.

For millennials like me, who are closer to Gen Z in terms of environmental funding, our environmentalist journeys may blend into something more akin to Eshelman's. He said he had no experience volunteering at the park before becoming a parent. His daughter inspired him to take action. (This may be true for many parents, as a recent survey from Romper, Berlin Cameron, The Female Quotient and Kantar confirms. In a poll of more than 1,000 caregivers, 51% of people say they are more concerned about social, civil or political issues that arise after becoming a parent, with 30% attributing this change to a desire to create a better future for their children).

For me, talking about climate change—and making decisions about children in the conversation—feels deeply intimate, and much of my anxiety about it stems from not knowing what the future of the planet will look like, and not knowing it What hospitality it would be. This is a big, difficult, existential topic. Talking about it requires confronting the internal effects of external environmental disruption. It feels like sadness.

What I find so remarkable about climate activists is their persistence in hope, even as a for-profit company, is the moniker I would bestow upon the park project. If Eshelman can get Gen Z and Millennial clients to volunteer, he will almost certainly help them find hope for the future.

The company has donated more than $2.5 million to national park backlog projects. Their products are sold in select parks and at venues like REI, Urban Outfitters and Free People. A large portion of their business is direct-to-consumer.

“I’m looking for ways to allow our customers to experience the personal journey that I went through,” Eshelman said.

For now, it's a journey in jewel-toned athleisure, dancing bears and psychedelic wool jackets. Perhaps this generation of environmental pioneers will finally dress like their flower power ancestors.