How A Startup Could Save America’s National Parks

Parks Project is a new outdoor lifestyle brand with a sole purpose: save the U.S. national parks. After a weekend volunteering in the Santa Monica mountains, friends Keith Eshelman and Sevag Kazanci were struck by the challenges facing America’s underfunded and underappreciated national parks.

Inspired by their time working for social enterprise company TOMS, the two entrepreneurs set out to harness consumer power to help support some of the parks’ underfunded projects. Now having contributed over $200,000 to park partners and pairing up with 100 specialty stores, they are rolling out in REI stores nationwide this summer.

The United States is home to some of the worlds most impressive national parks. Following the creation of Yellowstone national park in the 1870s, today the country has 60 protected areas, 14 of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But as Eshelman and Kaznaci learned, the parks are facing severe underfunding and a lack of advocacy.

Both children and adults are spending less time playing outside or connecting with nature than previous generations. In particular, there is concern over youth engagement with the National Parks. The average age of visitors to Denali is 57 years. In Yellowstone, it is 54. Over the last 10 years, the number of visitors under the age of 15 has decreased by half.

Many people simply are not aware of the issues facing the parks. If they are not seeing the park, they also are not seeing its problems, the founders of Parks Project argue. As of 2017, the National Park Service (NPS) had an estimated $11.607 billion backlog of maintenance work due to budget limitations. Even for Eshelman and Kazanci, the extent of the problem came as a shock.

“Sevag and I were participating in a post-fire habitat restoration volunteer day in the Santa Monica Mountains,” says Eshelman. “During our time volunteering, the park’s staff taught us about all of the important projects that needed funding, advocacy, and support.”

That day sparked the idea of an organization that would connect the public to the parks and volunteer to help. After organizing a few volunteer days with their friends, the pair wanted to find a way for these smaller actions to translate into a larger, lasting impact. And so, Parks Project was born.

Parks Project, in particular, works to help fund some of these backlogged NPS projects through apparel sales. Living by the mantra, “leave it better than you found it,” the company also organizes volunteer days to help preserve the National Parks.

Neither Eshelman and Kazanci were new to the idea of a social enterprise. The two collectively had 11 years of experience working at TOMS and a rough idea of how to turn a small startup into a large company. Eshelman reckons that the time at TOMS both prepared and inspired them to dive headfirst into Parks Project, but it was still a risky proposition.

“Sevag and I put our career winnings on the line” he explains. “We received a small amount of financing from family and friend contributions, bought into some inventory, and went for it.”

They personally paid for the brand’s first few trade shows, and from there, the products gathered traction.

Parks Project’s apparel features designs that relate to various projects within the parks. The idea is that not only do customers support the projects with their purchases, but they become walking ambassadors for the National Parks. However, according to Kazanci, the commitment to preserving nature goes beyond diverting cash flow to the NPS.

In the era of the commercialization of social causes, it’s common to see brands paying lip service to environmental or social movements while the products themselves tell another story. Think “Feminist” T-shirts being made in sweatshops by women paid less than a dollar an hour. Parks Project apparel, Kazanci argues, is different.

“Our ambition with each piece we create for Parks Project is to make a quality product people can cherish for life,” he explains. “We have a cut-to-order production model, which helps us avoid overages and waste.”

In addition, the brand makes an effort to produce as many of their products locally. Currently, around a third of the products are produced in the USA, and Sevag explains that all apparel is printed here in the U.S. using non-plastisol, formaldehyde-free, water-based ink.

It can be difficult to navigate the world of sustainable fashion, but Parks Project learned from veterans, taking a workshop with the sustainability team at Patagonia.

Despite concerns over dwindling youth engagement with national parks, the brand has seen its mission met with enthusiasm from customers and retailers alike. According to its founders, the company has doubled in revenue year-over-year for the past three years. In that time they’ve been able to contribute more than $200,000 to park conservancies and logged more than 1,000 volunteer hours in parks.

With their products stocked in boutique stores and larger retailers like Urban Outfitters and Target alike, the brand seems on track to keep chipping away at that NPS backlog. This summer they’ll be in REI nationwide.

For the founders, doing their bit for the parks is more than just a personal choice; it’s a responsibility, they say. They’re hoping their products and ethos will inspire and empower the next generation of park visitors and advocates to give back to the parks.

“Our parks are faced with challenges like natural disasters and aging infrastructure, and we all have a responsibility to help take care of them,” says Eshelman.


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