Lately, it’s easy to wonder if the youth has become disconnected from some of the most basic things: spending time in nature, just because; or making time to sit around talk with friends in person, instead of sending a Snap or a selfie. A few years ago, Keith Eshleman and Sevag Kazanci—two guys in their thirties who met while helping build the Santa Monica-based brand TOMS—started to wonder the same thing.
In 2014, they signed up to volunteer at a couple local California state parks. “When we arrived, the only other people were a few bored retirees,” the two recall in a brief blurb about how Parks Project got its start. “It was the same when we returned the next time, and the next, until we thought, ‘Oh dang, has our generation forgotten about the parks?'”
They had, indeed, stumbled upon something big. Over the next few months, the friends connected the dots, uncovering a real need for activists at the national parks, and an eager, adventure-seeking demographic just waiting to be educated on how to get involved.
Working with the National Park Foundation, the small team began to understand which local partners most needed their support. In turn, they decided the best way to get their “support the parks” message across was through a line of basic, artistically-driven T-shirts. “As we developed closer relationships with each conservancy, we saw how much we could accomplish,” explains Eshleman. “Their key goal is to connect people outside the park with things going on in the park. Our products are a creative way to do just that, too.”
One of the best examples of this partnership in action is their work with Golden Gate Parks Conservancy, which manages Muir Woods—a spot that just so happens to hold a special place in Eshelman's heart. Being a Mill Valley native who frequently hiked and explored this area, Eshelman made it a personal mission over the past two years to support habitat restoration at the Muir Woods National Monument through Parks Project T-shirt sales and dedicated volunteer work from his team. The result: nearly 500 native plants have been restored to the area, “making a difference for habitat health—and the wildlife that depends on it,” says Eshleman.
This method of talking with parks, understanding their needs, and then applying it to their business model has garnered collaborations with parks and other brands across the country and beyond for Parks Project. We sat down with Eshleman to ask him a few questions about what this means for the future of national parks, the brand’s goals, and how they hope to continue driving awareness and “pioneering progress” at parks worldwide.
When and where was the idea for Parks Project first conceived?
It started in 2013, in the Santa Monica Mountains, where Sevag and I were doing a post-fire habitat restoration volunteer day. That spurred the idea of trying to get more people connected to the parks and volunteering to chip in support all the ongoing projects we had learned about. The original vision was to get friends around volunteering in our parks so we could make a difference and support our favorite places. We got out as a group, did work, felt good about it, and would celebrate after a days hard work with a cold one or two.
From our experience in apparel and understanding how social enterprise worked after a combined 11 years at TOMS, we thought it would be cool if people could wear this cause…We started reaching out to park conservancies and learned how much support was needed and how we could really contribute.
From our experience in apparel and understanding how social enterprise worked after a combined 11 years at TOMS, we thought it would be cool if people could wear this cause, so the idea evolved into products that interpreted various projects in the parks. We started reaching out to park conservancies and learned how much support was needed and how we could really contribute. Now, we think it has come full circle because we are still driving volunteer events, but using apparel as a way to tell stories that need support across all our favorite national parks.
How many parks were you partnered with when the brand first got started? How has that evolved and grown?
We started with just a handful of parks; most in our backyard in California – Joshua Tree, Santa Monica Mountains, Muir Woods, etc. We didn't go into the big icons like Yosemite and Yellowstone because we were worried about licensing infringement. As we went along, we kept in close touch with National Park Service then quickly become an official partner. From there, we then reached out to parks across the nation, even some international as well, and got an understanding of what was a priority, how we could help. We found common themes and started categorizing the type of support; habitat restoration, animal conservation, visitor programs, and youth education/outreach. We are now partnered with 24 parks, with many more to come!
We would love to say we can support all 59 national parks, and will get there someday, but it's more important to track impact and how well we support – in other words, quality over quantity.
Do you have a goal for the number of park partnerships down the road?
We would love to say we can support all 59 national parks, and will get there someday, but it's more important to track impact and how well we support – in other words, quality over quantity. We will definitely be supporting some projects in parks outside of the USA as well.
We think our support can come in other ways, too. We are working on a big partnership with the National Park Foundation to celebrate the centennial this year. One of our projects is also to support the Foundation and we are an official partner on the Find Your Park Initiative, powering their e-commerce and making their products.
Do you work directly with the parks to decide what the “Give Back” element will be at each? How does that process work?
Yes. It starts with a conversation, then we try to understand the priorities within the park and see if we can find a project that Parks Project can fund in its entirety. Our goal is to establish new partnerships – fund a project and move onto another one with a new story and program in place. We release new products based on new projects lined up to support each initiative.
Through education comes awareness and action, so we hope by exposing more people to what's going on in our parks, more people will get involved either with the power of a vote, a monetary donation, or getting out and volunteering. That's a big win for us.
How does the business model behind the brand work? What is the brand’s ROI vs. what you give back to the parks?
Making products in the USA was something we wanted to do as a statement – America's Parks, right? It's quite costly to do. I would say we are focused on a purpose and will be filling in the numbers as we go to make sure we have a sustainable business. There is no percentage give back for projects we work on – each product varies in cost structure and we liked the streamlined message of help us sell “X” products so we can do “Y” amount of work in a park.
I noticed you've expanded into a couple more categories since I last checked out the site, with notebook covers, water bottles, and some other accessories. Is this something that your retail and/or park partners were asking for? Why did this offering expansion make sense at this time?
We are always going to try new things and aim to make someone's favorite version of that product. Something that when they pick up/put on/hold they say, 'I love this.' It will make the connection with the park that much stronger and these icons deserve to be represented in just that way. Some of these items weren't really asked for, we make them because we like them, and think the graphics go well on that specific item. Though we have yet to make a calendar, which seems to the be the hot item in this space, we are looking into several other products, like coloring books and drinkware.
Speaking of retail, where else do you sell Parks Project besides on your site? What type of retailers have you focused on opening? Do you plan to increase your distribution and if so what will that look like?
We think retail that has built community will be the best place to share our products. A place where conversations are happening and products are made with purpose. So that is happening in various action sports stores, traditional outdoor outfitter stores and in some strong boutiques that have weathered the storm. At the end of the day, we are looking for like-minded partners – we are not here today and gone tomorrow, but rather thinking of how we can collaborate, co-create, do volunteer days together and further build/engage their community.
I think the day of traditional sponsorships is fading though, brand alignment is nice, but we need creators and doers, people who want to pitch in on growing a social enterprise.
Does Parks Project have any brand ambassadors (or do you plan to bring any on in the near future)? It seems like the model could lend itself well to professional climbers, adventurers, etc.
Yes, we have been fortunate to have support by a wide spectrum of folks and really look to build out some framework on how an ambassador can become a part of the business. I think the day of traditional sponsorships is fading though, brand alignment is nice, but we need creators and doers, people who want to pitch in on growing a social enterprise. Also, at the end of the day, it feels right to say anyone who purchases a product from us is an ambassador. The parks are for everyone and it feels right to say everyone we get to touch along the way is really an ambassador for the parks, if they are eager to support our mission. We call these people #ParkChamps.
If you had to identify one or two long term goals for the brand, what would those be and what’s your strategy to reach those?
Build a following by continuing to innovate and deliver on our promise to support the parks. Our strategy is to stay close to what brought us here and be authentic, but also keep exploring with an open mind.
How many of these parks have you two been able to personally visit?
Quite a few, about 20 and counting. I can say I surfed the sand dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park and have stood atop Half Dome in Yosemite. I've seen the geysers in Yellowstone and swam in the waters of the Channel Islands. One of my life goals is to build this business so I can bring my kids to all the parks one day.
The best thing about our approach is that hopefully we can find a project, promote it, fund it, then move onto a new one. So really, we will be able to keep innovating via new projects that need our support.
Anything else I forgot, or last words?
There are so many amazing stories out there and the best thing about our approach is that hopefully we can find a project, promote it, fund it, then move onto a new one. So really, we will be able to keep innovating via new projects that need our support. We can keep learning about various interesting initiatives in the parks while helping resolve them with the support of our followers. We would like to think that this is a way for us to make an impact for the long term sustainability of our parks. We have looked at a lot of areas to expand as well – local parks, international parks, and more.
At the end of the day, we hope to look back in 10 years at some serious impact, and will be able to say, through people supporting our business, that Parks Project has built native plant nurseries in parks, funded animal conservation efforts, engaged countless first-time volunteers who look at their relationship with the parks differently now, and that we have made a lot of friends along the way.