Parks Project sells merchandise with meaning: each product purchased contributes directly to one of over 50 non-profit groups protecting parks and public lands in the US and Canada, providing vital funding for the ongoing care of National Parks and public lands. We spoke with co-founder Keith Eshelman about why he felt that the National Parks were a cause worthy of partnership.
How did you arrive at the idea for Parks Project?
It started in 2013, in the Santa Monica Mountains where Sevag (Parks Project co-founder) 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 to support all the ongoing projects we had learned about. The original vision of the Parks Project was to get friends volunteering in our parks so we could make a difference and support our favorite open spaces. We got out as a group, did work, felt good about it, and would celebrate after a day’s hard work with a cold one or two. Then 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 creating products that interpreted various projects in the parks and the proceeds could go back to funding them too. We started reaching out to park conservancies and really learned how much support was needed, and how we could really contribute via funding and advocacy. We identified projects, created collections of clothing, then used the sales proceeds to fund projects. 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. The mission will never change, we are here to support the parks.
What was the first on-the-ground project that Parks Project contributed to financially?
It was actually Muir Woods, the habitat restoration project at the Conservancy Nursery, which was the park closest to where I grew up; my hometown is Mill Valley. We got a retailer on-board and were able to do some business, and make a financial contribution.
How much of each purchase goes toward project funding?
Between 5-20% of the purchase price goes to the connected non-profit organization.
How can customers know where their money is going? Is a particular purchase tied to a particular project?
We have a project tracker on our website that we update quarterly. It highlights some of our biggest project updates which range from funding youth education programs to native habitat restoration projects. We have working relationships with over fifty National Park non-profit partners. As the “boots on the ground” in the parks, these partners can share with us their high-priority needs, and also help us track the progress of the projects we are funding. Also, on each of our product pages, we state the non-profit organization and project it is currently supporting.
Parks Project has such a cool, iconic visual representation with the merchandise, but you also have the Volunteer Alliance. Talk about why that part of the business matters too.
The bones of our company are all about getting out into the parks and getting our hands dirty! The Volunteer Alliance is our initiative to spread awareness nationally and create a connection for people to not only enjoy their local park places but to also give back to them as well.
It’s well-known now that the National Parks are under-funded. Is it up to private companies and NGOs to pick up the slack?
We think it’s up to everyone to support these special places. Together, we can make a difference and leave it better than we found it for future generations.
Given that, can more companies engage in social enterprise? Is it difficult, or is it actually an easy way to make a difference?
One hundred percent, I think all companies can find something authentic that means something to them, makes sense for the business. We should all take on something and the world will be a better place. It just has to be well thought through both from the customer lens and operationally how it can scale. We are super proud to have reached such a big contribution number over $850,000 in project funding and the model still holds for us. We think it will be very scalable as the business grows, and that’s the most rewarding aspect around what we do and how we do it.
Can people purchase your products in the parks?
We have product available in many in-park stores as well as all REI’s and Urban Outfitters.
And finally – what is your favorite National Park and why?
Yosemite: it’s my first park, my first backpacking experience, and where I have brought my kids for the first time, as well.