Brands We LOVE (and Why!) featuring Parks Project

Parks Project, an outdoor lifestyle brand that funds various national park projects through sales of its apparel and accessories, was born through a love for the outdoors. Parks Project facilitates volunteering with park staff, learning about the unique projects that needed funding, advocacy, and support. Parks Project believes that the next generation will be reinvigorated to connect with outdoor spaces they own to become ‘Park Champions.’ 

As a for-profit business, Parks Project supports over 30 individual park groups around the nation. Every product sold carries a story and contributes to habitat restoration, animal conservation, educational initiatives and visitor services across America’s parks, promoting Parks Project’s ethos, Leave It Better Than You Found It.

Parks Project is an official partner to the National Parks, serves as a supporting business partner to the National Parks Foundation with its products carried in over 100-retailers around the nation and beyond - including Canada and Japan.

A candid Q&A session with Keith Eshelman, Parks Project Co-Founder (written while sitting in traffic, heading out of Seattle into Mount Rainier National Park).

Q: What was the inspiration behind starting your company? 
A: It started in 2013 with my good buddy, Sevag. He and I were doing a post-fire habitat restoration volunteer day and there weren’t many folks around. That spurred the idea of trying to get more of our generation connected to the parks and volunteering to help 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 planned to 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 (derived from a combined 11 years working at TOMS), we thought it would be cool if people could wear this cause too.

Q: How many years have you been in business?
A: Four, and we have a year zero that doesn’t really count?

Q: Who are the key players in your business?
A: Our customers! We all work for them.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge thus far?
A: It’s always evolving as we grow. But really it’s been getting sales and building the business, then on the flipside, sometimes you get a surge of business and the problem becomes managing production. But overall, the constant challenge is keeping an eye on the future while delivering on current business... not enough time in the day!

Q: What is your favorite travel destination/memory? 
A: Sharing a twin bed in Zion?

Q: What is one thing you do, that you wish you didn’t have to?
A: Buying inventories to fulfill future growth of the business. We need a crystal ball.

Q: If you could be any animal , what would you be?
A: Wolfpack

Q: What are you most passionate about?
A: Product.

Q: What is one thing you couldn’t live without? 
A: Quarterly escapes out to the national parks to reset, take a break, and refuel.

Q: What was the most pivotal moment of your journey?
A: There were many, and in building anything, I think you have to look at various moments like building blocks that will eventually provide a foundation. When you get the foundation sorted, the tangible progress materializes. From getting an encouraging email from the creative director at Patagonia to landing our first buy with Urban Outfitters, to being the smallest company (next to Disney, REI, Budweiser, etc.), to get the official license for making National Park Products - these are definitely a few.

Or maybe when we got our first couple of reorders from small boutiques much faster than we expected, we then realized that there was demand for our products! Validation can provide a lot of motivation, but I also think we saw this social enterprise as something that could also do some major work and make a dent in funding projects in the parks.

When we visited the nursery that we were funding in Muir Woods, that was also a defining moment. We realized our little company was putting thousands of native plants & trees back in the park! And we thought, "what if we could scale this company?... we could contribute so much!"

Q: What your biggest goal in the next 12-months?
A: Supporting our nation-wide launch with REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.)! We partnered with various local stores and will be touring the country this summer in an effort to do more volunteer days with them. And of course, visit more parks, gather some cool content, and spark more conversation about supporting the parklands during a difficult time. It’s gonna be rad to send out our entire staff and collectively we will be in various parts of the nation getting it done!

Q: What could make the world a better place?
A: Everyone just has to pitch in on something! The problems in today’s world are so hard to grasp as a whole, but if we all choose something that is near and dear to our hearts, the world will change. For us it’s the outdoors! I think we are asking folks to look at their connection with the outdoors in a different light. Just like any relationship, it takes work. You have to put in what you expect to get out. And if you step back and look at what the outdoors provides for millions of people, be it getting out to refuel, or just simply time to reset, we are simply asking those folks to think about what they could do in return!

These resources can stand the test of time but the most impact comes from humans, we can do a good job in trampling a pristine valley floor or lakeside beach. Our mission is to leave it better than you found it, and that can be looked at as an instance, like cleaning up a campground after you use it, or through the lens of “during your lifetime, will these places be left better off or worse?” Millennials got this; it’s going to be better!

Q: Any last words of wisdom for young-entrepreneurs?
A: It all starts with a dream, and you have to find yours in an authentic manner. You know we took a big risk in leaving the comfort of our previous jobs/lives and I always loved the Mark Twain quote which reads something like, "twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do." But I would say we are living the dream every day! As long as we keep pushing the boundaries and continue finding new creative ways to engage people with parks, we will make progress. And as we see more and more of the next generation get behind this idea, that's where the dream really lives. I think if we can mobilize youth to look at their relationship with the outdoors in a different light, that would be a dream come true.