Alumnus Eric Raymond: Building Equity in the Outdoors with Innovative Leadership
In our Changemakers in Action series, we meet dedicated sustainability and social justice leaders and learn how they are bringing about positive change. Today, we’re sharing our conversation with PGS alum Eric Raymond, who leads social impact and advocacy for The North Face. He oversees the company’s purpose/giving platform, the Explore Fund; advocacy strategy around public lands, climate change, and equity in the outdoors; and helps the brand navigate cultural conversations. Eric earned his MBA from Presidio Graduate School in 2012.
MR: Eric, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with us. Congratulations on launching the Explore Fund Council, which will focus on accelerating culturally relevant exploration opportunities and connecting diverse communities to the benefits of exploration. Can you talk about what it means to build equity in the outdoors? And how will you measure your impact and success?
Eric: Thank Merry, it’s great to connect. I’m really excited about the Explore Fund Council. The outdoors has traditionally been a place where singular types of activity are celebrated—for example getting to the top of the mountain. We’re focused on how to celebrate and facilitate a variety of different ways that people connect with the outdoors.
It’s no secret that there are biological and mental benefits to spending time outside, but an under-recognized fact in environmental justice is that communities of color are three times more likely to live in nature-deprived places, and often face racism and other systemic challenges when they do explore. We’re very focused on identifying the ways we can overcome some of those. The Council will be a working fellowship that brings people together like Lena Waithe and Jimmy Chin, who have perspectives on representation and cultural relevance, to create solutions that support access to exploration.
One way we are looking at addressing that is by recognizing the ways that different communities want to explore and then tackling the barriers to those. For example, we’ve been building free, public climbing boulders in parks around the US that in effect bring the mountains to cities, making it easier for people in those communities to try climbing. We hope to have the full council on board this spring. So stay tuned.
MR: The North Face has demonstrated how scaling sustainability and equity can positively impact not only the brand but also business strategy and operations. Examples include the Renewed Collection of upcycled garments, the Renewed Design Residency, continued investments in carbon offsets, incorporating more sheep into the supply chain (please discuss!), and more. Yours was also the first large brand to join the Stop the Hate for Profit Facebook ad boycott. What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in influencing this shift?
Eric: When I was at Presidio, we were super focused on demonstrating the business value of sustainability. Now that’s mainstream—for the most part. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier, or that we don’t still experiment. We use scale to tackle big issues in the supply chain, like recycling, waste reduction, and energy/water use, but we also pilot projects that we think can scale later. The North Face Renewed is a way for us to open up a market opportunity around repaired products, and the Cali Wool program is a great example of a pilot that brought regenerative agriculture practices to wool production in a carbon positive way. Carol Shu (C22) and James Rogers (C10), both PGS alumni, drove these programs at The North Face.
Inside business, I think social justice efforts are not that different from sustainability. Some people get it intuitively, others need to see the numbers and the impact on the bottom line. When we supported the Black Lives Matter movement and were the first brand to join Stop Hate for Profit, we did it because of real challenges we saw in the world that conflicted with our brand values. With Stop Hate for Profit, we got attention for helping elevate that issue and it definitely put The North Face in the spotlight—proving impact for skeptics. I think the folks behind it were most proud of the platform it gave the nonprofit organizations that had been working on the issue for a long time.
Image credit: City Kids Wilderness Project, The North Face
MR: The pandemic has had a beneficial impact on the environment in many respects. How has the pandemic affected your company? Are you seeing any interesting trends in terms of how people are engaging with the outdoors? What has surprised you the most?
Eric: Like all businesses, there have been challenges. We closed our stores this spring under the pandemic and that has an impact on any business. That said, The North Face paid all employees through that shutdown, which was an impressive decision by our leadership.
I’ve been surprised by how many people have turned to the outdoors for escape during the pandemic. It’s not without challenges, and the pandemic has definitely accelerated inequalities, but knowing the weight the situation puts on all of us, seeing more people seek out the outdoors and its benefits is encouraging. It also has me thinking about new ways we can re-value landscapes and greenspaces, not only for climate/biodiversity benefits, but also for the community and health benefits.
MR: Looking at your own journey, how has your experience with Presidio Graduate School prepared you for the work you do? What did you take away from your time here that still serves you today?
Eric: There are two major experiences from Presidio that I use every day. First, leaning on all the leadership work inherent in the program. Understanding how I work as a colleague and leader helps me navigate the daily challenges of corporate life. Understanding teams helps me leverage the resources that aren’t in my control to drive my work.
The second is the deep understanding of the issues within capitalism and traditional economies and how to think about them as a system. While my own work and education continue, the national dialogue on social justice and the recently renewed hope for progress on climate are topics I’m comfortable leaning into and help others navigate, thanks in large part to the foundation built with my community at Presidio.
MR: What advice would you give to people working in sustainability or social justice today or who might be looking to follow your example?
Eric: One thing that has changed is the proliferation of more specialized roles. I encourage people to be open to where their paths might lead them, but also to look at opportunities to get deeper into specific areas of focus, like economic development, circularity, regenerative practices, and reporting. As ESG and diversity metrics and results continue to grow, I see these types of roles growing with them.
MR: Eric, thanks so much for spending some time with us and sharing your experiences. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Eric: If you’re benefiting from time outside these days, try to think about how you can help more people tap into those same benefits—climate justice is social justice.
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