Making the Outdoors More Diverse – How Brands Can Be Part of the Solution

By Steph Thomas, Brand Strategist, FreshBritain

Is the countryside diverse enough? As a white woman with the privilege that entails, you might say I’m not entitled to comment. But as a strategist who has worked to build diversity into outdoor brands, I feel I’ve explored this topic enough to have a voice.

The subject is a hot potato that enters the mainstream conversation on a regular basis and the volume of debate is increasing. TV presenter John Craven recently went on record saying he thinks “non-white people are made to feel uncomfortable in the British countryside”, citing a University of Leicester study on the topic. Earlier in the year, an initiative from The North Face was in the eye of the storm. It promises 20% off its products to consumers who are prepared to give up an hour of their time to undertake an online racial inclusion course and agree to live by a number of pledges.

The idea is either a big win for The North Face or an extreme, polarising approach with a fair smattering of hypocrisy. If you believe the North Face has been part of the problem for the last 25 years, by projecting an outdoors that was only for one type of consumer then you’ll be in the latter camp. I’d argue they have built permission to engage, although brands like adidas TERREX have worked quietly in the background to do good, without feeling the need to create headlines.

Is there really an issue?

From being able to ignore the issue, the growing and increasingly heated debate on diversity in the countryside means brands are now being forced to engage, while keeping a gimlet eye on the dangers of tokenism. Some do it well, others less so.

No one can ignore the shockingly depressing picture the stats paint; according to figures published in 2020, only 1% of visitors to UK national parks come from a BAME background.  Moreover, at the start of 2024, The Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of charities, said in a submission to Parliament that the country’s green spaces are governed by “white British cultural values”, which prevent people from other ethnic backgrounds enjoying them. The news was a gift for the UK’s right-wing media which revelled in the “wokeness” of the story.

In October 2023 a disagreement played out publicly in the news pages on the difficulties (or not, depending probably on your lived experience/which community you belong to) faced by minority groups in accessing the outdoors. Haroon Mota, a mountaineer and founder of Muslim Hikers, wrote a piece for the Guardian on the huge racial disparities in access to the outdoors. He was taken to task by Telegraph columnist, Michael Deacon, who seemed unable to understand that those barriers to access might exist.

The role for brands

Those barriers are many and varied. It’s important not to turn this into facile reductionism. There are structural issues related to access, such as living in urban areas with almost no proper outdoors spaces nearby as related by Haroon. But that is a problem faced by deprived communities, whatever their race. Teachers working in Knowsley, the UK’s second most income deprived borough in England, but where over 97% of the population identifies as white, regularly come across young children who’ve had little exposure to the countryside.

Where brands can most easily engage and support is in the area of representation. If a person doesn’t regularly come across someone who looks like them or sounds like them when out hiking, running or wild swimming, or are greeted by surprised expressions that “they’re there”, a brand can do something to help.

Where an outdoors brand starts to show a wider cross-section of people using its products and tackles access challenges in an authentic way, that triggers a virtuous circle. It helps establish a sense that someone has the “right to be there” which in turn may help drive a wider cross section of people to feel secure enough to enjoy the experiences that are rightfully theirs.

There can also be a problem of education and information provision. If someone has grown up camping or had early access to hiking or mountaineering, they understand how things are done. They will be familiar with the right footwear and clothing to wear when climbing to the top of Snowdon. They’ll understand how the weather can turn rapidly and know how to stay safe.

Brands can help educate on all of these issues and more, but only if they talk to the people affected. That also means reaching out to the campaigning groups that help diverse groups access outdoors spaces – and there is a growing number to choose from across a wide gamut of interests such as Unlikely Hikers, Black Trail Runners, Flock Together, Outdoor Afro, Wild in the City, The Wanderlust Women and many more. This gives brands a handle on the challenges people face and means they can develop authentic support. And let’s not kid ourselves that it’s pure altruism. The potential to reach new audiences that could be in the market for your products and services is a real draw.

How well are brands showing up?

Some brands have really embraced the issue and are playing a valuable role in supporting diverse communities. Adidas TERREX collaborated with Wiggle and Muslim Hikers to create a waterproof prayer mat. The brand also developed a hiking book designed specifically for women based around how their feet hit the ground differently to men.

It’s not just about developing product; adidas TERREX also provides funding and support for grassroots movements, for example enabling Black Trail Runners to train new coaches and run taster sessions for those who need help to feel safe when enjoying the outdoors. The brand has also partnered with Steppers UK, a community set up by Cherelle Harding which brings together the sounds of the countryside with her favourite artists, providing a route for diverse groups of women to participate outdoors.

Sprayway has been supporting Lindley Educational Trust’s Winter Skills Course since 2016. Young people from urban communities in Manchester and Sheffield build their confidence, resilience, and essential life skills over a nine-month programme, which culminates in a seven-day winter expedition to the Cairngorms, where they test what they’ve learnt in the most challenging of environments.

My team and I also looked at how well-known outdoors brands show up across their owned channels and in their ads. I’ve been deeply involved with brands in the sector for a number of years and I’ve noticed a clear race to representation in the last 18 to 24 months. Houdini sportswear is a notable exception, a brand that has been using authentic language and diverse imagery more a number of years now.

While momentum is clearly building, it’s easy to suspect a formulaic, ‘diversity by numbers’ approach by some. Whether that’s worse than brands failing to tackle diversity at all is a question I’ll leave hanging in the air!

It’s could be a question of life and death

There’s another reason why diversity in the outdoors matters greatly. Not everyone will be familiar with the term, but the biophilia hypothesis posits that human beings are innately drawn to nature because it is good for their wellbeing. Not for nothing are GPs increasingly “prescribing” patients to spend time in nature or engage with local communities in a bid to improve their health.

The Nature Connection Index from Natural England, (an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) also shows a correlation between time spent in nature and an appreciation of it that makes people want to preserve it and engage in sustainable behaviours.

With this in mind, it’s in everyone’s interests that as many people as possible experience nature. And this represents yet another opportunity for outdoor brands to play their part and to build purpose into every aspect of their behaviours.

A quote from David Attenborough sums this up brilliantly: “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” If the world is to preserve its wonderful natural heritage, driving diversity in the outdoors is non-negotiable for all of our wellbeings.