Meet Parks Project | Reminding Us Healthy Activism Makes Healthy People
I can’t recall where I first learned of Parks Project. It was some time this past year, and I immediately thought to myself that this company had really nailed mission-based product and philanthropy-driven for-profit business…much like TOMS before it. I wasn’t surprised to learn the co-founders, Keith Eshelman and Sevag Kazanci, had worked at TOMS, yet – while Blake Mycoskie’s specific blueprint of business that gives back is a wonderful model – Parks Project does something very different. TOMS showed us how transparently and immediately our purchases could impact someone else (one for one) while the company could still reach great profits. Parks Project is teaching us we can buy a beautifully-designed and affordable t-shirt or hat and support a specific U.S. National Park of our liking and its many day-to-day operational needs.
Parks Project’s mission is to creatively connect people with parks via thoughtful products – whether it’s supporting bear conservation in Denali or trail restorations in Muir Woods. They’re outdoor advocates first, who work with over 28 park conservancies to identify projects and priorities that need immediate attention. Recognizing purchasing power is strong and invigorating, Parks Project began making apparel and accessories that connect consumers with conservancies, with unique designs all their own. Living by the mantra “Healthy Parks Make Healthy People”, their work generates funding, creates advocacy, and engages people around the country to pitch in to volunteer, too.
In their own words: “A few years ago we signed up to volunteer in the parks, figuring a little hard work in one of our favorite places with some like-minded folks would be a good way to spend a day. When we arrived, the only other people there were a few spirited and hard working older folks. And 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?’ With all the time we spend chasing the newest thing or #hashtag, have we forgotten about the treasures we already own? During our time volunteering with park staff, we learned about all the unique projects that needed funding, advocacy and support. Out of that need and our love for the parks, Parks Project was born. Keith Eshelman is a family guy who thinks our generation can impact the way we all look at our parks for the next generation. He finds time on the weekends to get out and do trail days, living the ‘leave it better than you found it’ mantra. Connecting relationships with park groups and always learning more about how Parks Project can drive impact.”
Following is our conversation with co-founder Keith Eshelman.
How many people does Parks Project currently employ?
We have about six in the office, and I’d estimate four cut/sew, three screen printers and two in our warehouse.
What’s the most complicated aspect of the way your organization is set up?
Our give back model is very intricate. We decided to get our project funding as close to the cause as possible, which means we work with 28 different conservancies. And, we also have a license for the National Parks, which means we work with their team in Washington D.C. So, it’s a lot of communication and moving parts to partner with the National Parks the way we do, but in the end the hard work pays off because our give back is much more effective. The least complicated is our supply chain, as we make most products in Los Angeles, meaning quick turnaround and everyone is just a drive away.
What’s a moment in Parks Project’s existence that makes you smile ear to ear?
There really is a moment everyday! Being a startup means tons of things are happening at once and little wins can feel like big victories, while sometimes big problems can just take the wind out of your sail. But you have to smile and realize that’s what this is all about. Whether it’s a customer service appreciation email thanking us for the work we do, or a press feature highlighting a design we worked really hard on, it all fuels big smiles. Maybe a thank you letter from a conservancy for the project funding, an invitation to speak on a panel next to someone from Patagonia, hitting our monthly goal, or even reflecting on the fact that we are still alive and going after a few years of madness.
How many parks would you like to be working with by the close of 2017?
Our goal is to get to all of ’em soon. We want to have our website be a platform to connect with all America’s parks. We’d even love to have international Park Projects in places like Indonesia and the Congo. The project funding goes much further due to the power of the dollar, but one step at a time here…
Can you share a few seemingly unknown facts about our National Parks systems – maybe how they’re funded, how they’re governed, anything?
Conservancies and volunteers fill in a lot of the gaps for parks to function! That’s what we promote and stand behind as an organization. The park system will usually take care of the main arteries: facilities, fire trails, etc., but many of the trails we use are maintained by volunteers. For instance, there are 400 miles of trail in the Santa Monica mountains, where groups of volunteers get out every Saturday to chip away at conservation work. We join them, and I think when hikers come by they realize how it works and share massive appreciation for the hard work we all do to keep trails open. Also, within the park ecosystems, conservancies often take care of habitat restoration and animal conservation projects under the guidance of the park service.
If the sky is the limit for protecting our parks and for stewardship, what else would you dream for Parks Project and your followers?
‘Healthy parks make healthy people’. I just dream for everyone to get a taste of the experiences I’ve had in visiting America’s nature temples and while doing that learning about these places to become more connected to them. Get a taste for volunteering, doing service, and physically investing in the outdoors also brings a higher sense of appreciation, too. The more people that did this, the better off our parks would be and the healthier our society would be, too. Maybe a little less smart phone, a little more exploration and appreciation.
What’s the best way for people to become “Parks Champs” (get involved with Parks Project apart from buying merchandise)?
A champion is someone supporting the parks – could be through creativity, taking action, or their job might be directly connected with champion work, too. We try to collaborate with each and everyone who reaches out to us in some way to activate more folks to support ‘America’s best idea’, as we call it. This might be through photography and co-creating some graphics with us, or could be they want to spearhead a local volunteer day in a park nearby -> superchamp status.
In five years from now, Parks Project…(finish the sentence in as many words as you like)?
…will still be innovating, proving its impact, making products with the least footprint possible, pushing the boundaries and using its resources to support conservancy organizations.