About eight years ago, Keith Eshelman and his wife headed on a hike with their newborn in Big Sur, California. The Los Angeles couple were using their waning days of paternity leave to introduce their daughter to one of their favorite trails, but found it closed due to lack of upkeep. Eshelman, then 38, had an awakening of sorts: How would he leave parks and trails for his daughter and the next generation?
I’ve sat around dinner tables and wondered something similar, but from a generation removed, for whom the decision of whether to even have children is a discussion point. So rather than imagine the future for a very real child, like Eshelman, my questions are more theoretical: about widespread climate anxiety and the morality of knowingly bringing another into this milieu.
My hand-wringing has essentially been for naught. Eshelman took his to start a company — one that was quickly adopted by the fashion set as a seasonal favorite for gift-giving. It’s a story of the little, hippie-dippie start-up that could.
“We saw many people rushing to get their hands on all things camping gear at the height of the pandemic.”
Parks Project was born in 2014 as a cohort of volunteers, whom Eshelman and cofounder Sevag Kazanci would corral for regular trail cleanups. Both men were TOMS employees, and within two years, their fledgling group had morphed into a social-good brand of its own. They started designing clothing and accessories related to the National Parks, many using vintage-inspired graphics to call out spots like “Yosemite” and “Mount Rainier.”
“The early beginnings were very bootstrap,” Eshelman says. “We didn’t have investors. I took my own cash and used it as start money. We were operating out of garages, plural.”
In 2016, the company became an official partner of the National Park Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the National Park Service, and they earmarked funds from each purchase for specific backlogged projects at National Parks. (A pair of high-waisted biker shorts, for example, whose earth-toned collage is inspired by the The Narrows at Zion National Park, would help fund a new visitor center in Zion.)
Parks Project hit the commercial market during a time when President Trump was rolling back environmental protections and auctioning off public land. “More and more, people wanted to know and really cared about what a brand stood for,” says fashion editor Aemilia Madden. “It wasn’t enough to be a cute, aesthetically pleasing, or on-trend brand.”
Buying an item from Parks Project was a de facto political stance akin to the “protest tees” seen on the Fall 2017 runways. Before long, the brand was featured in fashion-forward outlets like The Cut and Fashionista and included in gift guides at Vogue, The Strategist, and T Magazine.
And that was before March 2020.
Much has been written about the pandemic’s impact on our national parks. Those in lockdown headed outdoors as a salve and out of claustrophobic necessity. American influencers swapped international backdrops like the Louvre for their domestic counterparts like the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, which now has its own hashtag.
“We saw many people rushing to get their hands on all things camping gear at the height of the pandemic,” says Katherine Everett, Parks Project’s senior director of merchandising, over email.
Many parks faced record-level visitors in 2020 and 2021, some of whom waited in hourslong lines to gain entry. Trash became a ground cover, people damaged soil crust, and an unattended campfire sparked a literal wildfire near two national parks in southeast Utah. The National Parks needed support, and American consumers were happy to oblige. It was a way of helping, however small, during a time when people felt helpless. I bought my brother a baseball hat.
In a 2020 article, ELLE’s Fashion Features Director Véronique Hyland wrote about the trending fashion of this time: “This new wave of merch doesn’t feel exclusionary in the way that a designer logo might,” she wrote, referring to pieces from Parks Project, the UK’s National Health Service, and the U.S. Postal Service. “When so many are reeling from economic devastation and grappling with health issues, rocking a huge brand name could feel tone-deaf — unless, of course, it’s one that’s literally saving lives, conserving land, or enabling us to, you know, send mail.”
Sartorially, the timing was perfect: Public institutions could splay their names in big, bold typeface in a way that was natural for them, but which also aligned with the wider fashion tendency to support causes via clothing, whether it was calling to end systemic racism or championing a local small business.
“I’m trying to figure out ways to bring our customers on the personal journey I’ve had.”
Since March 2020, Parks Project’s visual template has morphed slightly. Added to the throwback motifs are now fleece jackets, woodcut graphics, and some trippy, psychedelic images that evoke a counter-culture sensibility. The company recently collaborated with the Grateful Dead.
“The reference that immediately comes to mind is Online Ceramics, which has a similar aesthetic,” says Hyland of the brand’s newer look, referring to the LA brand whose maximalist, tie-dye pieces have been worn by the likes of Emily Ratajkowski and Kaia Gerber. “And I think of all the ‘status fleece,’ like Sandy Liang’s, who’s been doing that for a bit. But then some of the stuff also feels very ’90s.”
Eshelman’s long-term goal for his company expands beyond apparel and accessories. He hopes to create a pipeline of sorts through which customers become volunteers and activists for the environment — thus returning the brand to the mission of its early days. It’s a vague, ambitious goal that could rest largely on the shoulders of people 25–34 years old, a Gen Z and millennial demographic that makes up a majority of the brand’s customers, according to Everett.
“Seeing these ’60s designs come back is interesting, because you could say we’re in an analogous time with youth movements, like the youth climate movement,” says Hyland, whose book, Dress Code: Unlocking Fashion from the New Look to Millennial Pink, analyzes sartorial trends within their socio-historical contexts.
Compared to older generations, Gen Z is overwhelmingly worried about climate change. In a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, 67% of Gen Z respondents — who were born after 1996 — said they’d talked about the need for action on climate change at least once or twice in the past two weeks, compared to 50% of people born before 1964.
For millennials like myself, who land closer to Gen Z in terms of environmental wherewithal, our journey to environmentalism could coalesce into something more akin to Eshelman’s. Before becoming a parent, he hadn’t been involved in volunteering at the parks, he says. His daughter spurred him into action. (This likely rings true for many parents, as confirmed in a recent survey from Romper, Berlin Cameron, The Female Quotient, and Kantar. In a poll of more than 1,000 caregivers, 51% said they cared more about social, civic, or political issues since becoming a parent, and 30% credited that change to wanting a better future for their kids.)
For me, talking about climate change — with decisions about children as part of the conversation — feels deeply intimate, and most of my anxiety around it stems from not knowing what the planet will look like in the future or how hospitable it will be. It’s a topic that is big and tough and existential. Talking about it requires facing the internal effects of outward, environmental devastation. It feels like grief.
What I find remarkable about climate activists, and I would grant Parks Project that moniker even as a for-profit company, is their insistence on hope. If Eshelman is able to activate Gen Z and millennial customers into volunteers, he will almost necessarily help them locate hope in the future too.
Already, the company has given more than $2.5 million to the backlogged projects at National Parks. Their products are carried in select parks, as well as in places like REI, Urban Outfitters, and Free People. A huge chunk of their business is direct to consumer.
“I’m trying to figure out ways to bring our customers on the personal journey I’ve had,” Eshelman says.
For now, it is a journey outfitted in jewel-toned athleisure, dancing bears, and trippy fleece jackets. Maybe this generation’s environmental vanguard will dress just like their flower-power forebearers after all.