Sophia Berrocal: If Patagonia wants to save Little Cottonwood Canyon, it and others must show up

Outdoor Retailer returned to Utah this past January. Here’s why boycotting the trade show was a mistake.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People pack the room as the Wasatch Front Regional Council meets at The Gateway in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, as the council considered publishing a draft of the Regional Transportation Plan, which would include the proposed Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola.

Patagonia is on a mission to save Little Cottonwood Canyon.

This past August, I moved to New York City. One thing I’ve learned while living here: Nobody talks about traffic congestion in Utah.

Yet, three days ago, when the upscale outdoor clothing company asked its 5.1 million Instagram followers to “Take action now” against a $1.4 billion dollar project in Little Cottonwood Canyon, my friends were all questions: Was this the same canyon as the one on my computer’s desktop — the photo of me and my childhood friends? The canyon where our graduation pictures were taken three years later?

It was.

In September 2022, Patagonia shook headlines when its founder, Yvon Chouinard, transferred complete ownership of the company to a specialized trust “dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis.” Now, Patagonia’s asked its followers to sign a petition against the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT)’s plan to construct a gondola through the scenic byway in order to alleviate traffic congestion near prime skiing areas, Snowbird Ski Resort and Alta Ski Area.

They note that the construction debris would mean environmental disaster for Utah’s already-dwindling primary watershed.

Patagonia is far from the only industry giant that has recently undertaken major environmentalist reforms — but they seem to be doing it a bit differently.

Author Giorgia Aiello notes that, in 2009, Starbucks paired its launch of sustainability initiatives with another ambition — sweeping store redesign. The glossy marble coffee bars of the past were “covered in scrap leather.” Buffed wooden walls became “grainy, rough, and uneven,” and Starbucks established “in-house practices” visible to consumers, such as recycling programs and ceramic ware.

From the clinking of Starbucks’ dishware to the grittiness of its wall details, the visual communications of the company aimed to shape consumer perceptions. Scholar Paula Mathieu found strength in these corporate visual messages, highlighting their ability to “transform their [consumer’s] desires” in her research.

In Utah, Publik Coffee Roasters, recently named the “best sustainable coffee roaster in Utah” by Utah Business Magazine, has manifested its sustainability efforts in a massive carbon-neutral roastery. As journalist Libby Allnatt reports, the roastery can be seen behind glass in the store, with “green coffee sacks lining the space.”

It’s clear: in shaping consumer desires, visual communications are just as effective as verbal ones.

Businesses and rhetorical scholars alike have long known that what consumers see is just as critical as what they hear in molding their tastes and preferences.

The Outdoor Retailer is one of America’s largest trade shows, sporting over 6,000 attendees and 400 global brands trading outdoor apparel and hiking gear. After decades of being hosted in Utah, the trade show left for Denver in 2018.

The show returned to Utah this January. Missing from the show?

REI, The North Face and Patagonia.

As The Associated Press reported, the three industry giants boycotted the show “based on the same concerns that forced the show to leave Utah in 2018 … Republican [Utah] politicians’ opposition to conservation efforts.” The companies are retaliating against Utah lawmakers’ successful demands to downsize two national monuments under the Trump administration.

Patagonia has chosen to drive forward its sustainability efforts by remaining out of the local consumer’s view. Yet, as Starbucks’ burlap walls and Publik’s green coffee sacks show: visible corporate messages define consumer values within their communities.

Rather than boycotting, as Emerald X noted to AP, the event’s organizers “firmly believe that … contributing to the ongoing discussion… is far more constructive.” This year, the trade show introduced discussion-based elements surrounding “environmental stewardship and sustainability.”

It is up to companies, both with local and nationwide outreach, to understand the importance of their visual communications — of their presence — in advancing meaningful climate action. In the words of Emerald X, they must continue to “push back,” rather than “pull back.”

Patagonia is on a mission to save Little Cottonwood Canyon. If they wish to succeed, then they must not only speak up, but show up in our local communities — with all their crewnecks, burlap, and trading posts — now more than ever.

Petition here.

Sophia Berrocal

Sophia Berrocal is a Salt Lake City native. She is a Columbia University freshman studying economics and sustainable development.