Underwhelmed by the gear available at National Park shops, Sevag Kazanci, 33, flipped the souvenir model on its head. He launched a giving brand out of his parents’ Huntington Beach garage, selling shirts, leather goods, and accessories. Each limited-edition collection—focused on a national, state, or local park—features a design that funds a specific preservation project at that park.
Your group started as volunteer coordinators. When did you pivot?
My cofounder and I met at (the one-for-one giving company) TOMS shoes, where people believe in community service. We started Parks Project by planning volunteer days for the parks. One was Point Reyes National Seashore, and after planning successful events, we suggested making a shirt. They liked the design. We didn’t charge them, just printed and sent shirts to them at cost. That’s when we saw the opportunity. We realized we could use our resources—retail, design, product—to fund their work.
How are the projects funded?
We aren’t experts in the field, so we work with groups at the local level. We choose the projects that are the easiest to talk about, quantify, and are making an awesome impact. Every project is different, but we see the product as a storyteller for what’s happening in the park. We launched with eight parks. So for instance, with our Joshua Tree collection, for every 50 Ts sold, we make a donation that supports the planting of 20 Joshua trees in the park. The second part of our give is volunteer days. We join park groups such as the National Park Service and California State Parks Foundation and ask local retailers like Seed Peoples Market to help get folks out to volunteer.
Anything else you’re trying to do conscientiously?
Everything we do is made in the U.S., and almost all the factories are within 20 miles of us. We’re hands-on with our products. Every two seasons, we launch two to three new parks.
How do you choose the parks?
When we’re launching new projects, it’s easier to pick a big-name park like Yosemite or Denali. Because we have our giveback component, we have to make sure we can sell it—if we can’t sell it, we can’t fund a project. Park shirts are like concert shirts; if you haven’t been, you’re not going to buy the shirt.
Any favorite moments during Parks Project’s first 18 months in business?
We stuffed our Prius with product and drove to our first trade show, Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City. We bought a booth on a credit card. We were terrified. On the very first day, we met the creative director for Patagonia—a brand we look up to from a sustainability, product, everything standpoint. After hearing our pitch, he emailed us saying our brand was one of the most inspiring things he’s seen at a trade show. If we ever have a legitimate office, we’re going to frame that email.
We’re in about 20 to 30 local retailers and three to four major retailers (including REI and Urban Outfitters, and online at Target Collective). As much as we’d love to be at Nordstrom or some other massive retailer, we’d really love to grow in the park concession space. There are more than 50 national parks and hundreds of state parks; that’s where we see the lack of design effort and outreach to different groups of people.