Willy Loman peddles Sierra stuff

IN THE INNOCENT OLD DAYS, ALL THE SIERRA CLUB wanted from us was our money, our hearts and our minds. Now it wants those things and its name on our behinds. And it's not alone.

You can't swing a catalog in a mailroom these days without hitting an outdoorsy institution looking to boost exposure and income by putting its brand on jackets, pants and all sorts of other merchandise. Tree-huggers, trigger-pullers -- they're all retailers now, and in this new game it's hard to tell the players without a program.

In the case of the Sierrans, the club and its new partners are now pushing not only apparel but coffee, hammocks and flashlights, with footwear, eyewear, toys and textiles to follow -- a giant step beyond the cards, calendars and books that helped build the group's budget to about $80 million yearly.

The club set this course in 2000, when it created the position of licensing and membership marketing director and installed Johanna O'Kelley, formerly of the Franklin Mint and Belk department stores. Before long, she'd cut a deal with an apparel licensee: Isda & Co. of San Francisco, whose president was a key executive for sportswear maker the North Face in the 1990s. Now the fruits of that collaboration and others are reaching the market.

"We just shipped our first apparel in August, and we've been getting reorders every day," said O'Kelley, speaking by phone from club headquarters in San Francisco.

Under these deals, somebody else manufactures a product, and the Sierra Club considers the item's suitability ("Things that people throw away frequently are not a good idea for the Sierra Club," said O'Kelley) and checks the maker's background. The club does a lot of talking with prospective partners and hires a research firm to check out their social and environmental practices. About 70% of the club's branded apparel relies on organic cotton, recycled plastic or renewable resources such as wool or hemp, O'Kelley said. But it also puts its name on "performance wear" made of synthetics.

The club typically gets a 5%-to-14% cut of every sale. O'Kelley expects to bring in $1 million by the end of 2004, which executive director Carl Pope has said could bump up the club's lobbying budget by 20%.

When, exactly, did Willy Loman join the board of directors? Only recently. In years past, the club has been wary of commercial connections. While the Nature Conservancy has been opening lodgings on its properties, for instance, the Sierra Club hasn't added to its network of rustic lodges in more than 40 years. But back at headquarters in San Francisco, the thinking has been evolving.

"What Sierra Club stands for is a lifestyle. It's not just a brand," O'Kelley said.

These ambitions may encourage many Sierrans, especially those who see these days of apparently ascendant Republican power as a ripe moment for the club. After all, through the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan dominated the White House and George Deukmejian dominated the California governor's mansion, Sierra Club membership rose from 181,773 to 629,532.

With George W. Bush in the White House and Arnold Schwarzenegger about to take over the governor's mansion, it's logical for the Sierrans to think such thoughts. For the record: As November began, the Sierra Club counted 714,073 members, up from 641,679 at the end of 2000.

But brand diversification is risky business, and not just because purists will accuse you of straying from the righteous path. The club's first bedding manufacturer, Pillowtex, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July, which O'Kelley concedes "put quite a big dent in my plans" and set off a search for a new partner.

Meanwhile, up and down the aisles of the retail world, the Sierrans face competition from other nonprofits, among them museum gift catalogs and the National Geographic Society, which has been putting its name and yellow rectangle logo on products from binoculars to credit cards in recent years, hoping to compensate for the flat U.S. circulation of "old yeller," its flagship magazine. The society's new holiday gift catalog, which just landed at my house last week, is 64 pages long.

But it's not the idea of the Sierrans and Geographicals tussling like Macy's and Gimbel's in days of yore that fascinates me. I'm more interested in watching the Sierrans do battle with the gun people.

Smith & Wesson, which has been making firearms since before the Civil War, was sold to a new owner two years ago and started diversifying left and right, from e-mail security software to golf clubs and bicycles. Then last month, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company started peddling silk purses, silver belt buckles, walking sticks (at $59 each) and such through a new catalog, Crossings by Smith & Wesson. Its primary target, so to speak, is women.

Not that Smith & Wesson, which has about $98 million yearly in sales, has curtailed its core business of vending pistols, ammunition clips, handcuffs and the like. All that continues, although the company did alienate some gun-rights supporters three years ago by making product modifications to appease the Clinton administration. But with this catalog, Smith & Wesson is basically going into the business of selling just what the Sierra Club is selling: the outdoor lifestyle, and togs in which to enjoy it.

Clearly, somebody is at risk of being ambushed here. To beat Smith & Wesson to the draw, I told the Sierra Club's O'Kelley, she needs to get some hemp holsters into the marketplace pronto, at least until the right maker of .44 magnums can be found.

"I'll think about that one," she said. "But not for too long."

That wasn't good enough. So I called Smith & Wesson.

"That's great!" said spokeswoman Amy Armstrong. "I'll have to bring that up to the big boss, who's standing in front of me right now."

So the phone should be ringing any minute. For our first product placement, I see Woody Harrelson or Ed Begley Jr. in a shootout with Clint Eastwood. Hey, in retail you gotta be flexible.

To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or read his previous Wild West columns, go to www.latimes.com/chrisreynolds.

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