Berkeley’s GU Energy Labs Lost a Political Fight with Utah, But Found A New Sense of Purpose

Author: Paul Balmer  | UC Berkeley School of Law | J.D.  Candidate 2020 | Posted: February 27, 2020 | Download PDF.

GU Energy Labs, the Berkeley producer of energy gels and other endurance sports nutrition fuel, didn’t think of itself as the type of company to take a political stand. But everything changed when Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a resolution in February 2017, urging President Trump to roll back the designation of Bears Ears National Monument. 

“Our CEO had challenged the marketing team to figure out how to respond,” said Brian Gillis, Marketing Communications Manager and one of less than 100 employees of the West Berkeley-based company. [1] 

What did Utah state politics matter to GU? Utah, an endurance sports hotspot, was also home to Outdoor Retailer, the outdoor industry’s biannual trade show, which generated about $45 million in annual economic impact in Utah. [2] Now Patagonia, following the corporate activism response to anti-LGBT legislation in Indiana, Georgia, and North Carolina [3] had signaled that they were ready to take a stand. [4]

GU’s VP of Marketing, Adam Chamberlain, had heard from former colleagues at Patagonia that the apparel giant was planning to boycott the upcoming trade show if Governor Herbert signed state resolution. Adam pitched it to GU’s three-person board, and quickly got the go-ahead. [5]

GU joined Patagonia, retail and gear giant Arc’teryx, and a handful of others in announcing they would boycott Outdoor Retailer that summer. [6] GU pledged [7] to donate what it would have spent on the conference–$25,000–to the Public Lands Defense Fund, which supports advocacy and legal organizations dedicated to land conservation. [8]

But other outdoor companies were less committed. Executives at North Face, REI, and others declined to boycott Outdoor Retailer, instead highlighting the importance of the industry and community bonds forged at the conference. [9]

In late February 2017, Outdoor Retailer announced that it would be relocating in 2018, once its current contract with Utah ended. Interbike, a cycling-focused tradeshow run by the same company, would also not be held in Utah, which had been a top contender. [10] The outdoor companies and Outdoor Retailer had given Governor Herbert an ultimatum: Utah needed to show stronger support for federal lands, or Outdoor Retailer would leave. [11] Herbert refused. That afternoon he signed another resolution urging the shrinking of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  [12]

Utah never looked back on Bears Ears or Grand Staircase, and in December 2017, President Trump reduced the sizes of the monuments by 85 percent and nearly 50 percent, respectively. [13]

Outdoor Retailer opened in Denver, Colorado in January 2018, with a “self-congratulatory” air [14] that masked the serious ramifications of the rollback: that same month, the Bureau of Land Management announced rules to “expedite” oil and gas leasing, [15] and federal auctions in September and December 2018 saw “near-record” amount of Utah’s federal land leased for oil and gas development. [16]

Despite the defeat, the activist outdoor companies remained committed. Patagonia joined Native American tribes and environmental organizations in a lawsuit to halt the monument reduction. On September 30, 2019, a federal judge denied President Trump’s motion to dismiss, keeping the suit moving forward.  [17]

GU has donated more than $60,000 to the Public Lands Defense Fund, [18] including 10% of all proceeds from a new “Campfire S’mores” energy gel, created entirely in support of protecting lands. [19] And in May 2017, they directed visitors to their website to submit a public comment to the Department of Interior on the monument rollback. [20]

Though GU’s corporate activism started with the marketing team, their social voice has become an integral part of the company mission and helped strengthen the small company’s connection to public spaces and community organizations. “We were inspired by our community and athletes to voice our support during the Bears Ears fight,” said Gillis. “We loved making a product that had a direct charitable and advocacy impact in the community, so we launched a second new energy gel, ‘French Toast,’ with 10% of profits going to the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, an organization supporting youth mountain biking.” [21]

[1] Interview with Brian Gillis, Marketing Communications Manager, GU Energy Labs, in Berkeley, Calif. (Sept. 29, 2019).

[2] Fred Barbash, Largest Outdoor Gear Show Abandons Salt Lake City After 20 Years To Protest Utah Republicans’ Conservation Stance, WASHINGTON POST (Feb. 17, 2017),

[3] See, e.g., Tom C.W. Lin, Incorporating Social Activism, 98 B.U. L. Rev. 1535, 1544-50 (2018) (discussing modern corporate social activism with the example of North Carolina’s “H.B. 2”).  

[4] Yvon Chenard, The Outdoor Industry Loves Utah; Does Utah Love the Outdoor Industry? PATAGONIA (Jan. 11, 2017),

[5] Gillis, supra note 1.

[6] Liz Haas, Outdoor Brands Boycott Outdoor Retailer Trade Show In Protest, CLIMBING (Updated Feb. 23, 2017)

[7] Gu Stands Against Threats to Public Lands, GU ENERGY LABS (February 15, 2017),

[8] Public Lands Defense Fund, THE CONSERVATION ALLIANCE (April 24, 2018),

[9] Haas, supra note 6.

[10] Erin Alberty, When Outdoor Retailer Left, Salt Lake City Also Lost Chance to Host Cycling Convention, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE (Feb 18, 2017)

[11] Taylor W. Anderson, ‘We’re Going to Have to Part Ways,’ Utah Guv Told Outdoor Retailer Execs After Bears Ears ‘Ultimatum’, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE (Feb. 27, 2017)

[12]  Id.

[13] Julie Turkewitz, Trump Slashes Size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Monuments, THE NEW YORK TIMES (Dec. 4, 2017)

[14] Sarah Tory, In A New Home, the OR Show Flexes its Political Muscle, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS (May 14, 2018)


[16] Brian Mafly, Feds Hold Biggest Utah Oil and Gas Auction in Years, Setting Off Heightened Concerns From Environmentalists, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE (Dec. 12, 2018)

[17] Order, Hopi Tribe v. Trump, (1:17-cv-02590) (D.D.C. Sept. 30, 2019) (denying defendant’s motion to dismiss) also Associated Press, Trump Administration Loses Bid to Dismiss Monument Lawuits, THE NEW YORK TIMES (Oct. 1, 2019)

[18] Gillis, supra note 1.

[19] 10% Of S’mores Sales Will Go to Conservation Alliance’s Public Lands Defense Fund, GU ENERGY LABS (Accessed Oct. 1, 2019)

[20] Bears Ears National Monument is Under Threat, GU ENERGY LABS (Last Updated May 25, 2017)

[21] Gillis, supra note 1.