Mountain Equipment Co-op: A thriving co-op, community engagment leader & sustainability champion!

Written by Allison Smith, Thrive

As Calgary’s largest outdoor retailer and one of Canada’s best known co-operatives, Mountain Equipment Co-op focuses on gear for active outdoor lifestyles. From out of a van back in 1971, MEC has always been a co-op building on the trust of its loyal members.

How the co-op works: members are asked to pay a fee of $5 to shop at MEC which is equivalent to 1 share in the organization. Therefore, MEC is owned by over 3.5 million people across Canada! Being owned by its members changes its approach to decision making. “Our shareholders want us to provide them with goods and services. Where shareholders in the conventional sense are profit driven,” Brad Clute, Sustainability and Community Involvement Coordinator in Calgary says.

Being a member has its perks since MEC profits are given back to its members.  In addition, members have the ability to elect the board of directors, keeping it democratically controlled. “The board is for our membership by our membership,” Brad explained.

The day to day operations of the co-op is just like any other business with a CEO, frontline staff and so on. Although there are some important differences.“Our mark up is a lot lower. Our warranty and repair policies are much more liberal than industry standard,” Brad explained.

In addition, they provide free backcountry 101 workshops, which is part of the co-op philosophy of engaging the community. “That’s what our members want us to do, so that’s what we do,” he noted.

Community partnerships.

All of their community grant, partnership and product donation programs are umbrellaed under a program called 1% for the Planet, where 1% of their Gross Sales goes towards environmental and outdoor access related issues in Canada. For MEC, its important to re-invest its profits to increase community co-operation, engagement and development.

“We’re always partnering with like minded organizations to drive our mandate,” Brad said. “Any business that doesn’t work on partnering and exchanging services, is strategically behind in the game, on all levels,” he explained.

Keeping sustainability a priority.

MEC is also a leader in sustainability practices such as ethical sourcing and the bluesign standard.

Ethical sourcing focuses on the working conditions of the manufacturers both within Canada and abroad. With globalization, and trade tariffs being lifted, the business reality is manufacturing often happens overseas.  “Even though we’re a big fish in the Canadian retail market, we can’t open our own plant here,” Brad commented on the supply chain reality. However, due to their reputation in ethical sourcing, they have the ability to influence other businesses to sign on to similar ethical sourcing practices. Furthermore, MEC strives to keep as much of the production within the Canadian market place as they understand the importance in building a strong local economy.

MEC is also apart of bluesign, which examines the environmental impact of their supply chain and how to reduce their environmental impact without sacrificing quality.

At the Calgary office there are sustainability policies and an environmental integrity committee in place for the day to day operations of the store. Some of their actions to stay sustainable include VOC free paint, no carpet, composting and Bullfrog powered electricity. What’s most impressive is that the Calgary store has a ~ 95% waste diversion rate!

The staff are on board with the policies such as no single use coffee cup and no single use shopping bag which is worked into their performance measurements. They help ensure this by adequately training staff, doing frequent “dumpster dives” to see the success of the recycling programs and having a green building program.

Online gear swaps happen twice a year in their parking lot. “We want to keep things out of the landfill and help people get the gear that they can actually use,” Brad explained. Last year the left over gear, over 3 tonnes, was donated to Inn from the Cold.

A commitment to living-wage jobs.

MEC is also a great place to work that promotes work-life balance, living wage jobs and meaningful employment. “Our ethics attract staff with similar values,” Brad said .

The Vibrant Workplace Calgary has recognized MEC for their living-wage and human resource policies, that are well above industry standard.  For example, MEC helps staff finance a bike, boat or computer through the interest-free employee loan program.  MECs commitment to its employees is engrained in the employees benefit program that offers employer-matching RRSPs and tuition assistance that keeps their staff healthy and happy.

Engaging youth and new Canadians.

Focusing on low income youth and new Canadians is a bit of an unspoken rule at MEC. They strive to get youth outdoors that normally don’t have access to camps, workshops and equipment.  Although, Brad explained that even though MEC tries to be as inclusive as possible, it’s a hard barrier to crack.

One way they try to be inclusive is through the Learn to Camp Program in partnership with Parks Canada. The program takes new Canadian families camping for the first time and aims to build their skill-set and to have some fun in their new home country. A year ago Brad attended the program and still remembers the heart-warming stories of the first time campers.  “A little girl had her first cup of hot chocolate ever! Sitting on a stump beside a fire…. Just to see those moments, a lot of us take for granted growing up in Canada,” he said.

To learn more about MECs sustainability and community engagement initiatives visit their website here: MEC website

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