Peak Performance: Mountain Equipment Co-Op Has a Better Way of Climbing

By Shaw, Ralph | Alternatives Journal, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

Peak Performance: Mountain Equipment Co-Op Has a Better Way of Climbing


Shaw, Ralph, Alternatives Journal


THERE IS LITTLE doubt that many corporations engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR) only to enhance their public image. But Canada's own Mountain Equipment Co-op proves that CSR can be more than just a public relations scheme. By funding community projects, following strict ethical sourcing policies, and housing its stores in innovative green buildings, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) has shown itself to be a leader in corporate social responsibility.

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Founded in 1971 by four students from the University of British Columbia, member-owned MEC's mission is to provide quality products and services for "self-propelled wilderness-oriented recreation." MEC founders were guided by a vision to "inspire excellence in products and services, passion for wilderness experiences, leadership for a just world, and action for a healthy planet." Without a doubt, skeptical consumers could find similar notions in the vision statements of companies whose environmental and social records are less than impeccable. MEC, however, has a record to support its claims.

MEC's commitment to the environment is demonstrated in many aspects of its business, beginning with the name given to its CSR program--Social and Environmental Responsibility. While CSR is generally understood to include environmentally responsible action, the environment can often be overshadowed by other interests. Critics of CSR, for example, sometimes argue that it is actually socially irresponsible for businesses to focus on anything other than profit, because increased company and shareholder wealth have benefits for society as a whole. The mandate of MEC's program avoids such ambiguity and ensures that environmental and social issues are weighed equally.

As a co-operative MEC does not issue investment shares. Only MEC members--the customers--are permitted to own shares in the company, which are valued at five dollars apiece. Because MEC does not issue investment shares, it does not have a responsibility to shareholders to maximize profits above all else. And yet, profitability doesn't appear to be a problem--MEC sales have increased at an average of $7.8 million per year since 1999.

Although it may not have a duty to maximize shareholder gains, MEC does recognize a responsibility to members. According to Social and Environmental Responsibility Manager Denise Taschereau, what sets MEC apart from conventional business models is its broad perspective on the needs of members and their communities (whereas other businesses consider monetary investment returns to be their primary responsibility). MEC members may not see a direct financial return on their shares, but in effect they pass the returns on to the communities and groups that benefit from MEC's altruistic activities.

Some of MEC's revenue each year is allocated to sustainable community development projects, typically through donations for charitable or educational purposes. Each year, 0.4 percent of the previous year's sales are injected into MEC's Environment Fund. At first glace, this may not seem like a substantial amount--but that 0.4 percent translates into an average of $750,000 per year in contributions to environmental conservation and wilderness protection projects, research and education.

There are two sources MEC funding available to organizations seeking support: the National Environment Fund and the Store Environment Fund. The National Environment Fund supports five types of projects: land acquisition for conservation, advocacy and education, backcountry access, environmental research, and studentships. Through this fund, MEC has donated $62,000 to the Nature Conservancy of Canada's Bouchard Island land acquisition project and $10,000 (plus paddling jackets and canoes) to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's Boreal Rendezvous (for which high-profile Canadians like David Suzuki, Rick Mercer and Justin Trudeau canoed their way through Canada's boreal forest river system in the summer of 2003 to raise awareness of the delicate boreal ecosystem). …

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