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The green roof on the MEC store in Toronto, ON.

David Labistour, the chief executive officer of Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), doesn’t believe that consumers truly vote with their wallets when it comes to sustainability issues.

He points to the tragic collapse in April 2013 of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, in which more than 1,100 garment factory workers were killed. In the months that followed there was a consumer outcry, as westerners came to terms with the working conditions in the places where much of our clothing is made. But Bangladesh did not export less clothing during the remainder of that year.

“The Rana Plaza issue did not impact their exports – in fact, they went up,” Labistour says. “I think there’s a huge disconnect between what consumers say and how they react on social media versus how they actually act in their daily lives… I never operate from the point of view that the consumer is going to buy stuff from you because of sustainability attributes.”

And yet MEC places such an emphasis on sustainability that it received the top spot on this year’s Corporate Knights ranking of the Best 50 Corporate Citizens in Canada, its second 1st place ranking since first appearing on the Best 50 in 2007. MEC outshines its retailing peers when it comes to areas such as carbon productivity, the percentage of women in senior management, and the ratio of the CEO’s pay compared to that of the company’s average worker.

So why does it embrace sustainability, if not to appeal to consumers?

“It’s just smart business,” Labistour says. “Resources are becoming more expensive, local communities are railing against toxicity from the factories in their neighbourhoods, water is becoming a real commodity that we have to watch.”

Staying ahead of the curve on these issues not only bolsters efficiency but helps minimize a company’s future risks, he suggests. For example, “governments are now bringing in packaging taxation, and people that are ahead of that game and legislation are going to be more efficient businesses in the long term,” he says. “So for me, this is not the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”

In an era of extreme business complexity, Labistour is a fan of breaking down barriers so that the company can run as an organic whole. “You can no longer run your business in silos,” he says.

That means, for instance, that information technology, financing and marketing should be working symbiotically. And it means that sustainability should be integrated, not separate.

“We don’t have a ‘sustainability person’ who is responsible for waste diversion in stores. It’s part of the standard operations of the organization,” Labistour says. “It’s the integration of these deliverables within everyone’s job descriptions – whether you’re getting better at waste diversion, or getting better at meeting the customer’s expectations, or becoming more efficient in your supply chain, it’s all part and parcel of trying to be a better business.”

By embedding sustainability in everyone’s jobs, it becomes “operational dial tone,” he adds. “You always hit problems on the way, whether it be legislative changes or process changes that you bump up against. But if it is part of someone’s job description and it is something that is part of general performance delivery, you work your way around it.”

Labistour credits the diversity within the organization’s ranks for making meetings more fruitful than they might otherwise be. Forty-four per cent of MEC’s executives and directors were women in 2012. “It’s not just physical diversity, it’s diversity of thought,” he says. “You have a much stronger discussion, and you come to much richer results.”

The outdoor goods retailer, which has more than 3.5 million members, updated its five-year business sustainability strategy in 2012, focusing on four pillars: product integrity, retail operations, member service, and community.

Labistour believes one of the company’s biggest sustainability achievements is also one of its least recognized, and that’s the fact that more than half of its MEC-brand apparel materials are bluesign approved. The bluesign system looks at the use of sustainable ingredients and the production process in the textile industry and is based on five principles: resource productivity, consumer safety, water emission, air emission, and occupational health and safety.

The accomplishment, however, that brings the biggest smile to Labistour’s face is the way MEC now reports its sustainability achievements and goals. “For me, the thing I’m most proud of is the fact that our year-end report this year will be an integrated business and sustainability report,” he says.

That’s in keeping with his philosophy about breaking down silos and ensuring that sustainability permeates the organization. “We’ve still got a way to go, it’s not going to be perfect, but it’s the first one.”

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