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Report on Business ‘We’ve let our members down:’ MEC looks to boost diversity in marketing and hiring

Mountain Equipment Co-op chief executive David Labistour at their headquarters in Vancouver, B.C. on Oct. 13, 2015.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Mountain Equipment Co-op is overhauling its marketing and hiring to focus more on diversity, acknowledging it has done a poor job reflecting the shifting demographics of Canada.

MEC, from its board of directors and executives to the staff at its stores, is predominately white. The co-op’s marketing, as with most outdoors companies, largely features white people. But recent research the outdoor retailer commissioned shows more people of colour are active in the outdoors than it realized. MEC also saw that the co-op and its membership of roughly five million people are not reflective of the mix of people in major cities where it operates, such as Vancouver and Toronto.

“The Canadian landscape is changing and we’re not changing fast enough,” said David Labistour, chief executive of MEC. “We have to become a brand that is appealing to a more diverse population. I don’t know that we, at this point, are a recognized brand across the diversity of the Canadian population.”

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MEC is making its moves as the question of diversity has started to receive more attention in the outdoor industry specifically and in advertising in general. Major companies such as consumer goods seller Procter & Gamble are bringing diversity to their own staff and their advertising. Industry leaders present the moves as progressive and pragmatic. In Canada, more than a fifth of the population are people of colour, a figure set to climb to one-third in the next two decades, according to Statistics Canada. In Vancouver and Toronto, about three in five people will be people of colour by around 2030.

“Advertising has a real and unique power from a cultural perspective – but it’s also a business imperative,” said Leah Power, an executive at the Institute of Communications Agencies in Toronto. In early October, the group hosted its annual conference, which was rebranded under a new banner, Idea Summit – Inclusivity, Diversity and Equality in Advertising.

At MEC, the retailer plans to change its advertising quickly. It has already started to bring in new brand representatives, athletes in sports such as climbing, cycling and running. Mr. Labistour will release a letter this week to MEC members. “Do white people dominate the outdoors?” it begins. “If you consider every advertisement you’ve ever seen for skiing, hiking, climbing and camping, you might think that’s the case.” Mr. Labistour goes on to write, “We’ve let our members down,” and concludes: “Outside is for everyone. It’s time we acted like it.”

MEC has signed on to a “diversity pledge” organized by outdoor activists in the United States, launched earlier this year. MEC is among about a dozen names on the list and is the first company in Canada. It joins U.S. firms such as Marmot Mountain LLC, which makes clothing and gear based out of Rohnert Park, Calif., and Backcountry Magazine. The pledge is part of a broader group called Diversify Outdoors.

“A lot of the change has to come from the top – from the industry, not just grassroots activists,” said Danielle Williams, a black woman who works as a captain in the U.S. Army and founded Diversity Outdoors, which brings together groups such as Brown People Camping and Outdoor Asian.

Teresa Baker, who lives in Martinez, Calif., and works in real estate, came up with the idea for the diversity pledge. She remembers being on a week-long camping trip to Yosemite National Park in California five years ago and not seeing other black people. “I thought, ‘This is a problem,’” Ms. Baker said. “That’s what started me on this quest.”

The challenge to expand the outdoor audience is on the mind of industry leaders such as Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts Inc., the ski business’s largest operator with 18 resorts, including the four busiest in North America. The number of skiers and snowboarders in North America is unchanged over the past two decades. Mr. Katz, in a speech in Vancouver in September, said diversity is one of Vail’s primary goals over the next five years.

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“We have not done as good a job, almost anywhere, of reaching out to minority populations, people of colour, to be part of the sport,” Mr. Katz said. “I think that’s critical both to the success of our industry and I think certainly to the success of our company.”

Mr. Labistour said while the image of an outdoors person has often been that of a young, white man, the reality is much different. He pointed to a typical indoor climbing gym in Toronto, where there is vast diversity among the people scaling the walls. The majority of MEC’s 11 climbing ambassadors, who promote the co-op, are now people of colour. MEC also plans to work with board governance consultancy Watson Advisors Inc. to recruit candidates to try to bring more diversity to the co-op’s nine-person board of directors.

“Our stated purpose is to get everyone active and outdoors,” Mr. Labistour said. "We are not fulfilling our purpose currently, because we’re very much out of line with the demographic that is Canada.”

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