Protests against MEC are sign of the social media age

Responsibilities of co-operative companies seen as higher than for private firms

Vancouver-founded Mountain Equipment Co-op has drawn criticism for carrying products made by a multinational company that also makes guns | submitted

It is a sign of the times that Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) faced the ire of its members last week after news emerged that the outdoor clothing and accessories chain was stocking water bottles, binoculars and other items made by a multinational corporation that also makes guns and ammunition.

The company on March 1 announced it would halt all future orders for the products, following nearly a week of social media outrage and a petition with tens of thousands of signatures calling for the products to be removed.

The spark for that late-February outrage was the February 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 people and injured dozens more.

One of the after-effects of that shooting was widespread social media pressure on companies to disassociate from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Within weeks, large insurance companies, airlines and rental car companies eliminated special discounts that had been offered to NRA members.

Companies slow to end those discounts, such as FedEx Corp. (NYSE:FDX), endured the ire of many on social media who vowed boycotts.

The pressure, determination for change and reach of the grassroots call for restrictions on semi-automatic gun ownership was similar to the call for change in the #MeToo movement, which followed dozens of accusations of sexual misconduct against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, retail analyst and DIG360 principal David Gray told Business in Vancouver.

It was in this social context that MEC was overwhelmed with requests to stop stocking Bushnell binoculars, CamelBak water bottles and Jimmy Styks paddleboards, he said.

All those products were made by disparate tentacles of multinational Vista Outdoor (NYSE:VSTO), which also happens to be the parent company of Savage Arms, a manufacturer of semi-automatic military-style weapons and ammunition similar to that used in the Florida shooting.

One of the many questions business and retail analysts were mulling in the aftermath of the controversy was whether MEC, which espouses socially responsible values, failed in its commitment to its customers, who are also members because MEC is a co-operative that charges all shoppers an initial membership fee.

Many privately owned businesses in Vancouver – London Drugs, Sport Chek, Canadian Tire and others – also sell some of the products that MEC was taken to task for carrying, but there was comparatively little social media antagonism directed at those companies.

“I would think that a company billing itself as socially responsible would be paying a lot more attention to its supply chain,” said Robert Crawford, a University of British Columbia political science professor who has a specialty in multinational corporations.

“It shouldn’t take a school shooting to realize that ammunition and guns are something that you probably don’t want to be investing in if you’re packaging yourself as being socially responsible.”

He said that MEC’s decision to charge a membership fee and proactively assert that it is a socially responsible venture “raises the burden a lot higher” for the co-op to carry products that are not made by companies that also make goods seen as not socially responsible.

After all, Crawford said, it is very difficult for consumers to do the necessary research to understand the ownership structure for every company producing merchandise on store shelves.

“There are 85,000 multinationals in the world,” he said. “Twenty years ago, there were about 25,000. There’s been massive growth both qualitatively and quantitatively. The sheer number of multinational corporations has increased dramatically, but what they do and how they do it has also changed.”

Others are more forgiving of MEC’s actions.

Simon Fraser University Beedie School of Business Prof. Mark Wexler, whose specialties include business ethics, told BIV he did not think MEC failed in its promise to its members because of the same tangled web of multinational tentacles that Crawford outlined.

He did, however, say that MEC’s commitment to its members to be socially responsible and its co-operative ownership structure oblige it to listen to and consider the concerns of those members, more so than would be the case for a privately held company.

“I don’t think it was an egregious misfire or mistake,” concurred Gray.

“I think [MEC executives] were quite aware of the structure [of Vista Outdoor] and in a judgment call said, ‘There are a couple bad apples in this network. We’ll have nothing to do with them, but there are good players like CamelBak and we will work with those guys.’”

As for privately owned retailers, London Drugs confirmed to BIV that it carries two Vista Outdoor brands: Tasco and Bushnell.

“At this time we have not heard from any customers with concerns related to these products,” the company said in an email. •

gkorstrom@biv.com

@GlenKorstrom