Mountain Equipment Co-op CEO David Labistour on the bumpy path to becoming more inclusive outdoors

SNEWS talks to MEC CEO David Labistour on the retailer’s efforts to widen the scope of the outdoors and reach more consumers.
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The road to inclusivity is an abstract one.

While the outdoor industry has metrics to measure waterproofness, durability or even how “green” a product is, there’s no score that endorses a company’s inclusive-ness (at least that we know of).

It’s a tricky play that can, and does, anger core followers. Just ask David Labistour, CEO Mountain Equipment Cooperative, who has helped lead a five-year rebranding project at the Canadian outdoor retailer that, in part, looked to widen the scope of its customers and business into areas like fitness, yoga and the urban outdoors.

Labistour shared some of the initial results and experience of the project at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, during what is informally referred to as the Diversity and Inclusion luncheon. The event is made up of 20 industry champions of diversity, including Outdoor Retailer Show Director Kenji Haroutunian. They meet at J Wong’s café during the second day of the show to strategize how brands and retailers can become more inclusive.

Thanks to Labistour and MEC, the group got a first-hand account of the ups and downs of rebranding to become more inclusive. Afterward, our reporter Yoon Kim caught up with CEO for an interview:

What made MEC’s inclusivity efforts successful?
I wouldn’t quite call it a success yet. We're probably further down this road than other retailers, but that's because we started a while back. I’d rather say that we’re still working on it than saying that we’re successful. We started planning five years ago and it really hit the stores in 2012. Since then, we've seen significant growth in revenues; nearly 10 percent (or 9.8 percent) in 2012 and 6.4 percent in 2013. The boat didn’t sink and it’s grown in tough times. For me, diversity is not just about culture; it's about age, geography, urban activities and basically, being open to everyone. It goes back to our purpose to inspire an active lifestyle to ALL.

DavidLabistour

It’s one thing for a retailer like MEC to say it’s going to be more inclusive, but that’s just half of the equation. How do you tell your suppliers to be more inclusive, too?
We like to encourage rather than tell. But before we can even do that, we want to get our own house in order. We can't encourage people what to do if we're not absolutely pure. But rather than tell what to do, we just buy from people who we think are doing it right. I think some people are getting it and moving, and some not as quick. But a lot of brands are doing a good job to expand their assortments.

What are the potential problems with over emphasizing diversity?
If you're a core technical brand, you have to show your product being used in a technical way. People who know how that product is used know if it's not being used in an authentic way. You have to grow your diverse customer base as a whole system. It's not easy. When we changed the brand, we had a lot of negative sentiment in social media.

How did you/your team respond?
We only responded to blatant untruths. We didn't respond to others because it's subjective. In social media, everyone jumps on it at the beginning and then it goes quiet.

Do you feel like you've left a vacuum for competitors to get into your “core” categories?
We didn’t abandon the core customer. Opening a door doesn’t mean you're closing others. In the last two years, our core departments, which include climbing, kayaking, backcountry skiing, have seen strong growth. So we're seeing growth in core while bringing in fitness, yoga, and more women-specific categories. The secret is hiring people who are passionate about some form of recreation.

--Yoon Kim

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