David Labistour, CEO of Canadian retail giant Mountain Equipment Co-op, has announced that he’ll step down from his role next June. This news comes as somewhat of a surprise, only two weeks on the heels of his recent open letter addressing MEC’s failure to represent its diverse membership in the company’s advertising materials.
After posting the letter, the company’s Facebook page was flooded with backlash from people both accusing Labistour of “dabbling in identity politics” and expressing doubt as to the true motives behind his message. “We’ve had a lot of criticism for grandstanding on this, and I understand there’s a lot of cynicism around brands and business today, so I get it,” Labistour told SNEWS at the time. “I think it’s up to us to deliver on it.”
The CEO also made waves earlier this year. In the wake of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a heated discourse reverberated across the outdoor industry, with consumers staging a boycott of brands owned by Vista Outdoors, whose portfolio also contained a manufacturer of semi-automatic assault rifles. Labistour also used an open letter then to inform customers that MEC would cut ties with several Vista-owned brands, stating that the decision would require the company to “Lean in further on the question of what corporate social responsibility means for MEC.”
As for now in this instance, Labristour isn’t saying what precipitated his departure after a year of bold moves. When SNEWS reached out for comment and to inquire why he was resigning at this time, we were told that he is not currently granting any interview requests. A MEC representative did tell Canadian newspaper The Toronto Star that “The timing [of his announcement] is not related to the diversity initiative.”
With his departure, Labistour leaves behind a 15-year legacy with the company. The former multi-term Outdoor Industry Association board member began his tenure with MEC in 2003, four years after emigrating to Canada from South Africa. He first served as the senior manager of buying and design. He became CEO in 2008, marking the first time in the company’s history that the role was selected internally. Under Labistour’s leadership, MEC doubled its brick-and-mortar locations and nearly doubled its membership, which currently tops five million people.
One of Labistour’s most passionate efforts as CEO has been an increased focus on issues of sustainability; he was instrumental in helping found the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Among other initiatives over the past 11 years, the company eliminated all single-use plastic bags from its stores, increased its waste diversion rate to nearly 94 percent, and moved its headquarters to a LEED Platinum-certified building. In addition, the company launched a line of Fair Trade Certified apparel in 2014, and as of last year, 87 percent of MEC-branded apparel is now made from bluesign-approved fabrics.
“David set an example for the industry in being clear that you can choose to make products in a way that is more sustainable for the environment by intentionally building those expectations into the way you source materials and what merchandise you choose to buy as a retailer. He built sustainability into the core of the business,” says OIA’s executive director Amy Roberts, who spent several years helming sustainability efforts at MEC before taking her current position. “I’m fortunate to have worked for him.”
Even though his recent open letter served as an apology of sorts for the company’s lack of diverse representation in its advertising, Labistour has been working to address issues of diversity and inclusivity for some time. In 2013, the company altered their branding and debuted a wider assortment of gear and clothing (including items meant for non-backcountry activities like yoga and running), to reflect data that indicated that the “outdoors” has a different meaning for a younger, more urban demographic. In addition, MEC was the first Canadian company to sign the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge launched this summer by Teresa Baker, founder of the African American Nature and Parks Experience.
Labristour will continue his duties while the Board of Directors begins its search for a successor. In a comment made via press release, he said:
“I consider myself very fortunate because I’ve been able to align my passions with my work every day for the past 11 years. I truly believe in MEC’s purpose and I’m incredibly proud of everything we do to get people active outside. Our co-op has come a long way over the years and I’m looking forward to watching it continue to grow and become more relevant to more Canadians for many years to come. For the next 8 months my focus will be on MEC and then I’ll take some time to decide on my next adventures.”