British Columbia

'Why is MEC waffling?' NRA consumer threat takes co-op back to ethical roots

Founder of outdoor retail giant says battles with large corporations baked into co-operative's DNA

Jason Proctor - CBC News

February 28, 2018

MEC is caught in the crosshairs of a debate over the ownership of some its most popular brands. Many consumers want the chain to drop Vista Outdoor products because of associations with the NRA. (Mark Matulis/CBC)

Aaron Naparstek didn't intend to start a revolution.

The Brooklyn-based blogger and bike activist says he simply wanted to share something he'd learned about a lot of his favourite gear. Something that shocked him.

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From makers of helmets to producers of child seats, many of the companies he had thought of as being independent were in fact owned by corporate giant Vista Outdoor – one of the U.S.'s largest manufacturers of guns and ammunition.

Crucially for Naparstek, Vista is also a vocal and generous supporter of the National Rifle Association.

So he fired off a tweet.

A week later, the social media firestorm Naparstek ignited has executives at Canada's largest outdoor retailer pondering what to do about Mountain Equipment Co-op's own relationship with Vista — which also owns some of the chain's most popular brands, like CamelBak, Bolle and Bushnell.

"It's a quandary for these companies because frankly Vista Outdoor — this guns and ammunition marketer — seems to have really good taste in biking, running and outdoor brands," Naparstek says from his home in Brooklyn.

"I can imagine that these are popular brands and they want to continue to sell them, but ethically, they have to stop. I can't think of any other way to deal with the fact that when an MEC member comes into a store and buys a CamelBak water bottle, some tiny portion of their purchase is going to funding [the NRA]."

'Why is MEC waffling?'

Buying a Jimmy Styks paddleboard or Camp Chef oven may not seem overtly political.

But a unique combination of forces converged to place MEC's five million members at the centre of an ethical debate: raw emotions over the deaths of 14 students and three teachers in a Florida school shooting; consumer boycotts of NRA supporters; the corporate conglomeration that made companies like Bell, Giro and Blackburn part of Vista; and the unique outdoor culture that has driven MEC's success.

The school shooting in Parkland, Fla., prompted a blogger to send off a tweet that has Mountain Equipment Co-op reconsidering whether to sell popular outdoor goods from brands that are now owned by Vista. (Charles Trainor Jr./Associated Press)

Founding member Jim Byers says the latest controversy fits right into the history of the co-operative he and other mountain climbers formed in 1971 to get quality gear at reasonable prices.

He just can't understand why it's taking current management any time to make a stand.

"Why is MEC waffling on this?" asks Byers, who lives in Kelowna, B.C. "Why don't you say we'll pull the stuff off the shelves for the interim until we investigate?"​

In an email, another co-founder, Sara Golling, said she supports "any move that diminishes the economic and political power of weapons manufacturers and the NRA."

'An us vs. them mentality'

Vista Outdoor also describes itself as a company built on ideals: a corporation, according to its website, "born of an innate desire to exceed the lofty expectations of outdoor enthusiasts across the globe."

The company has two lines of business: shooting sports and outdoor products.

Vista is well-known for its line of AR-15-style weapons and ammunition. In recent years, the company has also spent millions building up its outdoor portfolio, bringing brands like Jimmy Styks, Giro and Bell into the fold.

Mountain Equipment Co-op was founded by a group of mountain climbers in 1971. The ethics of the sport were baked into the company's genes.

A 2015 interview in the NRA's American Rifleman makes clear that gun opponents weren't the only ones worried about the possibility of a split focus.

Former Vista CEO Mark DeYoung was asked whether his company's "high-profile" shooting industry leadership could continue with so many fingers in so many different pies.

His answer appeared to presage the current controversy.

"No doubt that in some recreational markets, you may not have the same passion towards the Second Amendment or shooting sports as in other sectors," he said.

"I think there is enough overlap and consumers who will pursue different outdoor interests that we can work our way through that landscape.

"We can be a company responsible to the needs of customers and do so in a way that we can stay committed to our values. We will do everything we can to avoid an us versus them mentality in this business."

'A strong sense of ethics'

Vista did not return calls for comment. And MEC says it is still considering its options.

Naparstek says he'd love to see Vista spin its sports brands into a separate entity, but feels that's unlikely to happen.

For now, he says he simply wants the company to drop its support for the NRA.

As the founder of Streetsblog, a website dedicated to the improvement of walking, biking and transit, Naparstek has devoted himself to making American spaces safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.

His horror at the deaths of 14 teens and three adults in Florida has given him a chance to extend that mission beyond the pavement. Naparstek says he's surprised by the reaction, but not by the passion behind it.

"I do think there's a strong sense of ethics in the outdoor community. And you see that in companies like MEC."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor
@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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