Business·Analysis

MEC falls victim to a consumer attack on guns that is powerful but capricious: Don Pittis

Mountain Equipment Co-op caves in to consumer pressure but the threat of boycotts, while powerful, remains a blunt instrument.

Boycotts are a useful tool but, as finger-pointing spreads, they are also fickle

Students arrive at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this week following the mass shooting that galvanized a consumer backlash against businesses seen linked with the gun industry. (Mary Beth Koeth/Reuters)

When it comes right down to it, which companies get hurt in a consumer boycott is to some extent arbitrary.

That thought came to mind when Mountain Equipment Co-Op faced threats of a backlash as a result of the Florida high school shooting that stole 17 lives.

Ultimately, MEC announced it would bow to growing pressure and stop selling products from Vista Outdoor, a U.S. company that produces guns and ammunition.

Responding to pressure

MEC's response, ending the sale of such non-lethal items as Bushnell binoculars and Jimmy Styks paddleboards, demonstrates the power of consumer boycott action. But it also reminds us about its capriciousness.

In a world full of wickedness, amid the companies we use regularly, MEC must be among the most benign.
Relative to all the companies you deal with every day, how wicked is MEC? (Don Pittis/CBC)

"I don't think anyone thought that Mountain Equipment Co-Op was endorsing assault weapons," says Marvin Ryder, marketing professor at McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business.

Unlike its Quebec-based competitor, Sail, or the nationwide chain Canadian Tire, MEC doesn't sell guns.

And while MEC will stop selling Vista Outdoors goods, the products — including clothing, water bottles and Bell bike helmets — will continue to be easily available at other familiar Canadian outlets.

Double standard

As Ryder points out, it's a double standard created by the outdoor chain's own statement of principles.

"Your values statement says you're there to better mankind, you're there to make a better world," says Ryder

It may be unfair for MEC, but for consumers trying to shape the world around them, boycotts are one of a handful of effective weapons they can wield against giant corporations.

But since many of the people wishing to boycott a company that sells guns don't actually buy guns, organizers of the boycott must look for strategic points of leverage. By putting the pressure on a company like MEC the boycott increases its power.

Not only are protesters refusing to buy Vista Outdoor goods themselves, they have succeeded in preventing all MEC members from buying those products.
Federal Express, a shipping company that offers discounts to members of the National Rifle Association, has ignored calls for a boycott. (Don Pittis/CBC)

But compared to other companies such as Federal Express, the shipping company that has offered special deals to members of the National Rifle Association, the attack on MEC seems disproportionate. Besides, FedEx, Amazon and Apple have ignored calls for a boycott.

People who study such things say boycotts are short-lived. Activists follow the news cycle: Tim Hortons last month, MEC this month, but then they go back to their ordinary shopping patterns.

And many consumers aren't willing to upset their lives for a boycott call if the company involved seems only moderately implicated.

Switching banks?

Toronto-Dominion Bank and BMO showed up on a U.S. list of financial institutions with connections to gun companies. According to the progressive news site ThinkProgress, TD offered lines of credit to two gun companies and BMO lent money to Vista Outdoor, the company at the heart of MEC's troubles.

Banks clearly take such accusations seriously. While saying it couldn't discuss individual customer accounts, TD was quick in responding to a CBC News inquiry.

"We at TD condemn violence in any form and our hearts and thoughts are with the victims in Florida and their families," said TD's Matthew J. Doherty in an email. "We strongly support bipartisan efforts aimed at preventing these types of tragedies from happening again."
Banks take accusations of financing gun makers seriously, but will that make them change? (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

While it is hard to know how many bank customers would bother moving their accounts in response to such reports, there is another consideration. While the fickle finger may point at TD and BMO this time, we know that in an integrated global economy, there are few clean hands.

Odds are the company that makes the plane you fly in for your winter holiday makes weapons that have contributed to more than 17 deaths. The car you drive very likely has parts shared with weapons of war. 

Making choices about such thing is not easy. But many of the considerations have already been addressed in the business world by the practice of ethical investing, according to Adam Spence, director of a group at Toronto's MaRS Discovery District that connects ethical investors with ethical projects.

Positive pressure

The most common method, says Spence, is to "screen out the bad," similar to the method used in boycotts, whether what's considered bad is weapons, pornography or coal.

The focus of Spence's group is what they call impact investing.

"You invest in enterprises, funds and organizations that are trying to do good for the world," explains Spence.

BMO, for instance, has an investment fund that allows you to invest in gender-positive companies where women play a larger role.

But when a company does some things you like and some you don't, where do ethical investors draw the line?

A third strategy is what Spence calls "selecting best in class," trying to study the overall impact of a company as judged by third-party agencies such as B Corporation or MSCI

"MSCI can look at companies and the amount of revenue expenditure on both positive and negative markers," says Spence. "Increasingly we have public market transparency on the impact performance of companies."

Whether through boycotts or the pressure of ethical investing, activists seem to point companies in the right direction. Spence says studies have shown firms that are more ethical outperform others in the S&P index.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

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