'We've let our members down': MEC promises to increase diversity in advertising

The outdoor recreation gear and clothing retailer is promising to increase the diversity of people represented in its advertising after being called out on social media.

'We can't move forward until we acknowledge our past,' CEO writes in an open letter

A sample of MEC advertising that was posted alongside the open letter from the company's CEO. (MEC)

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) is promising to increase diversity in its advertising after being called out on social media.

In a letter posted to the outdoor gear and clothing retailer's website, CEO David Labistour wrote: "We've let our members down ... the truth is that we haven't represented the diversity of Canadians or of our five million members."

A press release said that a national survey commissioned by MEC found that people of colour spend more time and participate in a wider range of outdoor activities than white people.

"We can't move forward until we acknowledge our past. Historically, the models we've used in our catalogues and campaigns and on mec.ca have been predominantly white. And this imagery has perpetuated the vastly incorrect notion that people of colour in Canada don't ski, hike, climb or camp," the letter read in part.

The change was in part prompted by Judith Kasiama, an avid hiker and snowshoer who lives in Vancouver.

She said she noticed the lack of diversity in the advertising of several outdoor companies last April, and decided to call them out in a post on her Instagram.

"There seems to be a narrative that BIPOC [black, Indigenous and people of colour] don't enjoy the outdoors compared to their white friends. This is not rooted in actual reality but a myth perpetuated by marketing that caters to predominately white audiences," she posted, before tagging a number of companies, including MEC.

She said within 10 minutes of her post, a MEC representative reached out to her. She now works as an ambassador for the company.

'Not an easy conversation'

"I kind of got frustrated because for me I felt that there was this stereotype being perpetrated, that someone like me doesn't like the outdoors," said Kasiama.

"For me, representation allows a lot of people to be like, 'wow, I can take part in this, and it has nothing to do with my race because this person's already doing it.'"

She said while there has been some backlash to the campaign, the reaction has mostly been positive.

"A lot of people don't think that this is an issue that we should be talking about or even bringing up, because they say they don't see colour when they're out in nature, they just see people," she said.

"I think just because that's not your lived experience or your lived reality it doesn't give you the right to discredit somebody else's lived experience. I know it's not an easy conversation to have, but it's an important conversation to have."

Problem throughout industry

In an interview with Here and Now guest host Reshmi Nair, Labistour said a lack of diversity is a problem throughout the outdoor industry.

He said his hope is the actions taken by MEC will lead to other companies examining their own efforts.

"The organization has grown up in an industry that's very white by nature and our default imagery and our default approach has always been that's one of a white view of things," Labistour said.

In addition to changing advertising imagery, Labistour said, MEC will hire a more diverse workforce, including in leadership positions, and partner with more diverse "ambassador" athletes.

He insisted that while some might see their actions as "nefarious" or self-promotional, the goal is to be relevant to the true face of the Canadian public.

"I don't think you can do anything without offending someone," he said of potential blowback to the changes.

"Hopefully, we offend very few people and get it right for the majority."

Listen to the full interview with MEC CEO David Labistour:

'Do white people dominate the outdoors?' That's the leading question of an email sent out by Mountain Equipment Co-op to its members yesterday. CEO David Labistour spoke with Reshmi Nair. 7:16

With files from Megan Batchelor and CBC Radio One's Here and Now

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