Posted on October 25, 2018

‘Do White People Dominate the Outdoors?’ MEC Apologizes for Using Only White Models

Jake Edmiston, National Post, October 23, 2018

In a surprising apology, Mountain Equipment Co-op, the Canadian outdoor apparel giant, admitted to helping advance the “vastly incorrect notion” that the outdoors is for white people only, criticizing decades worth of its own advertisements and catalogues for depending almost exclusively on white models to sell wares.

“Outside is for everyone,” MEC CEO David Labistour said in an open letter Monday. “It’s time we acted like it.”

The letter — titled “Do white people dominate the outdoors?” — includes a collage of old MEC ads: white people hiking and biking and rock climbing and cross-country skiing; white people in khaki shorts; white people rafting in wetsuits.

It was an unorthodox move, since the apology wasn’t pre-empted by scandal — as has become the norm — but by quiet feedback, as well as an online survey of outdoor leisure and sport habits across the country, according to the company. In an interview Tuesday, Labistour said the tendency to use white models in advertising had “just been a traditional thing.”

“It’s how we grew up. It’s a historic part of our organization and the industry,” he said. “It’s been our industry paradigm. And it’s been, kind of, what we’ve always done. And sometimes we have to shift that paradigm.”

Monday’s apology was coupled with the unveiling of a new MEC “initiative,” bent on changing “the way we represent the outdoor community.” The move, MEC clarified in a statement, comes after employees and co-op members requested more diversity in the company’s ads.

“We know we’ve been part of the problem,” Labistour wrote. “This initiative isn’t about patting ourselves on the back. It’s also not about me, another straight white male with a voice in the outdoor industry.”

Labistour told the National Post that revamping advertising to feature more people of colour would help attract a more diverse workforce for MEC stores. “We have to be seen as a brand that represents the diversity of Canada in order to attract the diversity of Canada,” he said.

Asked how he would respond to someone who saw the move as cynical — as an attention grab or an attempt at simply broadening the company’s consumer base — Labistour said: “I can understand the cynicism because the world is full of cynicism right now.”

“The reality is that our purpose is to get everyone active and outdoors, and everyone means the spectrum of the Canadian demographic,” he said. “If we’re not representative, we’re not a viable organization.”

MEC released an overview from its Canada-wide survey conducted with Environics, claiming that people of colour are actually more active outdoors than white people. The online survey of 2,640 participants — conducted in two rounds, in the spring and fall of 2017 — found participation in outdoor activities to be eight per cent higher among people of colour than white people. Specifically, people of colour were found to have higher participation rates in climbing and snow sports, and similar participation rates to white people in hiking, water sports, day hikes and camping. In fact, MEC said, the survey found people of colour spent three extra hours on outdoor activities a week compared to white people.

The findings, however, run contrary to doctoral research by Jacqueline Scott at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. In an interview with the National Post in May, Scott suggested people of colour face cultural barriers to outdoor activities.

“There is a sense that the outdoors is a white space, that people of colour don’t belong in that space,” Scott said. “People of colour want to do it, but they need a bridge to get them there.”

Scott, too, blames advertisements from wilderness outfitters for helping solidify the outdoors as a white person’s realm, comparing it to the notion of “visual apartheid.” “Look in the outdoor catalogue, you don’t see us,” she said in May. “Look at outdoor recreation in general, you don’t see us.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, she welcomed MEC’s move but noted that “sticker diversity is easy,” while lasting organizational diversity, in management and the workforce, is the more difficult next step.

“Astonishing,” Scott said of first seeing Labistour’s letter.

“Astonishing. And it’s about time.”