Holy Fleece

By Vivien Lougheed | May 26, 2004

Each year at the Banff International Book and Film Festival, world-famous mountaineers like Reinhold Messner and Sir Chris Bonington strut from lecture theatre to lecture theatre oozing testosterone, chic in gear made by companies such as North Face, Patagonia, Marmot and Oakley.

The Banff audiences hang onto every word of these saints of extreme mountaineering. They want to learn how to endure, how to survive. Some, inspired, try life-threatening adventures of their own. Others just buy the gear (or cheaper versions of the gear) and use it to paddle on the Assiniboine, skate on the Rideau Canal, bike to work or drive to the mall.

The stores that sell the gear resemble churches of a new religion. The biggest of them all in Canada is Mountain Equipment Co-op, one-time sponsors of the Banff festival’s “literary lunch.” At MEC, you don’t just buy stuff; you “test” it by harnessing up and scaling a plastic wall or by lacing new boots and ascending steep ramps. You can swap lore with the sales staff, discussing the merits of Gortex, Vibrum, Kevlar and gadgets like the Ultra Pod Small Tripod. Or you can describe your latest exploit.

MEC customers read the bi-annual catalogue as if it was the bible. They study it. They discuss it. It features the apostles – saints such as the American paddler Tao Berman or internationally acclaimed kayaker Josh Bechtel – wearing and using MEC gear. The catalogue continually embellishes and updates a theme of environmental purity; constant readers are familiar with a lexicon that includes phrases such as “walk lightly upon the earth” or “reduce our ecological footprint”.

Since 1971, when the Co-op was founded by a group of UBC Outdoor Club students who were tired of driving to Seattle to get their gear, the congregation has grown to 1.9 million members whose join-up fees alone have generated $9.5 million. Like other churches in Canada, MEC doesn’t pay taxes on its profits. Instead, the profits are supposed to be shared among the members who, the government rationalizes, will pay the tax on the dividends they get and any interest accrued by those dividends.

However, MEC has given dividends only three times in thirty-one years. Instead of dividends, it offers members the advantage of purchasing gear at a lower price. By offering dividends only sparingly, MEC says that it has been able to expand its stock and storefronts and give eco-friendly groups charity in the form of grants that conserve land, protect animals and develop trails – in other words, promote the religion. It has installed composting toilets in some stores, and uses recycled waste products in its rooftop gardens, now so popular in places like Montreal and Toronto.

As with all churches, however, conflict has appeared both inside and outside MEC. Because of the financial edge the company has over other retailers, manufacturers such as Patagonia and Oakley have boycotted it. Patagonia pulled out in the early 1980s because, they said, privately-owned businesses could better represent them; this seems to be a corporate way of stating that MEC practices unfair competition.

In retaliation – and in order to survive – MEC started manufacturing its own goods in offshore factories. This allows the company to stay faithful to its original vision: keep costs low for its members. But there’s a problem: offshore manufacturers are reputed to be mostly sweat shops. So MEC has hired an American-based company called Verite, which monitors facilities and working conditions for North American companies using off-shore factories. In turn, Verite works with non-governmental societies that look at labor practices and encourage international working standards. MEC’s “New Vision” is to “develop systems to measure, monitor and improve the social and environmental impacts of products, services and business operations.”

MEC developed its “New Vision” because its manufacturing practices have caused dissension inside the church. Questions are being asked by the saints, the clergy and the congregation. These questions concern the purity of the faith.

To give one important example. Not all of MEC’s gear is top quality; so the saints – Berman, Bechtel etc – don’t wear, or aren’t seen wearing, much clothing with the MEC logo on it unless they’re being photographed for the catalogue. For the majority of the congregation, of course, top quality doesn’t matter. They just want look-alike gear. They don’t need a tent that will survive a mountain storm at 26,000 feet or a rainproof jacket to make it through the canyons of the Nahanni River during a downpour.

But a minority do want quality even if they don’t need it. It’s the ecological message. Better quality keeps stuff out of the landfill. And so while MEC’s bicycle brake pads are praised by some because the pads are so cheap they can just be thrown away when they wear out, others curse them for the same reason.

Furthermore, some MEC members don’t buy the “New Vision”. They find it difficult to believe that a campesino working for wages for the first time in years is going to truthfully tell the missionaries that he’d like a few more pesos. Some disciples have suggested that MEC could make quality gear in Canada where working standards are enforced and quality control is important. Arc’Teryx, for example, which is quickly becoming the leader in backpack technology, does this, and sells through MEC.

MEC members squabble about other things, too. Some dislike the canonization of mountaineers, especially since the recent disasters on Everest, which revealed many mountaineers’ extraordinary egotism. The climbers’ carelessness hasn’t helped either. It’s hard to forget those images of the sacred mountain desecrated with piles of used oxygen canisters, torn tents, plastic bottles thrown into crevasses, steel pitons left in the ice and dead bodies wearing non-biodegradable boots and Gortex.

And the congregation is getting older. Some of these older adventurers feel that their needs aren’t being met. How about some product research related to the guy who could use silent zippers so he can go to the bathroom in the middle of the night without waking his team mates, or hemorrhoid creams that don’t stain his nylon shorts? How about some helium bladders on the sides of packs to help lighten the weight or even (in an emergency) lift the trekker out of reach of a grizzly bear? And how about some geriatrics on the sales staff, people whose eyes are less likely to glaze over at the account of a trek accomplished with minimal Advil?

I am one of these "older adventurers." (You guessed.) But I still think of myself as a serious trekker. I aspire, unlike the majority of the congregation, to sainthood. For this reason, when it comes to the important gear like tents, backpacks or Gortex jackets, you’ll see me in places like Island Alpine or Valhalla.

Still, I remain a loyal member of the church and pay my tithe on a regular basis. I like Mountain Equipment Co-op because, unlike the Catholic Church, it is willing to change its ways to accommodate the congregation and keep the membership growing. For example: when some of the members felt that the canonization of the male climbers at Banff didn’t represent the majority of the congregation, MEC stopped sponsoring that event. And they show women in their catalogues, some of them not too famous or even too glamorous, although (I hate this) they are all still young.

1224 words, May 26, 2004


  • Vivien Lougheed

    Vivien Lougheed is a world traveler and the author of numerous travel books, including Central America by Chicken Bus, Forbidden Mountains and Understanding Bolivia. She lives in Prince George, BC.

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