In 1971, a group of west coast mountaineers made a decision to do business differently, and they turned an unconventional retail model into a thriving business. Although MEC has evolved over time, our grassroots foundation still holds up: make things happen, deal fairly, find strength in community, and inspire adventure.
A startup idea
In the late sixties and early seventies, climbing in Vancouver wasn’t yet mainstream and climbing gear was hard to find. If you wanted a rope or an ice axe, your best bet was to cross the border and gear up at REI in Seattle.
The idea of making gear available in Canada surfaced on a trip to Mount Baker in 1970. A group of four climbers, socked in at the base of the glacier, had nothing to do but sit in the tent and talk. Through the weekend, the talk of opening a gear store crystalized into a commitment to start something like REI in Canada, a co-op with low mark-up, operating with democratic principles.
“I had begun to see co-operative economics as a viable alternative to private ownership.” – Jim, MEC founding member
Initially, they considered a structure that would have benefited the small group of founders. But ultimately, they decided the business would be a consumer co-operative with an unlimited number of equal membership shares, and that they would sell gear for rock climbing, mountaineering, ski mountaineering, and hiking. They decided to charge $5 for a membership share, and with this limited operating capital, people who wanted products would have to pay in advance and trust the Co-op to deliver.
Equipment came from REI and another small Seattle company, MSR. With a lean mark-up of 20%, the new Co-op could buy wholesale, pay duties, and be competitive in the Vancouver market. Gradually they could afford to purchase a few items without advance payment. They drove them around to outdoor club meetings, where they would show off the gear and talk to people about co-operative operations.
For the first three years, the Co-op was run solely by volunteers. There were no paid employees until the business could support a store with regular hours and gear on the shelves. These early stores weren’t so much places to buy stuff as they were places to hang out, plan trips, get advice, and talk about gear.
Coming into our own
Things weren’t easy at the start. There were disagreements, there wasn’t much money, there were vendors who refused to sell to a co-op that didn’t charge the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, but the philosophical attachment to doing business differently was powerful. The founding members and many others who joined them were willing to give time and energy and to be steady patrons.
Fuelled by members who believed in being part of a co-operative enterprise, MEC thrived, and continues to demonstrate the best of what business can be in our society.
1971 The Co-op is formally incorporated on August 2, with six members, and about $65 of operating capital.
1972 The first catalogue is produced: a single page, typed and taped to a door in the UBC Student Union Building. Membership grows to 250 by the end of the year and the operation moves to the Dominion Building on West Hastings Street.
1973 The store moves to 2068 4th Avenue to accommodate the in-stock gear.
1974 The year begins with a healthy membership of 700. They begin to receive catalogues in the mail.
1975 Our Vancouver store expands to include the downstairs level (our first storefront presence). Alongside all the gear, we have a notice board for outdoor activities happening in the area.
1976 The Board votes to return patronage dividends to members in proportion to their purchases. This stabilizes the financial situation considerably. In addition to selling gear, we advertise rentals in our catalogue: cross-country skis and snowshoes.
1977 The Canadian Mountain Co-operative votes to be absorbed by MEC, and three members drive a U-haul full of gear to Alberta to open a store in Calgary. The Vancouver store moves to a space near Granville Island.
1978 Rain gear technology takes a huge leap forward with the introduction of Gore-Tex parkas, pants and anoraks.
1979 MEC and Hine-Snowbridge agree to set up a Canadian factory to make backpacks and panniers. The company evolves into Serratus Mountain Products, the “house” brand for 25 years.
1980 The first ever member survey is conducted. Members note that the availability of equipment could be improved. (It turns out not to be the last time we hear this feedback.)
1981 The Co-op reaches 57,000 members, and MEC celebrates its 10th anniversary.
1982 The Vancouver store moves to West 8th Avenue, where it remains for a dozen years.
1983 The Co-op begins accepting payment by credit card, but to signal their importance, membership shares must be purchased in cash.
1984 MEC reaches 90,000 members living in Canada, plus 1,000 international members. We conduct our second-ever member survey, with an incentive of a Co-op poster for filling it out.
1985 For the first time there are more candidates than positions available on the Board. Prior to this, elections had been won by acclamation.
MEC opens a store in Toronto.
1986 We reach 140,000 members and publish our first-ever full colour catalogue. Tech is evolving: our winter catalogue notes that likely changes are ahead for avalanche beacon frequencies (to 457KHz, now the standard).
1987 MEC establishes The Environment Fund and makes a donation to the Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC to purchase property containing the Smoke Bluffs, a climbing area threatened by development. The bluffs were purchased for $70,000.
Members receive a share redemption of $350,000.
1988 In-house product development begins. The first major product produced is the Nevé Gore-Tex Parka. The group initially thought a product run of 1,600 would suffice. By year end, they’d produced 10,000.
1989 Several staff members take leave to clean up an oil spill on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The staff are paid honoraria and reimbursed for expenses.
Members receive a share redemption of $650,000.
1990 Membership reaches 250,000. At the time, this is 1% of the population of Canada. From 1987 to 1990, the Co-op’s growth rate was over 30% a year.
1991 The Co-op reaches 20 years, 330,000 members and $36.5 million in annual sales. Our Toronto store expands to more than twice its size, and we celebrate our 20th anniversary with a special edition logo on shorts, Swiss army knives and sleeping bags.
1992 MEC opens a store in Ottawa. We create (as far as were aware) the only kids’ Gore-Tex jacket in North America that was fully approved by Gore at the time.
1993 The Endowment Fund for the Environment is created as a charitable public fund to support the creation of parks and protected areas. Members receive a share redemption of $900,000.
1994 MEC starts making fleece jackets and pants out of recycled polyester made from plastic soda bottles.
The Board creates a policy that requires environmental consultation for all new buildings and renovations.
1995 One of the 47 environmental projects funded is a $100,000 land acquisition grant to aid the purchase of Jedediah Island and preserve it as a Provincial Park. Our Vancouver store moves into a much larger space on West Broadway, which was formerly an auto repair shop.
1996 In a survey, 44.9% of members report that they would use the internet to get information or to communicate with MEC, if we were connected to it.
1997 MEC reaches 1 million members. At the end of the year, we launch mec.ca, a small online brochure of backcountry information. We finally phase out member books – instead, people can use new membership cards or use their phone numbers at checkout.
1998 We create a line of garments made from 100% organically grown cotton. MEC also starts our own fabric lab, where we can test materials to make sure the products we make meet our standards.
The MEC store in Edmonton opens. The Toronto store moves (again) to a King Street West building that gets an award for environmental design.
1999 Pack technology evolves to the point that MEC no longer sells external frame backpacks, once a staple piece of outdoor gear. Our head office moves into a new building that was formerly an auto parts warehouse.
2000 Split boards arrive in the product assortment so snowboarders can access the backcountry. The Ottawa store makes a move to its current location, and becomes the first retail store in Canada to meet the rigid C2000 green buildings standards.
Members receive a share redemption of $1.2 million.
2001 The website becomes transactional so members can buy gear online. MEC opens in Halifax, and the Co-op celebrates 30 years of history. Members receive a share redemption of $1.2 million.
2002 MEC opens a store in Winnipeg that is rated the most energy-efficient retail building in Canada. The Co-op offers online voting for the Board of Directors election.
2003 The Co-op comes to Quebec. MEC opens a store in Montreal, and begins to translate all its communications into French.
2004 MEC opens stores in Quebec City and in North Vancouver. Membership reaches 2 million.
Members receive a share redemption of $1 million.
2005 After years of declining sales for Serratus products, MEC closes the manufacturing facility, one of the most difficult and contentious decisions the Co-op has ever faced.
MEC becomes a founding partner of Leave No Trace Canada, and joins the Fair Labor Association. We also support the Land Conservancy to protect the Skaha Bluffs climbing area, and members receive a share redemption of $2 million.
2006 The website becomes fully bilingual. MEC opens a store in Victoria – our eleventh location – and celebrates our 35th anniversary. We also become bluesign® system partners.
Members receive a share redemption of $2.1 million.
2007 MEC joins 1% for the Planet, a group of businesses that donate 1% of gross sales to environmental causes.
Members receive a share redemption of $3.6 million.
2008 MEC opens a store in Burlington with a rooftop solar system that feeds power into the Ontario grid. All stores eliminate single-use plastic bags, which keeps about 3.4 million single-use bags out of the landfill each year.
2009 Membership reaches 3 million people, nearing 10% of the population of Canada, and we open a store in Longueuil. MEC kicks off roll-packing (a.k.a. “sushi-roll” packing) to reduce the use of plastic polybags when products are shipped from the factory.
Members receive a share redemption of $344,000.
2010 We develop our own line of MEC bikes, which start making space in all stores to service bikes too. We also open a store in Barrie, our fourth in Ontario.
Members receive a share redemption of $2.2 million.
2011 The Co-op turns 40 and reaches $261 million in annual sales and 3.3 million members. MEC opens a store in London, Ontario, and becomes a founding member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
Members receive a share redemption of $2.4 million.
2012 We release an iPhone app that makes it possible to buy a membership and shop for products on a smartphone. We also ramp up our activity and events program across the country, and relocate our North Vancouver store.
A boutique-style MEC opens in Saint-Denis, Montreal. (Years later, we said au revoir to St. Denis. We loved this little store, but a travel boutique wasn’t quite right for us.)
2013 We receive accreditation from the Fair Labor Association, open a new store in Langley, launch our mobile website, and unveil a new logo.
Membership tops 4 million people.
2014 Members receive a share redemption of $4.5 million. We host over 5,000 community events, from running races and century rides to bike maintenance clinics and festivals.
MEC opens a new head office, offers our first Fair Trade USA Certified t-shirts, and starts introducing the Higg Index social and environmental assessments into our supply chain.
2015 MEC now has more than 2,000 employees and 4.5 million members.
Members receive a share redemption of $5.4 million. We launch MEC Outdoor Nation, a movement that focuses on getting young people outside.
2016 MEC opens new stores in Kelowna, Laval, South Edmonton and North York. The London store moves to a new location, doubling in size. We also open a second distribution centre, this one in Ontario.
Members receive a share redemption of $1.8 million.
2017 The Co-op welcomes its 5 millionth member.
MEC opens a new store in Kitchener, and relocates our Edmonton and Quebec City stores. We also break ground on the site for the new Vancouver store, which is relocating to Olympic Village.
2018 MEC opens our second store in Calgary (Calgary South), and becomes the founding partner of Climbing Escalade Canada to support the development of young climbers.
Our CEO signs the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, and MEC releases three documentaries of Canadian adventurers sharing their lived experiences with wild spaces.
2019 MEC Toronto relocates to Queen Street West and becomes our first-ever flagship store, complete with a Queen Street portage and a bouldering wall. We launch MEC All Out (the evolution of our community program) and Rad Pants make a triumphant return – they sell out in about a day and a half.