By Jessica Kirby —
In the midst of “shop local” messages it can be easy to forget or overlook corporate efforts toward sustainability and responsible environmental practices. Corporations, big box stores, and global economic powers are curse words in crowds trying to pay homage to hometown communities and contribute positively to a greener future. It isn’t clear all of the time which companies really are making the world a better place and which are drowning us in page after page of inflated green-speak; in fact, responsible corporate shopping can be more work than feels right.
But the truth is, there are corporate entities working hard to improve global conditions around environmental protection and better quality of life for people. Large companies have the money, the people-power, and the invested interest in their corporate image to put forth meaningful programs that create tangible change in the communities from which they source labour and materials. We don’t want to believe money talks, but the truth is, money talks, and corporations depend on the community support and positive image environmental initiatives garner among consumers. Of course, many countries need assistance programs due in large part to corporate development, but in a global economy where people don’t always leverage their purchasing power, how else do we reconcile corporate production goals with the consequences these inflict on countries around the world?
MEC, Canada’s largest outdoor clothing and equipment retailer, was founded in 1971 by four UBC Varsity Outdoor Club members tired of travelling to Seattle for decent climbing gear. While stranded in a snowstorm on Mount Washington, the four devised the plan, and later other varsity club members bought into the cooperative and MEC’s success took flight.
The company has a deeply vested interest in environmental protection, since pristine and healthy wilderness is vital to its success and central to its founders’ passion. The company is inspired by adventure, defining it in the realm of “being active, pushing boundaries, reaching for goals and dreams.
Since 1987, MEC has put its money where its mouth is and invested more than $29 million in Canada’s environmental and outdoor communities through its community involvement program.”
“It’s about finding places that fuel our passions and sustain the planet, about taking a stand on the places that matter,” said its community involvement website. “From urban neighbourhoods to the awe-inspiring beauty of Canada’s wild spaces, adventures lead us around the block, off the beaten path, or all the way off the map.”
MEC joined 1% for the Planet back in 2007, an alliance of businesses who believe in providing financial support to environmental initiatives.
It is one of more than 1,200 company members in 48 countries who commit to donating 1% of their gross annual sales to making the world a greener place. 1% for the Planet is an independent third party organization that confirms member businesses meet their required donations, and that recipients have clear, action-focused environmental goals.
Since 1987, MEC has put its money where its mouth is and invested more than $29 million in Canada’s environmental and outdoor communities through its community involvement program. MEC was the first Canadian retailer to join 1% for the Planet, a move it hopes will encourage other Canadian companies to follow suit.
In 2007, MEC became a bluesign® member and committed to sourcing 100 per cent bluesign®-approved fabrics by 2017—it was 74 per cent of the way there as of 2014. The bluesign® system addresses the need for sustainable textile production by eliminating harmful substances from the manufacturing process and setting and controlling standards for environmentally friendly and safe production. MEC commits to 100 per cent organic cotton for all company-branded apparel and increases on a yearly basis its product offerings made from recycled materials. It was the first retailer in Canada to stop selling BPA-containing water bottles and food containers, it eliminated all single use bags about eight years ago, and has initiated a number of clothing and gear recycling and swapping programs online and at locations around the world.
In a sea of green talkers, MEC’s actions are verifiably meaningful in that the causes it supports and the activities it engages in are evidenced and visible. The Community Contributions program lists specific organizations, such as Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Canadian Water Alliance, Avalanche Canada, and others, and details the programs, initiatives, and achievements set forth by said initiatives. Grants and donation recipients are listed by province with awarded amounts, and future project prospects are always open for review and engagement. There are no secrets or trapdoors in these policies.
MEC is also member of the Fair Labour Association (FLA) and was the first Canadian retailer to publicly disclose its factory name and location list, which it continues to update annually. In 2013, its Ethical Sourcing Program was accredited by the FLA. This program ensures MEC monitors its factories, reports its findings in terms of air quality, human rights, and other labour practices, and works with non-compliant factories to improve their working conditions.
Patagonia is also part of the FLA’s fair compensation project, which involves members piloting and implementing living-wage models in the supply chain.”
Also an active member of the FLA is outdoor adventure gear an equipment manufacturer Patagonia, which has more than 2,000 people directly employed under fair working conditions with good benefits, subsidized child care, flexible work schedules, and paid time off to pursue environmental internships.
Its supply chain is vetted by a Social / Environmental responsibility team, which evaluates prospective factory relationships based equally on social and environmental practices, quality standards, and business practices, and can veto the decision to work with any factory that does not meet rigorous standards.
Currently, Patagonia has three major projects underway aimed creating real change for garment workers around the world. One important goal is making the living wage principle a concrete reality through its Fair Trade Certified TM program, for which Patagonia pays an additional premium directly to workers in participating factories – the extra funds can be used to increase wages or for a community development project.
Patagonia is also part of the FLA’s fair compensation project, which involves members piloting and implementing living-wage models in the supply chain.
A second initiative involves stepping up efforts to improve labour conditions in all stages of the supply chain—cut-and-sew factories, textile mills, dye houses, and others. One key victory includes significant steps towards stopping human trafficking in fabric mills in Taiwan that supply Patagonia. Specifically, the company reached agreements with suppliers to repay migrant workers portions of recruitment fees that were higher than is legal, and to end completely the practice of charging migrant workers recruitment fees, which can be around $7,000.
And finally, Patagonia joined and seed funded the FLA’s Fire Safety Initiative in 2013, which trains workers and factory management to actively promote fire safety, and to recognize hazards and eliminate them without delay or seeking management approval.
Patagonia is also a 1% for the Planet member and gives grants of up to $12,000 each to environmental causes for whom this sum can make a world of difference. And overall, it has the same vested interest as MEC in maintaining healthy wilderness and outdoor activity—it is the company’s life-blood.
These are just a couple of examples of corporations reaching out to make a difference. There are indeed others, and with some good research and diligent watch-dogging, it is possible to identify whether your dollars are going to the environment and human rights progress or into the black hole of prosperity. The main thing is to watch, explore, and realize that a strong environmental plan in the commercial sector requires inputs of all kinds and from every angle, including shopping local, diligent personal effort like recycling and selective buying, and the financial reach made possible by responsible corporate entities with clear and transparent policies.