Bisphenol A and MEC

Toques off to Mountain Equipment Co-op for choosing to ditch toxic plastic bottles.

Its not every day that a major retailer voluntarily looses a profitable product line to protect their customers. MEC did just that by announcing last week that they have pulled from their shelves all polycarbonate plastics suspected of leaching dangerous levels of bisphenol A (BPA).

BPA is a hormone mimicking compound or “endocrine disruptor”. The human body mistakes BPA for estrogen, meaning that it can have serious human health implications even in miniscule concentrations.

Emerging research has linked BPA with breast and prostate cancer and a range of other human health impacts including reduced levels of testosterone in men to early onset puberty in girls.

Bisphenol A is also one of the most highly produced chemicals in the world – over five million pounds a year. It is used in everything from cans to plumbing and is now very difficult to avoid.

While the scientific community is becoming increasingly forceful in their statements about the dangers of this ubiquitous chemical, regulators as usual are bringing up the rear. Health Canada is still studying the issue and is scheduled to make a determination on BPA in the spring of 2008.

The other important piece of this story is why MEC was even able to make this decision. Most large publicly traded companies are hobbled by the imperatives of the profit motive and often become answerable only to their investors. Dropping a profitable product line like BPA bottles without being forced to do so by regulators would be a unthinkable for most other retailers.

In contrast MEC is a co-op. This means that that they are answerable to their membership – all 2.6 million of them. Many of these members were becoming increasingly vocal about why their co-op was exposing the membership to suspected carcinogens when safe alternatives are available. If the directors and upper management had not made this decision, the membership might have made it for them.

Because of this fundamental difference in their corporate DNA, co-operatives such as MEC and VanCity Credit Union are much more able to make principled decisions than companies competing in the same sector. The difference shows.

MEC sells over $220 million on merchandise a year and is one of the largest sports retailers in Canada. They also give 1% of their sales to wilderness conservation efforts – over $2 million in 2007. VanCity has over $12 billion in assets and gives 30% of their profits back to the community in various granting programs.

These are not irrational acts. Holding egalitarian values builds loyalty with both customers and employees. VanCity was recently voted the best employer in Canada by Macleans Magazine. Retaining skilled workers in a tight labour market is simply good business.

So to it seems is happiness. Feeling good about the place you shop or work is not generally included in most economic bean-counting. However, one job-place study found that almost 20% of employees had quit a previous job due to stress.

Being a co-op gives these businesses competitive advantages as well. While MEC is highly successful business, their membership decided that they should also be a non-profit. That means that any surpluses must either be reinvested in company or returned to the membership through dividends. When was the last time you got mailed a cheque from any other place you shop?

MEC can also charge lower prices than their competition because they do not have to siphon off 10-15% of their profits for their investors.

Likewise, VanCity is not captive to the rapacious greed typical of many publicly traded financial institutions. This means they can provide better service, and refrain from nickel and diming their customers with the laundry list of audaciously creative service charges designed to enrich their investors. This year the Royal Bank reported a record-busting profit of over $5.5 billion. Where did all that money come from? Have a look at you bank statement.

Cooperative business models like MEC and VanCity are becoming increasingly important for achieving positive change in society. Non-profit advocacy will always be needed but transforming our economy into something that resembling democracy is arguably even more pressing. Lord knows the economy is not going to go away. We need to change how it operates.

A company like MEC ditching dangerous products like BPA plastics is an example of that change. In making this decision, they will force other retailers to take a hard look at carrying polycarbonate products.

So toques off to MEC. It makes me feel better about all the dough I spend on gear there.

This piece ran nowhere.

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