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First person: Peter Skeels-Selling sustainability



Whistler is a strange place for a hemp store. Tofino? Sure. Saltspring Island? OK. Nelson? Makes sense. But how can a store that doesn't sell the big brand names like Gap, Eddie Bauer or Roots survive in Whistler?

According to Peter Skeels, manger of Fiber Options, it's all about choices. Originally from Toronto, Skeels is a man with ideas. He likes to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

The wood floor and shelves at Fiber Options are made from recycled materials. The floor was salvaged from clearcut wastewood, while the shelves were formed from wood found on a decommissioned logging road. The store's sign is carved from a 1,000-year-old cedar tree from Meares Island.

How did you get involved in the hemp industry?

I've always wanted to have a store that is environmentally conscious and tries to source local goods. I wanted to start putting a face to the product ? you know, somebody made this; there's a human behind this. If there was a sweatshop here in Whistler, I guarantee that no one's going to buy those clothes. You ask kids these days where an egg came from and they say "the grocery store." They can't even put the chicken and the egg together. We commodify everything.

Is the hemp industry sustainable?

You can make 25,000 different products from hemp ? from plastic to pants to paper. You can make anything. Ninety-nine per cent of paper comes from forests. We sell tree-free paper. People are always surprised paper can be made without trees. Every acre of hemp equals four acres of trees. Hemp only takes 100 days to grow. It's easy to grow, it's a great rotator crop and it's super-sustainable. Trees take 100 years to grow.

How hard is it to sell something that doesn't have a logo on it in Whistler?

I don't know what our fascination is with that stuff. If you bought a blank shirt, it would be $40. You buy it with a logo and it's $80, yet you're walking around advertising for that company. It should be free. They should be giving it to you. It's crazy.

How does a store like Fiber Options compete in a town where name-brand recognition is everything?

I get so many customers coming into the store that go "Wow, this is finally something different." Because, let's face it, everything in this town is the same. Our store is definitely unique and people appreciate that. It's all about ideology; it's all about stories: what's the story of yourself? That's what people buy.

Who are your customers?

We get locals and tourists. Locals understand the store more but we do get conscientious tourists ? mainly from the Northwest and larger cities ? as well. The fashions are also getting much better so people are buying hemp regardless. People come into the store and say "Your stuff's expensive." But it's made in Canada and it's made of hemp. You're supporting bio-regional economics.

Would Fiber Options be able to support itself if it wasn't in a tourist town?

Dealing with tourists all the time can drive you a little crazy but this is the perfect spot for a hemp store. People from all over the world come here, people who would never normally go into this type of store. But because of the environment they're in, they'll allow themselves to come and have a look. They see it's not crazy or threatening and they're more open to being educated. Travelling is all about learning. Everyone can learn from everyone else. We also want loggers and fishermen in the store. Everyone is an important part of the business and we value those people just as much as anyone else.

Back to sustainability for a second. How do you make your business sustainable?

It's almost sustainable by default ? that's the nature of the hemp business. We're selling sustainability. That's the essence of what we do. But it's also a frame of mind. If you can conceptualize a healthy planet and healthy people, it will come to fruition.

Is Whistler a sustainable community?

We live in such a throw-away society but I think Whistler is taking a lead with the Natural Step. It's not the answer; it's not the thing that will save us all but it is getting people to think about it. And that's what is truly important.

The thing is that people want to do it but we have to provide them with avenues. That's where community involvement comes in. I just hope there's more to Whistler than just skiing and snowboarding because that's what will make this town a great place.

What do you like most about Whistler?

It's given me the opportunity to open the store and learn a lot. And it's where I met my future wife.

What don't you like about Whistler?

Whistler didn't grow organically. It's not like Squamish or Pemberton. They have more of a community feel. And I've never lived in a town where you're always told how great it is to live here. You know, "Whistler's No. 1. We've been voted..." and so on. So you have to wonder ? if you have to convince the people who live here that it's great I really think there's something wrong.