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Slope Side Supply embraces sustainability but finds there’s no quick and easy answers

Slope Side Supply co-owner Tony Horn is the first to admit his business is not sustainable.

The local company sells cleaning products, detergents, paper and foam coffee cups and then they truck these products around town to about 400 hotels and restaurants.

But this hasn’t stopped Horn and his co-owner David Krasny to strive towards sustainability.

"The products that we sell aren’t necessarily great for the environment but that doesn’t mean we can’t be sustainable," said Horn.

"We’re dealing with it in the best possible way we can."

When sustainability became the buzzword around town a few years back, it caught the attention of the two young Whistler businessmen who are originally from Montreal.

Eight years ago when they started Slope Side Supply they tried to find products that were environmentally benign.

"We thought well, we live here so we should do the best things we can for our town. There’s some responsibility there," said Horn.

They always offered their clients garbage bags that were 100 per cent recycled, most of their toilet paper was also 100 per cent recycled. And among their product line was a bleach replacement called Awesome Green that was easier on the environment.

"We always had a pseudo-environmental bent," said Horn.

Then Whistler gave them a golden opportunity to join others in the community and fall in line with The Natural Step.

They were ready to jump on board. They just needed a formula and some guidelines to follow.

"How do we make Slope Side Supply follow The Natural Step?" they asked.

But they soon found out that there was no quick and easy answer.

"We learned that in the whole sustainability thing there is no blueprint," said Horn.

"No one can tell you what’s right or wrong."

And so, they set out to find out for themselves by researching the products they sold, talking to manufacturers and learning about new product lines.

First they began with an internal audit at Slope Side, looking at ways the company could be more sustainable.

They introduced recycling bins in the office for cans and glass. They started two-sided photocopying and they discovered that they could recycle all their shrink wrap packaging.

They were recycling about 20 bags a week in shrink wrap alone.

They didn’t have to do much however, to temper their energy usage in the building.

As a throwback to the early days when they were trying to save money, they still refuse to turn the heat on the in the winter, nor do they have air conditioning in the summertime.

"We’ve always been energy efficient out of torture rather than being responsible," said Horn, who said their energy efficiency has turned into a company joke.

While the company may have one of the lowest hydro bills in Whistler, Horn admits it can be a little painful typing on some of the colder days.

Try as they might to do what they can internally, there is one glaring negative aspect in the company that makes it hard to be sustainable, namely the carbon emissions from their four trucks moving supplies around town.

Horn said they have looked into doing a carbon offset program, based on the emissions from their vehicles.

Slope Side could plant 300 trees a year to balance what is going into the air from their trucks. Details still need to be worked out on where they could plant these trees.

This is just a short-term solution said Horn, which needs to be worked out in greater detail with the municipality and other stakeholders in Whistler.

The long-term solution would be switching to natural gas and then ultimately working with hybrid fuel cell vehicles.

But it was the internal audit in the company two years ago that really got them thinking about the bigger picture of sustainability.

This was also around the same time that Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Inc., the world’s largest producer of commercial carpet tiles and flooring, came to town as part of the Whistler Sustainability Initiative and Leadership Through Sustainable Innovation speaker series.

Anderson told Whistler about his goal to make his business completely sustainable, embracing renewable energy and not using any new petroleum materials by 2010.

Horn said this got the wheels turning at Slope Side. They began looking at the cleaners, paper products and garbage bags they sell, and tried to figure out how and where they are manufactured, what their effects are during their life span, and where they eventually end up once they have been used.

Their research showed that the traditional model of product use usually follows a course where the products are extracted from the earth, then some may affect the biosphere through emissions during their life span and eventually end up as waste in the landfill. It’s called the "cradle to the grave" model.

In order to be more sustainable, that model needs to be replaced by the sustainable "cradle to cradle" model in which products come from renewable materials and end up recycled or as natural biodegradable waste.

To switch to this model of "cradle to cradle" the traditional criteria for purchasing products needed to be re-evaluated.

Price and performance can no longer be the sole indicators for product evaluation, said Horn.

Slope Side culled together a set of new criteria from different sources to measure their products along the lines of sustainable purchasing.

They still considered price and the effectiveness of their supplies but now they were taking into account:

• Manufacturing — how is the product is made;

• Packaging — is it packaged in recycled material;

• Transportation — how far did it have to come;

• Product Utilization — does it control waste and;

• Waste Management — can it be broken down by nature.

Horn admits it’s very hard to measure these criteria.

For example, an American company like Seventh Generation sells various cleaning products among its product lines. It has been branded as a non-toxic, environmentally responsible company.

But the products, while they may be environmentally friendly, still need to be shipped from the east. They also have more packaging than other cleaning products in Vancouver and they’re not concentrated, meaning a lot of what is shipped is water.

"It’s a huge puzzle figuring out what’s better and what’s worse and it’s really hard," said Horn.

When asked how to calculate if one product is more sustainable than another, Horn shrugs and honestly admits, "I don’t know what you do."

Slope Side has started changing some of their product lines based on the sustainability model.

All the coffee that they sell is organic, farmer first and fair traded. They sell an environmental cleaner made in Vancouver and their napkins, like the garbage bags and toilet paper, are all 100 per cent recycled.

They also bought cases of a non-aerosol oven cleaner as an environmental replacement for a traditional aerosol oven cleaner. Most of those cases are still sitting full in their warehouse at Function Junction.

Horn said people don’t like change even if the product is just as effective.

"We’re trying to jump the gun a little bit," he said.

"(The oven cleaners) reaffirmed to us that the whole idea of sustainability is a long-term thought process and we need to get the customers on the same wavelength.

"It’s not just a switch that you can turn on."

Customers still measure products based on price and efficiency.

For example, some cleaning products may work in individual homes but a commercial operation like a big hotel in Whistler cannot be expected to clean with baking soda and water – it’s just not feasible at this time.

Now Slope Side’s goal has been tweaked a little. Instead of just buying up more "sustainable" products, Horn said they are focusing on educating their clients.

To that end, Slope Side sent out 700 brochures to businesses around town, telling them about their sustainability initiatives.

"In general the community has not accepted this idea of sustainability," he said.

To get the community really on side with The Natural Step he said something big has to happen. He points to something like the small hydroelectric project on Fitzsimmons Creek, which will generate enough power for Whistler-Blackcomb, making them sustainable in their energy consumption. A project on that scale could galvanize the community into more collective action.

Sometimes the task ahead is a bit overwhelming.

"It goes in waves," he said.

"Realistically we may never be sustainable but it’s a great goal to strive for. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try."