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Natural Step works for European hotel chain

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Whistler businesses are being encouraged to integrate philosophy into their organizations

In 1989, Karl-Henrick Robert took environmentalism to a higher level when he conceived of The Natural Step – a common sense approach to dealing with environmental issues for industry, governments and the public.

He compared the hundreds of debates being waged between scientists over every environmental issue to the chatter of monkeys amongst the leaves of a dying tree.

"We are confronted with a series of seemingly unrelated questions: Is the greenhouse effect really a threat, or will it actually prevent another ice age? Is economic growth harmful, or does it provide resources for healing the environment? Will the costs of phasing out non-renewable energy sources outweigh the benefits? Can communities, regions, or countries accomplish anything useful on their own, or must they wait for international agreements."

While the debates go on unproductively, the state of the environment gets worse and worse. "In the midst of all this chatter about the leaves very few of us have been paying attention to the environment’s trunks and branches. They are deteriorating as a result of processes about which there is little or no controversy; and the thousands of individual problems that are the subject of so much debate are, in fact, manifestations of systemic errors that are undermining the foundations of human society."

In other words, if we want to create an environmentally sustainable society, we should start with what we know. The obvious things. If a chemical is toxic and accumulates in the environment, for example, then it’s bad – there’s no real issue to debate, only an obvious course of action to commit to.

Through extensive research, Robert began to define a set of key environmental principles on which everyone could agree. The final product, The Natural Step, went through 21 different revisions in the process of achieving consensus among the world’s leading scientists.

In North America, 20 prominent scientists, including David Suzuki, have gotten behind The Natural Step program, endorsing it as a sensible route for governments and industry.

On the international stage, the Natural Step program has already been adopted by IKEA, Nike, Electrolux, Scandic Hotels and Interface.

Locally, it is being adopted by the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Tourism Whistler, Whistler-Blackcomb, the Chateau Whistler Resort, and Foto Source.

During a Dec. 7 symposium at the Chateau Whistler, Natural Step advocates and Whistler businesses discussed the possibility of making Whistler the first North American community to fully adopt the program.

The Natural Step is based on four recommended system conditions:

First, that "Substances from the Earth’s crust must not systematically increase in nature" – fossil fuels, metals and other materials must not be extracted at a faster pace then they are redeposited into the Earth’s crust. Otherwise the spread of waste is inevitable and accumulation will cause irreversible changes. This means radically decreased mining and use of fossil fuels.

Second, that "Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in nature" – substances must not be created at a faster rate than they can be broken down. Otherwise, it will lead to the spread and accumulation of substances, and could cause irreversible changes. This means decreased production of natural substances that are accumulating out of a balance with nature and the phasing out of all persistent and unnatural substances such as plastic, freon or PCBs.

Third, that "The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically diminished" – in other words, we can’t harvest from our ecosystems in such a way that their productive capacity and diversity diminish. Our future health and prosperity rely on the capacity of nature to reconcentrate and restructure waste back into resources. That means changes to agriculture, forestry, and fishing industries, and better society planning.

Fourth, that we must endorse "Just and efficient use of energy and other resources" – meeting human needs with fewer demands on our resources, and through a fairer distribution. This is necessary for social stability and co-operation in making future changes and means increased technical and organizational efficiency and more resource-friendly lifestyles in wealthier regions.

Among the speakers at the seminar was Ola Ivarsson, senior vice president and managing director of Scandic Europe, a hotel chain with more than 100 locations in 10 countries. Ivarsson believes that The Natural Step program could work well in Whistler if local business and hotels come on board.

"I’ve seen the Natural Step have some great impacts in many different situations, and from what I have seen, it should be successful here as well."

Scandic was the first hotel chain to adopt The Natural Step program, in 1993. Ivarsson says it has been a large part of the hotel chain’s recent success.

"We started the program because we got some customer feedback, especially from Germany and Denmark. In those two countries, there was market pressure and customer pressure to move on this, and we started to look into environmental programs."

The Natural Step has also been instrumental in recruiting exceptional staff, generally university graduates who understand environmental issues and would rather work for a corporation that is doing something positive. Once Scandic had the will and committed the resources, all the company had to do was find the way.

"One thing we did very early, was when we became aware that chloride chemicals are not food for the environment," says Ivarsson. "In Scandinavia, we have about 20,000 hotel rooms, and lease out the laundry functions for these rooms to a supplier. We went to the supplier and said to them that within a couple of years, we expect you to take the chloride out of your laundry process.

"Obviously they said this isn’t possible, we can’t do it, we’ll just give you grey bedsheets, and we said, sure, yeah, grey is fine. First we told them to look into the pulp and paper industry in Scandinavia, which has many ways to bleach paper without chlorides. Within the time frame we agreed upon, the laundry supplier came up with a solution.

"During the process they realized that it may be a competitive advantage for them to also run an environmental program. Now they are more than ever before the market leaders, they have trained staff, and have adopted the Natural Step philosophy."

Ivarsson says that suppliers and companies can work together to create win-win situations if the will is there. When the word gets out, it can actually increase business for all parties involved – given the choice and the knowledge, most customers prefer the environmentally-friendly alternative, when cost is not an issue.

And as your pro-environment reputation builds, so does your commitment: new Scandic hotel rooms are now 97 per cent recyclable, from the second-growth wood flooring to the cotton and wool sheets.

When Whistler makes The Natural Step part of its municipal environmental strategy, Ivarsson says the town will be able to count on the support of the people to make it work, even if suppliers and business partners are skeptical.

"What you can expect is that public appreciation of this program will be much bigger than you think. We have seen, for example with our company, that when you give people a good explanation of how they can participate in making the environment better, it creates a tremendous amount of energy amongst lots of people. You will see people join together. When they see how they can make a contribution, it’s much easier to contribute."

For Whistler hotels that are considering The Natural Step, it’s a good idea to let the guests know why things are being done differently, says Ivarsson.

"When you’re a part of the program, you perform services in a new way – not necessarily a more unfriendly or worse way, but differently. People need to understand why you’re doing this.

"The more information you give people the better they understand and the happier they are to contribute to the environment."