Why Ziptrek is Not Sustainable

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Several weeks ago Ziptrek Ecotours, a zipline company in Whistler BC, won the Sustainability in Action Award at the Whistler Excellence Awards. In his acceptance speech, Co-Founder Charles Steele outlined how Ziptrek uses The Natural Step Framework, a framework designed to place strategic decision-making in the context of scientific sustainability principles. Every guide that leads clients on zipline tours teaches those people about the Natural Step, and thus about sustainability, so Ziptrek staff have an “opportunity to be the spark of change” for everyone that visits.

I definitely commend Ziptrek for using the Natural Step and their goal to educate the public about the framework. However, nowhere in Steele’s speech reported online did he mention the progress to be made so far. Sustainability is not a state – it is a process. Ziptrek has done more than many companies in their sustainability efforts, but they are not a sustainable company. There is no such thing. Steele never mentioned how Ziptrek can still improve, and that really grinds my gears.

See, I worked for ZiptZiptrek_07rek in Whistler several years ago (that’s me upside down on a zipline!). While I had fun, I also saw first hand how Ziptrek tried to be sustainable, and failed in many ways.  And the company was not interested in changing.

Ziptrek may have donated to the Kiva Foundation, but the social impacts close to home were less laudable. When I worked there, entry employees at Ziptrek – the frontline guides, photographers, and guest services – were paid $11/hr plus another dollar for extra hour you worked (which formed your summer bonus). This was below the living wage at the time. For Ziptrek guides, not knowing whether you would obtain tips or obtain enough shifts created an environment of uncertainty and stress.  A more sustainable company would look after its employees better.

For the environment, there were recycling bins in some areas. Enforcement was weak, and there was a lack of understanding about what could be recycled in the first place. Gloves the guides wore were thrown out after several weeks. Water bottles were included in the lunch for guests who did both available zipline tours. Ziptrek had no desire to create a full time position for their Green Team, so many environmental initiatives took the back seat due to participants’ busy schedules.

And teaching The Natural Step Framework? Many guides rushed through the speech. Particularly if it was their last shift, or they wanted to hurry a tour to catch a hockey game. Or if they realized their group just didn’t care – no point in continuing to talk about something that wouldn’t result in any tips.  Sure there were some guides that really made an effort, and they made the tours really shine – but this was because they cared as individuals, not because the company rewarded their efforts.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved working at Ziptrek and I learned a lot. But if Ziptrek wants to be more sustainable, and touts itself as a more sustainable company, I think a great place to start is starting a dialogue about where it still needs to improve. If we are to create meaningful change, we have to recognize our strengths AND our weaknesses. We have to recognize progress made so far, and progress we still want to achieve. Only then can we advance to a more sustainable society.

So hats off to Ziptrek with their goal to be more sustainable, and this award rightly recognizes their work so far. However part of success is realizing where you still need to go.

The Green Student

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DSC_0191So it’s been awhile (bit of an understatement) since my last blog post here. Part of the reason is it’s been my last year of my  Environment & Business degree, and in this last year I’ve been involved in a lot of great part time work, volunteering, and an awesome team project helping a non for profit advance its sustainability goals.

HOWEVER, I’ve still done blogging, just not here! I’ve been writing for The Green Student, a hub for writings from eco-conscious students across Canada. I’m happy to say my first two posts have now been posted here and here.

In “Defining Sustainability” I write about how sustainability has become such a buzzword that its meaning is now foggy. It’s thus vital to talk about sustainability examples when describing the term to people with no environmental background. I was inspired when a good friend of mine asked about my team project – she had no idea what sustainability actually meant and how we were helping the company.

In “Small Changes, Big Impact” I broach the topic of oil sands. Our economy, not to mention our current food system, relies on oil and any discussion about “anti-oil” must also start to change our own demand, and include a conversation about changing our growth economy.

I will be sharing more in the future, and so be sure to check out The Green Student and take a look at other great stories other students have already posted!

When and Where: Environment Style

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I am sitting in class. The woman next to me takes out her snack and…her plastic water bottle. Fiji water. Shipped over 12 thousand km. More water was lost to make that bottle than the water it contains. Most plastic water bottles are never recycled. Even if they are, recycling uses energy.  And there’s a tap just down the hall…

All these thoughts pummelled through my head as I gazed at her choice of beverage. Do I say something? Does she know the impacts of her water choice? Or does she know and just doesn’t care? Does it even matter if I say something or not?

This hits the crux of a debate. How do you effectively communicate environmental messages?

There may be numerous facts to back up an argument, but this won’t cut it for the majority of people. Facts get tiring after awhile. And no one wants doom and gloom if all your facts are negative. As well, if you point out all the facts about a person’s action, that person might get defensive. Maybe this woman would have clung to her water bottle all the more tightly.

Frame yourself well. You can’t sound like the know it all, the one who knows all the environmental impacts of all decisions (which of course no one does). You don’t want to seem like a bitch (this was one worry of mine, as maybe this person would give me the cold shoulder for 3 hours. Not fun). So be approachable and respectful.

You also have to know your audience. I knew nothing about this woman, so I couldn’t communicate in a way that would reach her specifically. Did she use water bottles and knew nothing about their impacts, or did she just not care? This distinction would have changed what I said completely. If she just didn’t care, I would have skipped the basic intro facts and talked about the cumulative impact of individuals.  Knowing who is your audience is vital.

Part of understanding your audience isn’t just knowing what they’re aware of; it’s also about knowing what they care most about. Case in point – if you’re trying to convince someone about the benefits of vegetarianism, figure out whether they care more about their health, or the ethical treatment of animals. Once you’ve got that you craft your message, and you also don’t waste your time.

Finally, you have to give them value. Make them see how if they took your view (in this case, if the woman realized the impact of her choice and decided to desist) this will add value to them. Perhaps buying a reusable mug will save her money, perhaps she would experience positive emotions from reducing her environmental impact.

So, in the end, I never said anything to the woman in class. It was not the right time and I knew nothing about her.  I couldn’t frame a specific argument based on her background. However I’m as committed as ever to telling people about the impacts of plastic water bottles – when I know my audience better and I can successfully frame my message

(Don’t believe me about the plastic water bottles? Watch this short clip to get the gist of the story)

Environment Person

Walking on campus, I overheard a girl tell her friends “yeah, I’m just not an environment person”.

That got me thinking – the “environment” she was referring to suffers from a serious perception problem.

Technically all of us, everyone on this planet, is an environment person. We all need food, and the vast majority of our food comes from nutrients in the ground. We all need water to drink or we will simply die. In my life, I depend on oil to supply gasoline for the buses I take to school and as an ingredient for plastic. I rely on the multitude of metals that reside inside my computer and phone. Like it or not, we are all surrounded by aspects of the natural world.

Yet people perceive themselves as separate from the environment. This is contrary to many formal definitions of the word, which usually place environment as our surrounding milieu or certain settings that can influence an organism (such as ourselves).  So the environment is really our whole surroundings where we live, and this includes social and economic aspects. To say you are not an environment person is odd considering that’s where you live.

Think of circles. The “environment” is the largest circle. Then in that we have society. Then in that, we have our economic system.  That’s just the way it is.

What that girl meant was she probably didn’t care about the natural environment enough to take strong action.  Throwing away recyclable products into the garbage? No big deal. The federal government has cut world-renown monitoring facilities and hacked environmental laws? Who cares.

This is the prevalent view today. And it is wrong. Because we are all part of a bigger picture, one that ultimately rests on the natural world.  We all rely on natural inputs to survive, and our environment is really everything that surrounds us.

To truly create effective change, it is important to change attitudes. When we recognize our place, we are more likely to understand our impact and how we can change it. There is no escaping that every one of us is an “environment person”.

Fairly Traded?

I walked into Second Cup the other day and immediately became confused.

I could choose from “Fair Trade coffee” or “Fairly Traded” coffee. When I asked what the difference was, the cashier responded that Second Cup did not want to pay the royalty fees for Fair Trade certification on all of its coffee. So it offered some certified Fair Trade coffee, but the rest was non-certified. However, the cashier assured me that it still adhered to fair trade standards.

Ok sure, Second Cup has every right to not pay certification fees. And it has every right to label its own coffee whatever it wants. However, this creates huge consumer uncertainty. Because without certification, who’s to say that the Second cup, non official-Fair Trade coffee, IS actually up to par with Fair Trade standards? Does it give a minimum wage? There is no way to tell.

That got me thinking whether it mattered. Is it worth buying Fair Trade coffee? Certainly there is an argument that certified Fair Trade coffee fails to help the poorest farmers  – the farmers who can’t afford the certification fees. Farmers who do pay the certification fees may sometimes be at a disadvantage to the farmers who don’t. However, there are definitely benefits to certification. Fair trade assures a minimum wage, and money can be channelled back into local co ops and communities where it translates into needed health care and other positive changes.

Certification can guide consumers. When you buy Fair Trade coffee you know it stands behind something. Fairly traded coffee just doesn’t cut it.  If I bought “chlorine free” paper, would I really be comfortable buying fairly chlorine free? Of course it’s not the same example, but it gets you thinking.

So, for now I’ll still buy Fair Trade. Even better, I think I’ll make my own at home. Who wants to go to a store that offers confusing products?

Apple and EPEAT

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On July 12th the media was abuzz with the news that the electronics giant Apple was pulling out of EPEAT*, the American green electronics rating that Apple helped develop back in 2006. Apple had over 35 products listed on the EPEAT registry, and its refusal to participate in the registry was widely thought to be the result of the new Macbook Pro – which doesn’t fit current EPEAT standards for disassembly.

Apple’s choice brought on a huge backlash – from its previously loyal customers. From cities. From companies. I was going to write how I also would throw myself in this crowd and argue that Apple’s choice was not only negative for the environment, it was also bad for business. This is still my position. And now Apple seems to agree with me – in a sudden u-turn, Apple has admitted it made a mistake, and that it will rejoin the EPEAT registry.

Why was Apple’s choice a bad business decision? First, EPEAT rewards electronics that are easy to recycle, and recycling electronics (the so called “e-waste”) is a growing issue in the public consciousness. More companies have launched take-back programs (such as HP), and cities have voluntary guidelines that adhere to EPEAT standards (go ole’ San Francisco). The creation of EPEAT itself points to a growing demand for these guidelines. There have been various books and films on the subject, such as the popular Story of Stuff creator Annie Leonard’s Story of Electronics. People don’t want to know their computers cause problems elsewhere. Recycling electronics is also a simple concept to grasp, and demands limited sacrifice from the consumer (just a bit of extra research when buying an electronic, and physically returning the electronic device when done with it). This is the quality of a successful green initiative; people feel they are doing their part with very little actual effort required. So by choosing not to follow EPEAT, Apple bucked against the e-waste awareness trend, and alienated a growing eco-conscious consumer base.

Second, designing products so they can be recycled has monetary value. As the cost of mining new metals from the earth is becoming increasingly expensive, there is a growing and profitable market of recycled metals. If Apple can disassemble its electronics, the metals inside can become a desirable revenue stream.

Third, Apple simply sends the wrong message. It is utterly possible to build a computer that can be easily disassembled.It is evident that by not conforming to EPEAT standards, the company committed to the unsustainable trend of multiple products with limited lifespans for a quick-in, quick-out scenario. You glue everything together so when something breaks, you can’t fix it. Presto – the consumer has to spend $$$ on a brand new computer. That is going to break again in 2 years.

While this strategy can work in the short run, it brings many negative social and environmental problems in the long run. The company increases waste which exacerbates the stress of our landfills, and this causes health problems if e-waste is shipped abroad. Mining new metals uses far more energy than recycling and it produces severe damage to natural resources.

And it’s simply bad for business! Apple loses in the long run (and presumably Apple wants to stay around a little while yet). Apple loses consumer support. It loses market access. It misses the change of an added revenue stream.

While there are definitely some who would argue that you have to buy a brand new computer every several years anyway just to keep up with technological change, I would argue that even if that is the case, you still want to disassemble your old computer so the parts can be re-used.

For these reasons, I was more than happy (and a little amused) when less than a day later Apple publicly announced it had made a mistake.

Things aren’t all golden and rosy yet though – Apple admitted that “all eligible Apple products are back on EPEAT”, but not all Apple products are eligible. Apple also gave it’s new Macbook Pro a Gold EPEAT rating; the Macbook Pro was one of the products that likely caused Apple to pull out of EPEAT in the first place, yet Apple can give it Gold because EPEAT allows products to be placed on its list before it reviews them. So for now Apple has a Gold Macbook Pro rating. We’ll see how long that lasts.

While there’s still work to do, at least Apple came to its senses and realized that the best business decision was to follow EPEAT and keep its customers happy. And help the environment and still make money at the same time.

*EPEAT stands for “Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool”

A Bit About Talking

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I often think that we could all benefit from a lot more talking. There are so many practical benefits of just talking to people. You can learn new facts, attain feedback on your ideas, and find partners willing to help you. Talking helps us release our emotions and we feel less stressed.

I was in the grocery store last Thursday and heard two people chattering to each other. They chattered non stop – without stopping to listen to what the other was saying. They constantly interrupted. This isn’t talking – this is mostly speaking. Talking is a more profound relationship where you listen to and take into account what someone has just told you. Thinking about those two, I realized we really need more talking. Talking has so many practical and emotional benefits. I wanted to share two of the many examples where talking to someone has really improved a situation and made everyone better off. It’s my belief that talking can reap great rewards.

1. Crazy GO Train Conversation

I was on a train to leaving Toronto and decided to strike up a conversation with a guy in a seat across the aisle. There weren’t many people on the train, but one other woman sat opposite us. As we got talking, the guy mentioned how he studying a very specific subject at college, and began to tell me about it; his excitement for the subject really came through. As we continued to converse suddenly the woman opposite turned to us and interrupts – it turns out she was a practitioner of over 15 years in that very subject!  All it took was simply a smile and conversational comment to get that discussion going between us all, and the man had a new mentor who was very glad to help him out with any questions.

2. Finding a Place to Stay

In my 2nd year of university, I had a job placement during the fall in Ottawa. I found it very hard to find a place to stay that was within my budget. When meeting with a friend I casually mentioned that I was having this problem, and she said she would ask around. I don’t think I was even aware that she was originally from Ottawa. Turns out a former coworker of hers was looking for a 3rd roommate to share a flat with him, his girlfriend, and their cat. Their apartment was a great price and a perfect location for my commute and reaching the downtown. They were good roommates and I still have fond memories of how well things worked out! All from just talking to someone I knew…

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