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 Ziptrek 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.