Economy

"Our human destiny is inextricably linked to the actions of all other living things. Respecting this principle is the fundamental challenge in changing the nature of business."
- Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

 

The Natural Step

Portland, Oregon, October 2007

It was a brisk fall morning, as Jack Wilkinson followed his crowd of fifty customers down the shady paths of the Mount Hood National Forest, an hour outside Portland. The towering red cedars and western hemlocks gave the forest a cathedral-like atmosphere, which had them enthralled. Pausing underneath a giant Douglas fir, the forester explained how he selected his trees for felling, taking care to leave a balance of trees of all ages, leaving the strongest to produce seeds for the next generation.

Jack had arranged the day-trip to show his customers where their furniture came from, and had been astonished by the response. "Maybe five or ten," he had told his son Mark, who had suggested the outing. When the entire bus filled up, and the customers started chatting to each other, he had to admit that he had under-estimated their enthusiasm for the changes that he and Mark had introduced to the company.

He had been working for Wilkinson's Furniture, his father's small twenty-person furniture-making business in Portland, ever since he left college with a business degree in 1975. But instead of letting him manage the company, his father had apprenticed him to a trained craftsman, making him start at the bottom. He had spent ten years learning the craft before his father allowed him to join him at the top.

Jack enjoyed producing the bookshelves and William Morris chairs that Wilkinson's Furniture was known for, but he had always felt there was something missing in his life, in spite of his supposedly happy marriage and his two successful children. It was like that wistful song - 'Is that all there is ?' He was a tall, quiet man, with a thin face and a shy manner. For all of his adult life, he had been plagued with voices inside his head that fussed at him, like an irritating burr caught inside his sock. "Are you sure you're doing the right thing ? You didn't do that very well. You're such a disappointment. When are you going to get on with your life ?"

For the last few months, however, the voices had been relatively silent. He could enjoy the October sun as it shone through the trees without telling himself that he should be working, or doing something else. It felt strangely wonderful. Was this a temporary trick that life was playing on him, he asked himself, or was it going to be permanent ?

His son Mark had gone straight into the business after leaving school. He seemed to have his grandfather's talent for making beautiful furniture. It must have skipped a generation, Jack thought. He was competent at his craft, but he had never shown any kind of brilliance. He was a dull, boring man - that was his judgement of himself.

It was their daughter Nancy who had been the wild one, leaping from rock-climbing and mountain-biking to twenty-four-hour charity relays, jumping at new challenges whenever they arose. When Nancy opened her eyes to the destruction that was happening to the natural world and threw herself into environmental causes, chaining herself to bulldozers and hoisting herself into the canopies of old growth trees. Jack would never admit it to her, but he admired the spontaneous way in which she did what she believed in. Her mother, Julia, was shocked at their daughter's unruly ways, but Jack silently delighted in the way she had cast off any notion of "career", to follow the dictates of her conscience. If things had maybe been different, perhaps he could have been as free, as independent ? He knew that there was a hole in the ozone layer, and that the salmon were in crisis, but the bottom line was that he had a business to manage, and besides, these things weren't his responsibility.

Then Nancy had been killed in that terrible car crash. On Sunday night, she had been bouncing around on the sofa with her brother Mark, filling their home with joy. On Monday lunchtime, she was dead. Jack was astonished to see a thousand people show up at her funeral, crying so openly, while he held back his tears. Only later, when no-one could see him, would he allow himself to weep.

Nancy had always been on at him to change the way Wilkinson's Furniture did its business. She wanted him to change to wood from forests which were eco-certified, and managed sustainably. She wanted him to stop using toxic glues and finishes. She wanted him to use a bicycle delivery service for the smaller orders, instead of a truck. "Oh Dad," she would say, "I wish you would listen to me."

Jack listened, but he never acted on her requests. It wasn't an easy business, selling furniture. There was so much competition from Thailand and Indonesia, where the workers earned a tenth of the wages. With the slightest slip, the whole business could disappear, along with all of their jobs. "Stick with what we do best," his father had drilled into him. "Don't take any unnecessary risks. Our business must be like our furniture - solid and reliable."

It was his son Mark who had unintentionally started the sequence of events which led to his being here in the forest on a Saturday morning, instead of playing golf with his friends from the Lions Club. Mark had designed an elegant but simple lamp holder, which had attracted the attention of IKEA, the Swedish furniture giant. They had test-marketed it in their Portland and Seattle stores, and then invited Jack to supply them with 40,000 a year. When Jack and Mark met with IKEA, however, they learnt that there was one clause in the contract that was non-negotiable.

IKEA had an environmental policy which they printed inside a little booklet they gave to all their employees. "At IKEA," it said, "we shall always strive to minimize any possible damaging effects to the environment which may result as a consequence of our activities." That was Jack's first introduction to The Natural Step, a Swedish system of environmental design which had been created eighteen years earlier to help businesses, governments and communities re-organize themselves along ecological lines, instead of contributing to the deterioration of the natural world.

Joel was IKEA's purchasing manager in Portland. "The planet Earth is like a spacecraft," he had told Jack and Mark as they sat in his tenth floor office suite at their first meeting. "It is all alone in this huge dark cosmos. On this Earth, we have been given a gift called nature, and we have to look after her, or we will all be the losers." He took a jug and poured a glass of water. "Nature contains water, for instance," he said. "But there will never be more than there is today. These molecules of water may be the same molecules which were drunk by the dinosaurs, or by Julius Caesar. In due course, they may be drunk by our great, great grandchildren. Matter and energy can never be created nor destroyed - but they can easily disperse, creating pollution and waste, unless we take care not to disperse them." These were the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, which Jack had learnt at school. They were also the first two principles of The Natural Step.

"Whenever we release carbon dioxide from fossil fuels into the atmosphere," Joel continued, "it stays there, adding to the greenhouse effect. Whenever we destroy topsoil through careless logging, we lose it forever - it takes nature thousands of years to create new topsoil. In IKEA, we try to take care of our employees and our customers. We try to create a quality product of which everyone can be proud. And we try to take care of the planet, since it is the only one we have."

It all seemed so natural. When Nancy had tried to tell Jack the same thing, it had usually felt like an intrusion. Coming from IKEA, it seemed to make sense.

It was the week before Christmas, 2004, when Jack and Mark had their meeting with Joel. After the meeting, Jack did some Christmas shopping and then went home to pour himself a beer and watch the video Joel had given them. Julia was working late at the law firm. It was a year after their daughter Nancy had died, and though Jack did not know it, it would be their last Christmas together as a family. The following spring, Julia would walk out on Jack, leaving him for an older man with a large yacht and a yen to sail round the world. "You're too boring for me," she would say, as she packed her cases. "I need to find some adventure in my life."

The video started with the familiar image of the planet Earth floating gently in space. Then to the heavenly harmonies of English cathedral choirboys, it showed the daily rhythm by which businesses in the Portland area mined, logged, shipped, manufactured, consumed, and discarded raw materials. The contrast between the music and the video was quite disturbing. Every day, because of their insatiable appetite, Portland businesses and consumers were responsible for the erosion of the Earth's ecological integrity, both locally and globally. The chemicals which had been manufactured to make a particular glue were left to drift in the air, to be absorbed by children and adults, birds and animals. The oil which was spilt on the way to the gas pumps was lost into the oceans, killing the sea-birds. Forests were being cut down to feed the hunger for wood; mangrove swamps were being bulldozed to feed the hunger for shrimps. All over the city, businesses were allowing their chemical wastes to escape into the drains, and via the Columbia river, into the ocean. Portland did a great job of recycling, but the volume of wastes that still being dumped or which were escaping into the air or water was appalling.

Then the video shifted, and people from businesses around the world spoke about the changes they were making. The CEO of the Swedish hotel chain, Scandic, spoke about the 2,000 different environmental initiatives they had brought in, down to such tiny things as changing the way they dispensed their soap. A director of the Portland Catalogue clothing company explained how they had saved $10,000 in a single year by replacing the throw-away paper cups at their vending machine with a "bring-your-own-mug" policy. The President of the international shoe company, Nike, told how they had redesigned their famous running shoes to eliminate the non-organic solvent adhesives, and make the entire shoe recyclable.

"One step at a time," the video said. Jack was hooked. He called IKEA's office to say yes, he would accept their conditions, and the next morning he gathered his workers together and showed them the video. That was three years ago.

Around the same time that Jack got involved, a wave of interest in The Natural Step was sweeping across the State. The system had been brought to Oregon in 1996 by a couple called Dick and Jeanne Roy. Jeanne had read a magazine article about the system, and Dick had met its Swedish founder, Dr Karl Henrik Robèrt. They had approached the Governor of Oregon, and with his blessing they had sent out invitations to the leading corporations and employers in Portland. Over the course of the next few years, they had formed the Oregon Natural Step Network, designed an implementational tool kit, and organized breakfast meetings and workshops. The number of businesses embracing the new system had grown to almost 900 by the time Wilkinson Furniture became a member, and now they were approaching the Portland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce involved, with with intention of involving its 35,000 members. The thought that every business in Portland might transform itself to operate in accordance with Nature's principles made Jack's skull tingle, and gave him a sense that something truly significant was happening.

Since the turning of the millennium, there had been a change in the Oregon air, and an exciting new vitality. The state had started to move beyond its forestry and fishing past back the 1990s, re-inventing itself as a land of high technology and environmental opportunities. Ordinary people had realized that there could be life after logging, and opposition to environmental reforms had weakened. Capitalizing on the new sympathy, in 2002 the Oregon State Legislature had replaced the local sales tax with an adjustable tax based on ecological impact. Using custom-made software called ECO-it, every product sold in Oregon was graded according to its eco-impact, and required to incorporate the rating into its bar-code, where it could be read by a scanner and taxed accordingly. The scheme was controversial, but the government stuck to its guns. Why tax all products equally, the governor argued, when some did more damage to the environment than others ? Under the new system, products with a higher ecological impact would incur higher taxation, which would encourage their producers to clean up their act.

The forester had paused, and was pointing up to a towering fir tree, over 200 years old. "This is one of our seed trees," he explained. "I call her Old Molly, because she's like a grandmother, who has so many children. We don't plant trees any more - we simply protect the ones with the best features, and let them do it for us."

"But isn't that a lot slower than planting new trees in an organized manner ?" someone asked.

"Not at all," the forester replied. "And furthermore, when you leave the trees to regenerate naturally, they grow a much tighter timber, which makes better furniture. You should see some of the rubbish that's growing in the commercial plantations, where they still do it the old way. The trees are all skinny and packed together, their cells fat and blousy, because they've been absorbing so much light. The timber warps when it dries out. Makes lousy furniture. That right, Jack ?"

Jack nodded. He had witnessed the gradual deterioration of the timber they used in the shop, but he had never understood why.

"I'll tell you a secret, Matty," Jack replied in a voice that everyone could hear, "as long as you promise not to tell anyone else." There was a chuckle, as his customers appreciated his dry sense of humour. Had he always had this humour, Jack wondered ? Or was it just beginning to come out, now that he was a single man ? "The truth is, I never understood why the timber was getting worse. I just assumed it was one of those things that was destined to go downhill, like television, and the way the kids like to dress. I've learnt a lot since then." Jack never knew it, but his customers were slowly growing to love him for his honesty, and lack of pretense. It wasn't something you could fake.

When Jack and Mark returned to Wilkinson's Furniture after their two-day training, they had a long list of "small steps" which would enable their business to harmonize with the nature's principles. It would take time, but so did everything. The glues and finishes would have to be replaced; the whole building would need an energy retrofit; the older, less efficient equipment would have to be replaced; their methods of packing and shipping would have to be upgraded. The biggest change, however, which had to be done immediately if they wanted to secure the IKEA order, was that their timber would have to come from an eco-certified, sustainably managed forest.

That was how Jack found out about Collins Pine, a forest products company operating out of Portland which was another member of The Natural Step. They managed 300,000 acres of forest along eco-certified lines, and when Jack went to visit them, they were more than happy to supply them with the timber they needed. "But first," they said, "you must come and tour our forest, to understand how it differes from a regular forest."

Jack had been dealing with timber all his life, but this was the first time that Jack had ever toured a sustainably managed forest, or learnt about ecosystem management. His guide was Sophie, a very attractive young woman with short blonde hair, who had been a practising ecoforester for five years.

"We never cut more than nature grows," she explained, as she showed Jack around their Almanor forest in the Sierra Nevada. "We have been logging these 94,000 acres since 1943. We have extracted almost two billion board feet of timber, and yet the forest has a higher inventory of standing timber today than when we started, and it still has its old growth characteristics." Jack was impressed by how open the forest was, and how large the trees were growing. "If we had clearcut the way the other companies did," she went on, "we would have destroyed the soil and habitat, and we would be harvesting much less timber today, of lower quality. The way to get the value out of this kind of forest," she said, "while protecting the ecosystem, is to maximize the age of the trees at around 150 years, not cut them down when they are immature juveniles."

That night, as Jack slept in an ecotourist cabin in the forest, he had a strikingly powerful dream. He was walking in the forest, and he saw his daughter Nancy coming towards him, carrying a bundle of ferns and wildflowers. She was smiling, and the forest was full of birds and wildflowers. Coming close, she placed the bundle in his hands, and said "Here - this is yours now," and then disappeared.

That was two years ago. Today, Jack was in another forest with another tour guide, and the loyal customers who had supported him as he led Wilkinson Furniture on its journey of transformation. The word had spread about the changes they were making, the media had featured them as an Oregon success story, and the orders had begun to increase. Today, he was employing an additional forty people to meet the demand.

"I wonder," he thought to himself as he watched his customers gather round a dead fir tree that was being preserved as a wildlife tree, to sustain the woodpeckers which kept the insects under control. "Is this perhaps the reason why my voices seem to have disappeared, why I have this feeling of contentment ? Could it be, at the age of fifty-six, that I have finally found my own path ?"

He smiled to himself, and realized that for the first time, he was enjoying the feeling of his own feet being planted solidly on the forest floor. There was a flapping of wings in the trees, and an eagle's feather landed softly at his feet.

*****

Notes

My thanks to Brian Nattrass, Mary Altomare, Bill Robson and Kate Wells for their help with this story. The Natural Step is a Swedish initiative which is winning increasing praise around the world for its capacity to help companies and other organizations harmonize their activities with nature, re-organizing themselves along ecological lines. See The Natural Step for Business : Wealth, Ecology and the Evolutionary Corporation, by Brian Nattrass and Mary Altomare (New Society Publishers, 1999), or visit www.NaturalStep.org.

In Canada : Brian Nattrass, (604) 886-0937, tns@aol.com.

In Portland : Kate Wells, (503) 241-1140, ktwells@aol.com.

In San Francisco : Catherine Gray, (415) 561-3344 tns@naturalstep.org

In Britain : David Cook, (01242) 262744 davidcook@tnsuk.demon.co.uk

The information about IKEA (www.ikea.com), Collins Pine (www.collinswood.com) and other companies is true. The Dutch software ECO-it has been developed by PRi Consultants, and can aid in the design of environmentally responsible products and packaging, enabling a product's environmental impact to be expressed in one figure. A demo can be downloaded from www.pre.nl. It has not yet been used for the purposes of eco-taxation.

***

First published in Earthfuture: Stories from a Sustainable World, by Guy Dauncey (New Society Publishers, 1999). (www.earthfuture.com/earthfuture)

About the author

Guy Dauncey is an author, organizer and sustainable communities consultant who specializes in developing a positive vision of an environmentally sustainable future, and translating that vision into action. He is the author of Stormy Weather : 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers, July 2001), and ‘A Sustainable Energy Plan for the US’ (Earth Island Journal, August 2003). He is also the publisher of EcoNews (a monthly newsletter), co-founder of the Victoria Car-Share Cooperative, and a consultant in ecovillage and green building development. He lives in Victoria, on the west coast of Canada.

His website is www.earthfuture.com.