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Co-op takes 'natural step' to increase sustainability

In its quest to become a fully sustainable company, the Ashland Food Cooperative trained nearly all of its employees over the past three days on The Natural Step method, a model out of Sweden that aims to help businesses and cities transform themselves into net-zero operations.

Becoming fully sustainable is much more complex than making a few "green" decisions, because it takes not only the environment, but the economy and social equality, into account as well, said Duke Castle, one of the founding members of the Oregon Natural Step Network who trained the Co-op employees.

For example, parents who cannot walk their children to school might make a green decision to drive them in a Toyota Prius, but to think sustainably, they would also weigh the pros and cons of taking public transportation or biking as well, considering even future variables such as what would happen to the bike at the end of its life, Castle said.

Toward sustainability

Whether an individual or an entire business wants to become sustainable, The Natural Step approach is the same. All employees are trained to envision what a fully sustainable future would look like and then "backcast" — the opposite of forecast — to the present in order to develop a plan to reach that future vision, Castle said.

He taught a four-pronged definition of sustainability employees can use to evaluate current practices: Sustainable companies do not take resources out of earth faster than they can be replaced, they do not create synthetic products faster than the earth can handle and they do not degrade the earth or undermine people's ability to meet basic needs.

Because it is so complicated, it requires much creativity and deliberate thought.

"If you do not have a framework, you're going to get lost," Castle warned.

The Natural Step targets companies like the Co-op first before reaching out to city governments because business leaders are often quick to see the advantages of reducing waste in the form of increased profits, which can then be used to make more expensive system changes.

Sustainable role models

A McDonald's in Sweden, where The Natural Step was first developed, cut its garbage bill by 35 percent by installing drains next to the trash cans for unwanted ice and soft drinks rather than paying to dispose of it. That savings helped them develop buildings that were easily disassembled and moved to follow changing traffic patterns, Castle said.

In an example much closer to home, Eugene-based Co-op distributor The Organically Grown Company has nearly met its goal of eliminating fossil fuel in incremental steps, first retraining its drivers on efficient driving practices, then installing mile per gallon meters in the trucks to make efficiency a game. Finally, they converted all trucks to run on 99 percent biodiesel and struck a deal with the trucking company to provide diesel hybrids at the same cost as regular trucks in exchange for free advertising.

A sustainable co-op

To make similar changes devised by its employees, the Co-op is forming a sustainability committee led by Health and Beauty Manager Elaine Deckelman.

"I think we're going to have a chance to really make a difference," she said. The store has already measured it energy use and waste and set goals for 2009 to take care of the lowest-hanging fruit, she said.

Employees just introduced to the system were also excited about the chance to contribute.

"We have enough people at the store that we should be able to come up with some good ideas," said Brian Swift, a Co-op meat cutter. "I'm really excited because I think that's what we need. This is the perfect area to get started and this is the perfect company to get started."

After the training, he and other employees saw the perfect opportunity to discuss adding biodegradable trays in the meat department with General Manager Richard Katz.

A sustainable Ashland

Planning commissioners Mike Morris and Michael Dawkins also attended the final training session on Wednesday to gain insight on planning for the city's future.

"My frustration is getting people to decide where they want to go, and I think this is one of the ways to get there," Morris said. "To say, 'No, we're not going to grow or not plan at all' is probably not doing our job. It's probably just leaving it up to chance."

Oregon municipalities like Lake Oswego and Corvallis have already joined the movement after watching the success of businesses in their area, Castle said.

"We've had more success doing this in Oregon more than any place else in the world outside of Sweden," he said.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.