With decennial arctic ice drops of 13.1 percent and rising temperatures, per NASA figures, more countries and businesses have deemed it imperative to stop or slow down climate change. While adopting ecologically mindful practices would require spending from the private sector, the actions taken today will have a positive impact on the environment as well as revenues
Jake Kheel, vice president of Grupo Puntacana Foundation and an environmental leader, published last month “Waking the Sleeping Giant: Unlocking the Hidden Power of Business to Save the Planet,” wherein he outlines efficient ways to incorporate sustainable practices and provides examples of success stories, including his company’s own efforts to conserve natural habitats and species.
According to Kheel, who is based in the Dominican Republic, businesses are, generally speaking, either adversaries to the environment or, “in the best scenario,” allies to environmental efforts and community support. “Most companies are complying; they are keeping themselves at the edge of regulations with that or they are mitigating their impact, or they are contributing to foundations or to public-private projects,” he told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL.
“But where we have a lot of growth potential is if they transform themselves into agents of change, where they can really push for sustainability. They can use their resources, creativity and innovation potential to apply them to solutions for different environmental problems. That is the idea, that companies can go far beyond simply conforming to these trends and actually lead," he added.
For instance, in addition to recycling or reusing items, companies can identify a new product to replace the current wasteful material, such as using an alternative to single-use plastics. They can also find new business models or methodologies.
One example he highlighted was Desso, a European carpet manufacturing enterprise that creates its products using innovative shredding and cryogenic separation technology. The company realized that when using a singular carpet for an office space or building and one area got damaged over regular transit, the entire carpet had to be removed and replaced, even spaces that are not prone to regular foot traffic. As such, even the unaffected material turned to waste.
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For this reason, Desso “developed a carpet sold in section panels. Instead of [selling] the entire carpet, they do a leasing program… When part of the carpet is damaged, they replace it in small sections instead of the entire carpet” and then recycle the affected sections, Kheel explained. “They changed their business model, they changed the service they offer, they minimized their environmental impact, and they can receive those carpets that are designed to be reused some other way. That is a highly important transformation system,” he added.
Another success story he pointed to is Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and gear company that, in order to reduce waste, uses recycled and organic materials, plus has a program where they receive used materials and provide credits for returns, or they fix them.
“The idea is to have a much more thoughtful cycle of all production of their clothes, and they also use a significant percentage of their income to do innovation projects, contribute to conservation initiatives in protected areas, make documentaries to promote certain environmental trends. It is a company that uses its benefits and what it does as a company is producing a positive environmental impact,” Kheel said.
Protecting Coral Reefs for Economic Development
The tourism and environmental expert observed that in the Dominican Republic, where tourism revenues represented 36.4 percent of exports of goods and services during 2019 —according to the country’s Central Bank—the Grupo Puntacana Foundation has a reef restoration initiative.
“We have been making important investments for 15 years in research and carrying out projects for the conservation of coral reefs and in restoring reefs in cases where these are degraded,” Kheel reported.
Apart from the ecological benefits, Kheel highlighted that these investments will rebound positively on the country’s tourism economy, which heavily relies on its natural assets, such as crystal-clear beaches for lounging, scuba diving, snorkeling tours, boating and more.
Furthermore, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explained that coral reefs provide a buffer, protecting coasts from waves, storms and floods. Kheel affirmed that by investing in preserving coral reefs, tourism-related businesses like resorts get the bonus perk of protection from natural disasters.
Reefs are “an asset on which we rely. If we don’t invest in that asset, it will affect our business. This leads us to think of solutions for what has happened to the reef and to do interventions; work with fishermen to minimize the impact of overfishing; work on new technologies to restore the corals, grow them and transplant them to the reefs; see how to finance the jobs,” he stated, adding that because the entity cannot finance the project entirely, it relies on business partnerships and collaborations with environmental organizations, as well as “blue finance” loans.
“It is an investment and we have to see it that way. We are not simply spending money because it makes us feel good, we are investing because it will protect us and improve the business.”
Balancing Nature and Businesses
Moreover, he noted that while golf courses are assets for resorts to attract guests, they “have a very bad reputation for having a negative impact on the environment.” To foster a healthy relationship between business needs and nature, they integrated a system that collects the property’s wastewater and then treats and reuses it to irrigate the golf course, also minimizing the use of fertilizers.
“In addition to that, we have used a species of grass that is native to the Caribbean that has been adapted for use on golf courses, which can resist sea salt and can also use treated water for irrigation. It is a system designed to minimize the impact of the golf course. We use local vegetation; using vegetation that does not require a large number of synthetic products or fertilizers, which are adapted to temperature and precipitation, and to have the design of the golf course areas that are conducive to wildlife,” Kheel said.
Grupo Puntacana Foundation also partnered with an organization that protects birds to reintroduce the “gavilán de la Hispaniola” (Ridgway’s hawk), an endangered species native to the Hispaniola island, which the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti.
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“The resort has functioned as a wildlife refuge and that is something very innovative. Not that it costs a lot of money; our role was not to finance all the work. We basically opened the doors and allowed our space to be used as a refuge and from there, the species has basically recovered. There are many unexpected roles that can be taken advantage of. New ways of contributing to sustainability can be created that do not affect your business and that has a very important positive impact, and that is not necessarily a traditional role,” he asserted, urging businesses big and small to identify areas of opportunity to develop environmental initiatives.
Along that line, Kheel said that governments don’t always have the mechanisms or political will to implement appropriate measures or laws to protect the environment. Thus, he underscored that the private sector can lead these efforts and be a leader in pushing for change.
“Why is that good for companies? It allows them to define the terms of the changes and also gives them a competitive advantage. If you are the first to make that change… you will benefit in public relations in the image of the brand, and the subject will be advanced,” he stated.
Replicating Models in Puerto Rico
THE WEEKLY JOURNAL asked Kheel if these models can be replicated in Puerto Rico, a fellow Caribbean nation with similar weather conditions and natural assets.
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“The idea of using examples from the Dominican Republic, a country, an island, a relatively small Latin economy, is that it can be applied in many similar countries. Puerto Rico is a perfect counterpart to us. It is a Latin island and it is a country more or less in the middle of development,” he replied. “Basically everything that has been said about tourism in the book applies perfectly to Puerto Rico and has all the logic in the world.
He added that "one of the examples of efficiency improvements makes perfect sense on an island because much of the raw material is imported and costs more. So, the more efficient the use of raw materials, the better for the company and for the country. In solid waste, Puerto Rico does not have indefinite land; it has limited land and it does not have unlimited resources. Therefore, it has to have very controlled and very good waste management so as not to contaminate its water sources, coastal areas, rivers, lakes. They are all assets that must be protected, especially on an island because it has limited space. All those concepts that are spoken in that book apply perfectly to Puerto Rico."