Not everyone agrees about the practicality and relevance of sustainability. Three Garden Route businesses share their views on the concept, as well as their own bold steps to create an economy that works for people and planet.
WORDS Francini van Staden PHOTOGRAPHS SUPPLIED
Gondwana Game Reserve, Herbertsdale
On 11 000 hectares of fynbos, Gondwana Game Reserve is home to several wildlife species, free roaming Big Five and endangered species such as the Cape Mountain Zebra. The reserve intrinsically relies on natural resources and wildlife for business, but equally on the wellbeing of an extended community.
“Under the vision of Gondwana Game Reserve owners Mark and Wendy Rutherfoord, we’re trying to move away from the old school business view that you only care about what you own. We see our responsibility as extending well beyond our fence line,” says Gondwana Game Reserve sustainability and conservation manager Jono Berry.
“There are four foundation pillars for our keynote Gondwana Conservation Foundation – endangered wildlife, endangered vegetation, community and education,” says Jono. New era corporate social responsibility is an accepted, even obligatory, front for sustainability in business, but Gondwana Game Reserve has adopted a different view. “We consider sustainability to be practical, applicable and relevant. Besides day-to-day business, we’ve adopted sustainability as a significant guiding principle for planning and driving business.”
Incorporating sustainability, and its ambiguity in business planning, is no easy task. “What we do know, sustainability that is not genuine becomes a sink draining resources. If the local community is not benefiting from Gondwana as a business, we are draining them and we won’t last. When it comes to rhino poaching, for instance, there will be no information coming from the community – they would have nothing to lose if we lose rhino, or if the business fails.
“We faced difficult decisions in the past. While it would have been easy to follow conventional business choices, such as a lion cub-patting programme, Gondwana’s business framework is based on sound ethics; we will refuse good business opportunities if ethics are lacking. It’s constant line-walking. When business goes well, shifting focus to turnover is a real threat, hence why we consciously evaluate every business decision to determine whether it may result in unacceptable ecological, ethical or social costs, even if it means making less money. It does not make Gondwana altruistic; generating revenue remains important, but not at all costs,” says Jono.
Gondwana actively stimulates conservation interest, tourism and fair business through educational programmes. “We tell scholars how we are connected within this landscape, and show them that careers and income can be generated from conservation and tourism.”
As part of an ongoing relationship with the local community, the long-term goal is for learners who show promise to be identified for possible further investment via scholarships for tertiary education or internships within the company.
“We have to take responsibility in doing the right thing. What’s more, we need to be seen doing the right thing. And if we believe we are doing the right thing for the landscape, community and business, then we expand it.”
T&B Log Homes, Knysna
“Environmental protection is at the core of our business and sustainability is definitely applicable in practical terms,” says T&B Log Homes director Dave Simpson.
The large-scale use of natural timber resources may seem to bear high environmental costs, but T&B Log Homes developed a clear sustainability management strategy. Responding to a changing environment, T&B Log Homes’ business has evolved significantly over its 35 years of existence. “All our timber is procured from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) sources,” referring to commercial plantations that are sustainably managed. “We consider each project as unique. A careful analysis of potential environmental impacts is part of the design and planning phase, while on-site assembly, as opposed to construction, ensures only the building footprint is transformed. This is especially applicable to environmentally sensitive sites,” says Dave. Strengthening sustainability across the product’s lifecycle, T&B Log Homes recovers maximum material from raw products through its methodology of factory construction. “This allows us to retain waste in the factory for repurposing into smaller components of packaging products such as crates and pallets – and ultimately ensures maximum usage of harvested products delivered to us,” says Dave. T&B Log Homes also follows through with responsible disposal of unusable materials and the use of biodegradable and reusable packaging closing the waste cycle loop.
Times of change, such as the current general economic downturn, are also regarded as an opportunity to reconsider business practice and sustainability. “By building on hunter-gatherer principles, there is the potential for timber resource micro-industry development. For example, recovering bark chips for landscaping purposes, processing shavings and sawdust, and exporting for pellet-heating systems, recycling of used timber into furniture, school desks, or the recovery of waste materials for processing into laminated timber elements.
“Although timber itself is inherently green, we need to add sustainability value through continual product improvement and trans-industry collaboration. We now offer authentic environmentally centred turnkey services such as solar solutions, waste and water management systems, which are applied from private residences in the Garden Route to remote Maldivian Island hotels and East African resorts.”
Dave says the local timber industry is “alive, but not well. Many Garden Route sawmills have whittled away and, with only a few large players left, opportunities for smaller product developers are seriously hampered and restrains our policy of making use of local suppliers”. With stronger export markets, local sawmills increasingly opt for exporting. Forward-planning for the local industry is critical. “Although timber production and processing are more mechanised today, they still require a large workforce, which we have in South Africa. However, skills development and new generation interest lack sorely, while skills training support from government and the private sector are almost non-existent.
“The biggest advantage of timber is that it is a renewable resource. Coupled with its versatility, there are endless opportunities for business and business growth. The Garden Route has a strong historical heritage in the timber industry dating back over 100 years. We feel the environmental footprint along the Garden Route has already been established. Parameters have been set and if well-managed and nurtured, the timber industry could remain a sustainable industry, indefinitely,” says Dave.
Redberry Farm, George
“At Redberry Farm, sustainability starts with our soils and plants. From a good soil structure and healthy plant sprouts the well-being of the farm, its produce and people,” says Redberry Farm owner Mark Miller.
“Soon after Redberry Farm started in 2001, we realised what crucial roles soil and soil structure play. All other efforts in vain, it was correcting the soil structure that was the key leverage for a sustainable agricultural business foundation and for increasing yields without unacceptable environmental impacts. Over the years, we have drastically changed our way of cultivation.”
Although not entirely organic, Redberry’s strawberry crop production, and soon to be added hydroponic raspberries, is strongly guided by organic principles. “We only use soft chemicals on strawberries with short withholding periods to spray plants and we have substituted synthetic chemicals with natural and organic substitutes. Alternative pest management includes monitoring pest bait boxes and we are exploring the possibilities of incorporating bat boxes to naturally manage moths. We put a lot of effort into creating a favourable environment for growing a strong and healthy plant, with naturally higher stress resilience. “Not only is the completeness of a healthy strawberry flower and foliage a promise of good business, but it is also hugely satisfying to me as a farmer.”
Needing to diversify business, Redberry decided to open the farm to the public. “Although it appealed to the public soon after we introduced the concept, our greatest focus at the time was still to fully understand the strawberry as a crop. Today, having families visit the farm forms an integral part of the business.”
This business decision now ties strongly to educating people about agriculture, fresh produce and the health benefits of dietary choices. “A lot of people arrive here not knowing that strawberries come from a flower. Through school and group visits, we educate people on the health benefits of strawberries, how strawberries fit into a larger ecological cycle, and how we safely deter monkeys, porcupine and guinea fowl. It’s interesting to see particularly children recognising the wider challenges associated with crop production,” says Mark. Taken in its open-ended meaning, sustainability extends to relationships. “Families embrace the opportunity we offer to spend time in the outdoors, around physical activities. We are focusing on finding new ways to further integrate family visits into our core business,” says Mark.
Operations at Redberry Farm strongly relies on a core labour force of 70 people, and in peak season a full picking team of 150 people and up to 40 staff members serving through public amenities. “Having the same core team for the past eight years has created stability for both the labour force and the farm.
“Transforming a rudimentary staff details system into a sophisticated technological system has allowed for more accurate accounting of labour working hours. Now, there is a sense of ownership and responsibility, and our labour can now control how much income they generate. In turn, we are able to distribute profits fairly across the board to our labour force. We’ve seen positive social and economic results because of these business decisions. The quality of life of our labour force has improved notably.
“Sustainability is entirely possible and it links well beyond the core business. We also have to give credit to the farmers of yesteryear – they thought well about the land. The historic water management system we still use here is evidence of this. We benefit from a well-developed network of water canals that distribute water from the mountain catchment source to the local water-sharing irrigation system.”
Whether simplistic or more complicated, it’s a system of not wasting any resource or opportunity, for wide-reaching benefits. At Redberry Farm, even a few cows benefit. At the very end of the strawberry crop chain, where there is no consumption or value added use remaining for left-over strawberries, the farm’s few cows get to eat their share; their strawberry pink stained faces evident of approval.