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Sustainability for everybody

Panel of 'pioneers' leads discussion on rapidly growing movement
by: Cliff Newell, 
Chris Van Dyke, right, can get downright animated when it comes to talking about sustainability. The chief executive of the new eco-friendly apparel company Nau, Van Dyke was a panel member on the subject at Marylhurst University on Oct. 4.

Marylhurst University professor Lisa Jo Frech is so excited about sustainability that she can get out of a sickbed to talk about it.

That is what she did on Oct. 4, joining a panel with Bonnie Bruce and Chris Van Dyke in a discussion on the topic at Marylhurst University.

However, as exciting as sustainability can be, Frech noted, 'The definition of sustainability is like turning around a toy in our hands. It is not yet engrained in our minds and bodies.

'We will learn by going where we need to go. We can't afford to sit still. Denial today, greater pain tomorrow.'

It was not an evening for sitting still at Marylhurst. Frech, Bruce and Van Dyke were brilliant in talking about how sustainability is on the cutting edge of finding a new way to live our lives. An age of pioneers striving for ways that will make this happen.

Making the evening even better was an audience that was honed in on the subject and asked many astute questions; as might be expected of people of the Pacific Northwest, the nation's leader in sustainability.

'We're living in a bubble in the Pacific Northwest,' said Bruce, an interior designer with SERA Architects and a Marylhurst faculty member. 'We're much more enlightened than the rest of the country on environmental stewardship and what ecology is all about.'

That has the potential to make the Northwest not only an environmental but also an economic paradise.

'The Pacific Northwest is in perfect position to lead the world in sustainability,' Frech said. 'It is 10 times the size of New England and there is tremendous diversity here. There is no end in sight for its rapid expansion. It is less degraded than the rest of the industrial world, so it has a better chance to reach sustainability.'

Still, Bruce needed to apply just a dash of cold water to this rosy outlook.

'We're so far behind Scandinavia on sustainability it's embarrassing,' Bruce said. 'We all need to be stewards and spread the word.'

Van Dyke is hoping to transform rosiness into reality with Nau, an outdoor apparel company in Portland that is just three years old and based on wide-ranging sustainable principles, with the basic idea that a business can make gobs of money while still being good to the planet and to people.

Backed by some business heavy hitters that includes Nike and Starbucks, Van Dyke, Nau's chief executive officer, is anticipating success.

'We have a core group of eight that shares passions about the outdoors, great products, and business having an obligation beyond creating wealth,' Van Dyke said.

Eventually, Van Dyke said, 'We anticipate being a very powerful tool for economic and environmental change, and also a powerful tool for the customer.

'If we reach our financial goals, we will be giving away $16 to $18 million a year to sustainable causes by 2010.'

Van Dyke had more than words to prove his point. He passed out for audience examination articles of outdoor clothing from his company, all made with sustainable or recycled products; such as a down jacket that was so comfortable it almost melted to the touch.

While Van Dyke, Bruce and Frech are true pioneers of sustainability, the concept's eventual success will depend on how quickly the general public adopts it.

'Our company can't change the world,' Van Dyke said. 'But we are creating a new model, and creating those models are what is really important. They will change people when people see that they work.'

Bruce predicts sustainability will catch on quickly, but mostly not for altruistic reasons.

'Sustainability is money, honey,' she said. 'It's not just a feel-good thing to do. It has suddenly become a giant motivator in our capitalistic society.

'That's crass, but the reality is that if it can't make money, people won't pay attention.'

While the speed of sustainability adoption by the general public may disappoint pioneers in the field, Frech believes the future belongs to sustainability.

'The federal government will come around. They have to,' Frech said. 'Who will lead them? We are.

'I encourage you not to get too discouraged. We have the power to lead, even this current administration.'

'It's about small steps,' Bruce said. 'It's however far you can push yourself, whether you grow your own produce or ride the bus a few days a week to save gas. It's a matter of elevating your consciousness.'

Panel moderator Jan Dabrowski, a Marylhurst professor, closed the evening with some advice along these lines: 'Do it at the pace you can. You will make a difference.'