With a passion for ecology and a master’s degree in environmental management, Jake Kheel was somewhat surprised to find himself working for a resort developer in the Dominican Republic, but years later, the result of their partnership is an expansive group of tourism-related businesses that have succeeded specifically because of their work in sustainability and environmentalism.
In his new book, Waking the Sleeping Giant: Unlocking the Hidden Power of Business to Save the Planet, Kheel provides compelling arguments for why sustainability is an aid, not an obstacle, to private sector growth and offers loads of inspiring case studies to help companies problem-solve their own way to sustainable growth.
On Author Hour today, Jake shares some of those insights as well as the secret behind his team’s creative approach.
Jane Borden: Hi Author Hour listeners, I’m Jane Borden and I’m here today with Jake Kheel, author of Waking the Sleeping Giant: Unlocking the Hidden Power of Business to Save the Planet. Jake, thank you so much for being with us today.
Jake Kheel: Hey, terrific, thanks for having me.
Jane Borden: I’m really excited to discuss this book with you and all of its insights. First, before we dig in, can you briefly tell our readers just a bit about who you are and how this book came to be?
Jake Kheel: So, I work in the Dominican Republic. My background is in environmental management and I’ve been working in the Dominican Republic for a private company for 16 years now. Over the years, I have learned an incredible amount about how to get environmental problems solved, or at least confronted, from within the context of a business.
I thought it was important information to share, both with other businesses and with young people coming up that would be interested in getting into the environmental field or the field of sustainability and want to see how they could engage businesses and companies from within, and some of the strategies you need to really get sustainability accomplished. It’s not as easy as you might think.
Jane Borden: You say something that really caught my eye. You write, “Corporate leaders need to see that sustainability is not an obstacle to their financial success but often, the key to achieving it.” What do you mean?
Jake Kheel: Essentially, a lot of times, sustainability, corporate social responsibility is seen by CEOs and by the C-suite group as a cost that they have to incur–something that they’re sort of obligated to do by society or by the government and not necessarily as something that’s key to their business.
A lot of times, when they do things, it’s to get it out of the way or to be able to take advantage of it for very superficial purposes, such as publicity or marketing. In reality, done right and implemented as part of the DNA of a company, sustainability can be a really powerful tool for companies to make them more competitive, to spur innovation in these companies, and really to be a source of great competition–to make these companies better companies, more adaptable companies, more creative.
I think that’s what I’ve learned over the years working in the private sector is that sustainability is an investment you’re making in the future of your company that has returns in different ways. You don’t necessarily need to consider it just as a cost.
Jane Borden: You’ve written that traditionally companies see economic growth and environmental protection as adversarial goals. Would you say that part of this book is convincing them otherwise?
Jake Kheel: Yeah, I think traditionally, business has its goals of economic development, creating jobs, creating new economic opportunity, and often, they see the goals and objectives of environmental groups, social groups, and activists as an obstacle to that. They see basically, this is just a bunch of people getting in our way and making our lives more complicated.
Similarly, many environmentalists and many activists see businesses as simply out there to make money, and they don’t care about anything else happening in society and that businesses are willing to sacrifice what happens in and around them, whether to a local community such as a local environment or local species, in order to continue their business.
I think what I’ve learned and what we describe in the book is if there is common ground you can find a balance between the two. The solution to this great conflict between economic development and environmental protection is sustainability. Sustainable development. And that is a theoretical idea that a lot of people have talked about since the concept of sustainability was created in the 90s, but it’s not so often implemented and especially in the context of a business. It’s talked about, you have a lot of theorizing, academic studies, companies use the terminology, but you don’t necessarily have concrete examples of it in different scales of businesses.
Where I work in the Dominican Republic, a developing country, you have a very different situation than in the United States. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned in developing countries.
I think the idea is that sustainability really is a good path forward for this great conflict between environment and development.
Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism
Jane Borden: Yeah, speaking of concrete examples, the book is just full of them, using mini-case studies from your work. It seems like we can learn so much about corporate sustainability from a resort in the Dominican Republic. First of all, tell our listeners what’s the difference between ecotourism and sustainable tourism as just one example of the work you’re doing?
Jake Kheel: Yeah, I don’t want to criticize one or the other. I just think that ecotourism traditionally has been seen as leaning towards far greater emphasis on environmental protection. Ecotourism has meant, in the minds of many people, rustic accommodations, places that are very remote, places that have either indigenous communities or local communities sort of embedded in the experience.
I think that’s perfectly viable, it’s a perfectly good idea but I think often, those experiences have more impact than they’re willing to admit. By being a trailblazer of a new site and implementing tourism and attracting people there, often that causes more damage than people generally know if you’re in a remote rainforest or a very fragile ecosystem, and then you put a hotel there and you have traffic of people there.
The other thing is that often the idea of ecotourism is sort of in conflict with other modes of travel. I think people enjoy diversity. As I say in the book, most of my friends would consider ecotourism as somewhere where you have to use a composting toilet and you have to really kind of rough it. I think the idea of sustainable tourism is that you can build travel opportunities. You can have tourism into different countries and different locations and in different types of situations and different cultural attractions and you can find a way to bring people there without damaging that site, which is what really attracted people in the first place.
The idea of sustainability is it’s a more flexible, more adaptable, more diverse type of tourism that doesn’t rely exclusively on protecting the local environment and using a minimalist approach. I think you can have a perfectly viable luxury experience doing sustainable tourism or you can have a kind of ecotourism experience as well.
I think that’s really important to think of it in that way is there are so many places and situations and different cultures where people are now traveling, and we can’t really have this rigid definition of how to get people there and how to minimize the damage and how to create opportunities for the local people and the local community.
I think we really have to have much more of a flexible approach that keeps in mind the environment and community, but also sustaining the business. There are many examples of amazing ecotourism experiences that were so far on the side of protecting the environment that they eventually went out of business.
As the founder of Patagonia, the clothing company, says, “It’s fine to be crazy as long as you’re successful, otherwise, you’re just crazy.” I think you have to have a business that succeeds, or other business leaders are not going to follow that model.
A Connection to Place
Jane Borden: You guys have found a lot of creative solutions in Punta Cana–issues surrounding coral reefs, local fisherman, invasive species. What connects the thinking behind your sustainable solutions and the creativity that led to them?
Jake Kheel: I think, first of all, tourism, in general, is very connected to place, right? The product is the place. People want to visit a local culture or a new site, a new ecosystem. They want to have a new experience.
When you’re bringing people to these places, you really need to think about, “What is your product?” You are not manufacturing a widget in some far-off place and then shipping it somewhere and nobody knows what the impact of that manufacturing process was.
In tourism, you’re bringing people there and they’re going to see what’s happening. So, there has to be a great connection to the place. There has to be a lot of consideration of the local people and the local communities and there has to be a huge consideration of the environment. Especially in places like the Dominican Republic where people come, really, to experience the local environment, the coral reef, the coastal areas, the beaches, and in some cases, the mountains. They come to see the local culture, the colonial history that the Dominican Republic has. If you’re not taking that into consideration, then you’re damaging your product, sort of like you’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
I think that applies to all kinds of companies, not just tourism. I think what has led us to our path of sustainability very early on was really a problem-solving mentality. Punta Cana, when it started, there were no local communities, there was no infrastructure, there were no hotels, no roads, no airports. Nothing. No water systems. Everything had to be created from scratch and so that meant really tapping into ingenuity and creativity and finding ways to finance these things and also ways to be really innovative in terms of the materials we used and how things were built.
Just to give a quick example, the earliest example in Punta Cana of real innovation was in the construction of the airport that’s a privately owned airport, and when they built it, they got permission to build it in the late 70s, early 80s, and they had very little money to build it. It was not financed by the government, there wasn’t a foreign investment. It was basically a DIY kind of airport construction. What they stumbled on was the ability to use local materials, using thatch for the roofs, using wood that’s found locally in the Dominican Republic for the beams, collecting all of the rocks from the runway and from the different areas that had to be cleared for the operations of the airport and using that to build walls.
Besides using local materials, they also took advantage of the local features. That meant leaving spaces in the walls so that the breezes could cool the place without needing air-conditioning, which they didn’t have the money for, and they didn’t have electricity at that scale to power air-conditioning. The airport became this indigenous architecture using designs from the Taino Indians and the Arawak Indians, using local materials and it also led to huge cost savings in terms of electricity, and in terms of the building materials they used.
That created this philosophy of, “Okay, we can build a world-class business, a world-class destination using our creativity, using our ingenuity to find solutions that also at the same time, minimize the impact on the environment.” Using local materials saves all kinds of shipping and construction material transport, which is a big part of the carbon footprint of a business. Using local materials meant that it created local jobs and also all of the savings in the actual operations of the airport.
So, I think those are key ideas that we adopted early on and then have grown into many of our other programs at Grupo Puntacana. That means the way we deal with garbage. The way we have tried to protect and restore coral reefs, which have this very important relationship with beaches and with our attractions for our guests. The way that we’ve used the resort as a wildlife refuge to recover a species that had been extrapolated or eliminated in other parts of the island and the resort became a refuge for this endangered hawk species. The idea is that the company can be this kind of toolbox of innovation applying these solutions, using the company’s resources to find these solutions and to implement them and make it part of our business model.
Jane Borden: Which of course has got to be good for marketing. You also write a little bit about the difference between being green or greenwashing.
Jake Kheel: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of benefits of taking this path to sustainability. There are ways that companies take advantage of it and I think the low-hanging fruit, what everybody knows about is greening and greening isn’t a bad thing. Greening means more taking advantage of the positive important environmental and social work that you’re doing and allowing your brand to benefit from that, really making that part of your image. I don’t think that in itself is a bad thing especially if you’re really doing the work, if you are really implementing these programs, really having this impact, you can measure it, you have a real commitment to it, it is not just a superficial program. Companies deserve to take advantage of that, and they deserve to set that trend so that other companies will follow it.
Greenwashing on the other hand is taking credit for activities that you are not necessarily doing or overplaying and over-promoting the few things that you do in order to improve your image. I think companies nowadays are so sophisticated in their promotion, in their public relations, and in their marketing that they try and take advantage of improving their image through their charitable programs, their foundation programs, their sustainability programs, and many times, they’re not very significant programs, and they’re not necessarily a real commitment that the companies have and often not necessarily a part of the business operations. It is more of like a small donation or a PR program and often, in many companies, the sustainability programs, the environmental programs are often housed in the public relations department. That is your first tip. If the person who is telling you all about these programs is managing them and is also in the PR department, they might not have the expertise to really manage complex environmental challenges. I think it’s important to recognize these differences.
I think the public is getting more and more sophisticated in being able to sniff out what’s legitimate and what’s not, but I think at the same time the public is getting more information and more tracking or ability to follow what’s happening, companies are getting more sophisticated in being able to sort of disguise what they do or how legitimate their programs are.
Jane Borden: You mentioned partnerships between foundations and corporations as something you also write about in the book. Tell us, what are the pros and cons of those kinds of partnerships and how can they be more effective?
Jake Kheel: So often companies have sort of a charitable division and they give some money to a foundation and then they say, “Hey, go to work and figure this problem out and you know, we’d like our logo on it.” That is their commitment to a particular challenge. I think companies have this really untapped potential to add so much more value to the types of programs that foundations do and that not for profits groups do and even governments do.
The companies have these tremendous resources in terms of their staffing and their personnel. They have all of these different departments with expertise. They have financial resources, they have money to make programs happen. Many companies have these incredible marketing platforms to do public education and have an amazing capacity in terms of reaching people and changing public opinion on issues. Also often, companies have departments and areas of expertise that are not necessarily being applied to environmental challenges or to social issues.
I think the idea is that companies can become this toolkit for helping solve some of these problems, applying new areas of expertise and connecting with foundations and not for profits or even governments who are trying to bring new resources to the fight. I think that is an incredibly important thing.
You know, often in foundations, you have the director or the CEO of the foundation with a science background or with a social science background or community organization background, but who is not necessarily trained and equipped to run a complex organization, finances, all of these different things that a foundation needs to do. I think often, by partnering with companies, you can really improve and enhance their capacity to do the work they know how to do, to really dedicate themselves to the area where they have expertise.
So, we have lots of examples of that in the work that we do at Grupo Puntacana partnering with folks that our company has used, our different departments in the different areas of the company as this think tank to solve problems. When something new comes up, the company can apply its capacity to these challenges.
I think partnerships are something a lot of companies are sort of hesitant to take on. You know, sometimes they feel like it’s extra work or extra burden or wading off of their mission of creating value for their stockholders, whereas they really have this amazing power to take on significant challenges. Most of the time by doing that effort the company is made more resilient and stronger and able to adapt to change. It becomes nimbler but also really can apply a significant effort towards solving some of the major challenges that our planet is facing.
Jane Borden: There seems to be almost an analogy between each of the smaller-scale projects you mentioned in the book, such as the hawk preservation or the solutions you found to work with local fisherman, and bigger corporations, which is just that sustainability also means sustainability of your company, right? I mean you say doing this work can make you more resilient, is that accurate?
Jake Kheel: Absolutely. Yeah, I think the idea that we’ve taken on, for example, with working with local fishermen. In our region, there isn’t a great problem of unemployment, the tourism economy has created a lot of job opportunities. But one group seems to have been left behind and for whatever reason, they haven’t been integrated into the tourism economy, and that is the local fisherman. That means that there has been a huge pressure of fishing on the local coral reef and that is one of the biggest challenges that our local reef ecosystem faces.
When we started looking at ways to confront that challenge of degrading conditions of the coral reef, the overfishing, which was causing coral die off’s, we said we could try and work with the government and police the local fishing and implement regulations and try and stop them from doing the work that they’re doing but that seemed, that was setting us up for conflict and we don’t necessarily want them to not fish. We want them to have as many opportunities as they can so that the fishing they do undertake is more sustainable and does less damage to the coral reef.
The approach was we started integrating them first into our conservation projects. We have a reef restoration project where we actually grow corals in underwater nurseries in front of the resort. Then those corals typically are a species that are fast-growing and pretty endangered in the Caribbean then are transplanted back onto the reef. As part of that, we wanted to try and improve local conditions so that the corals survive once they’re out of nurseries and back onto the reef. It’s incredibly labor-intensive work. It requires being underwater, it requires being out in the ocean when it’s rough. It requires a lot of manual labor, picking things up, moving things, setting up these frames that the corals grow on.
So, we thought it would make sense to involve local fishermen. We trained a small group of fishermen and then we hired the local fishermen and it turned out, you know, they have a particular skill that is really well adapted to coral restoration. So, we expanded the number of people we trained, and we started hiring more people. Then that opened up this whole entrepreneurial spirit with the local fisherman where they start offering other marine based services.
So, the local fishermen, we helped get some of them trained, and they offer their services as boat captains so they can be hired out by local boat owners or by excursion operators and dive operators, and we hire local fishermen to do that work. We also hired local fishermen to help us implement buoys and channel markers and all kinds of marina infrastructure, building docks and things around the water, that these guys had informal knowledge of how to do, but had never really been engaged directly by the private sector businesses.
That was a huge turning point for us and rather than trying to police the local fishermen, we try to find them all kinds of other opportunities, and then the ones that continue to fish, we try to find ways that we could purchase directly from them, their catch, in order to promote and encourage the capture of species that are not at risk.
It’s really just seeing them as a group of talented individuals whose talents are being underutilized, and then finding ways that they can be integrated into the tourism economy, either in conservation jobs or into whatever local businesses exist, so that this group that’s being somewhat neglected can then become a force for good.
The Solution is Local
Jane Borden: I feel like what I’m hearing from you, again and again, is that the solution is local.
Jake Kheel: That’s right. I think one of the ideas behind Waking the Sleeping Giant is there is no recipe for sustainability, unfortunately. If somebody puts out a textbook on it, it’s going to be pretty limited in its applicability because each situation is unique, each place has its own dynamics. So, the idea behind the book was really sharing what has worked in a specific place and pulling out lessons and things that we’ve learned over the years that can be applied to other places.
There is simply no way to say, “Okay, everything we’ve done in Punta Cana is totally applicable to some other place or some other destination or every company.” The idea is really that we’ve learned a lot, we’ve made lots of mistakes. We’ve had a lot of things that worked, and we can share these ideas and have other people benefit from them, and other companies benefit from them. Also, young professionals coming out that want to get into the sustainability field and feel like it’s a limited scope, they can only either start their own sustainability business or that could be as an entrepreneur or they can only work as a scientist, or as an environmental activist, but in reality, you can work in established companies and really make a huge impact. These are some of the strategies to do that.
Jane Borden: Those companies need you, you know, they need that pipeline. Well, even if there is not a textbook, there are loads and loads of examples and case studies and this book is full of them, including at the end, the stories of companies who are doing it right. There is so much great information in the book. Listeners, again it’s called, Waking the Sleeping Giant: Unlocking the Hidden Power of Business to Save the Planet.
Jake, it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you, congratulations. In addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and your work?
Jake Kheel: You can find my website, jakekheel.com. I’m also pretty active on Instagram @jkheel and you’ll find the book on Amazon.
Jane Borden: Great, thank you so much.
Jake Kheel: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.