Marriott's Tree Huggers

Marriott's Tree Huggers

Sometimes business is personal. A promising new effort by Marriott International to curb deforestation in a corner of the Amazon took root, improbably, at a Super Bowl Party in Bethesda, Md., early in 2007.

The host was Mark London, a lawyer with a passion for the Amazon that dates back to the early 1980s when he visited Brazil and wrote his first book about the world's most important rainforest. (Mark's most recent book is called The Last Forest.) One guest was Arne Sorenson, another lawyer, now CFO of Marriott, whose headquarters are in Bethesda. Another was Gov. Eduardo Braga of Amazonas, a progressive leader who is looking for ways to get western help to preserve the Amazon without compromising local sovereignty, a sensitive issue in Brazil. Arne and Gov. Braga got to talking, and that led, eventually, to the agreement signed yesterday in Washington, D.C.

Of course, Marriott wouldn't take on an environmental initiative like this if it didn't make business sense. This does - it has PR value as well as potential bottom-line payoff. The company wants to attract groups that plan "green" meetings, so it had better have a solid environmental environmental program in place. What's more, Marriott owns lots of beachfront property, so it has reason to worry about about the long-term impacts of global warming.

The Marriott-Amazon connection is the topic of today's Sustainability column. Here's how it begins:

Preventing the destruction of rainforests should be high on the to-do list of anyone worried about global warming. Scientists say burning or destroying forests accounts for at least 20% of global, greenhouse gas emissions.

But what can be done, as a practical matter, to slow down deforestation in Brazil or Indonesia, where poor people focus on survival, and not on abstract threats like climate change?

Marriott International, the $13-billion a year lodging company, and the government of Amazonas, a Brazilian state that oversees rainforests bigger than Texas, have come up with a creative, if unorthodox, answer: Marriott will pay villagers in an endangered corner of the Amazon not to cut down trees.

The column focuses on Marriott's Amazon initiative, but the company has also initiated a broader effort to measure and reduce its own environmental footprint, developed in consultation with Conservation International. Marriott says it will cut back on fuel and water consumption on a per-room basis over the next decade, install solar power at a few hotels, build more "green" hotels and work with its suppliers to provide more environmentally-friendly products. They include a new Bic pen made from recycled plastic and bamboo golf tees that are biodegradable. Hey, every little bit helps.