Green Appeals To The Bottom Line

February 20, 2004
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SPRING LAKE — Going into the meeting at Ford Motor Co., Bill McDonough had three minutes to give his presentation to the board of directors.

He made his point quickly, and in the process landed the contract by laying out a money-saving scenario that any corporate director in America would like.

By following McDonough's ecologically-based plan to filter stormwater runoff at a new auto plant through a series of wetlands, ponds, vegetation and other natural processes, the automaker would save $35 million on the cost of the project over conventional engineering techniques.

Other elements of the plan for the new factory at Ford's massive Rouge Complex in Dearborn resulted in a 50 percent reduction in energy use.

Those kinds of bottom-line benefits are accelerating interest in sustainable design and business practices and green building principles, said McDonough, a designer and co-founder of the design firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry in Charlottesville, Va.

"Economics are the most powerful driver," McDonough said last week after delivering an address at the Herman Miller Environmental Conference in Spring Lake.

The Holland-based office furniture maker holds the event annually for employees, suppliers, customers and any party interested in sustainable business practices.

The firm, known for an environmental ethic set down by founder D.J. DePree, now is working to drive sustainable practices throughout its supply chain.

McDonough's message is that following sustainable principles is the right thing for businesses to do — ethically and economically. He cited examples where clients generated significant savings through sustainable practices eliminating waste, reducing energy and water consumption and protecting the environment, as well as allowing designers to create buildings that generate more energy than they use.

"The whole model for production is really ready to be completely revolutionized," McDonough told a conference audience of about 350 people.

The conference highlights the practices and experiences of Herman Miller — whose GreenHouse production plant east of Holland is a model of sustainable design — and provides a venue to hear from others on the topic.

Chief Operating Officer Brian Walker said that even during the last three years, as the office furniture industry fell into a deep downturn that saw 40 percent of sales volumes go away, Herman Miller never wavered in its environmental commitment.

Environmental stewardship is good business and, as part of Herman Miller's core mission, "the right thing to do" ethically, Walker said.

"We believe our mission should go to the common good," he said.

Part of that common good now means passing those values and sustainable business practices down to suppliers, Walker said. At a time when customers are clearly "beginning to include environmental considerations in their purchases," so, too, is Herman Miller looking for that ethic in its supply chain, he said.

"If we don't begin the journey to sustainability, how will we have the resources to sustain the enterprise?" Walker said. "We simply cannot reach inside Herman Miller to get to all of our goals. We have to view this from a value-chain perspective."

Herman Miller executives cited several examples where sustainable design and practices have helped financially.

At the GreenHouse production facility, which opened in 1995, Herman Miller has been able to generate a 33.5 percent annual return on investment on efforts to reduce energy use through the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Star program. Companywide, Herman Miller since 1991 has reduced the amount of waste materials going to landfills from 41 million pounds to 5.7 million pounds in 2003, said Paul Murray, Herman Miller's environmental manager.

Len Pilon, the company's director of workplace strategies and facilities, cited data showing that Herman Miller's 2-year-old, 100,000-square-foot Marketplace — a LEED-certified office building in Zeeland — will generate $4.6 million in savings during a seven-year period through sustainable practices.

"The story is you can save money," Pilon told conference attendees.

Elsewhere, Herman Miller today is the largest user of green power in Michigan and under a long-standing corporate policy maintains 50 percent of the land at all of its campuses as undeveloped open space. The company's new Mirra chair, introduced in mid-2003, is made of 96 percent recyclable and 94 percent recycled materials.

As corporations increasingly embrace sustainable design and green building principles, one Grand Rapids area business leader wants to create regional collaboration to further the trend.

Fred Keller, chairman and CEO of Cascade Engineering, sees West Michigan as a leader in the eco-friendly businesses. Furthering the trend in West Michigan would make the region an attractive place to locate facilities and do business for corporations with strong environmental values, Keller said.

"The robustness of the region can continue its growth if we follow sustainability," said Keller, one of the speakers at the Herman Miller conference. "That's the next step we have to take — connecting leadership with these efforts."    

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