Region Is Sustainable Business Hub

January 21, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The often confused and misunderstood concept of sustainable business is quietly gaining ground in West Michigan.

Usually colored green — vegetative roofs, alternative fuels and water conservation — the movement is grounded on potential for another sort of green, with basic principles that reflect the core values of the West Michigan community.

Predicated on collaboration, cost efficiency and value preservation, sustainability is becoming a central and resounding theme for West Michigan business, government and academia.

With nearly two-dozen separate efforts representing all corners of the West Michigan economy — many of which are the first or only such initiative of its kind — the region has become a national hub of the sustainability movement, a position that many of its leaders feel will be key to its future economic vitality.

Mayor George Heartwell brought these concepts to the forefront last week in his State of the City address. Six months in the making, his address was able to tie all of the challenges facing the region into a central theme: Creating a Grand Rapids that sustains future generations.

"We must meet our needs today in a sustainable way with an eye on the needs of future generations," he said. "We must leave them with a sustainable world, one that provides opportunities for economic prosperity, quality of life, enjoyment of the beauty and bounty of the natural world, and a government that works."

To do this, Heartwell said that policy must be judged by its merits toward social equity, environmental value and economic prosperity.

This triple-bottom line is something that Fred Keller knows well.

Keller founded Cascade Engineering in 1973 with the belief that a business could be profitable and socially and environmentally responsible.

Recent years have seen many of the region's manufacturers suffer, yet Cascade has seen double-digit growth. In its first Triple Bottom Line Report last year, it reported $157 million in sales.

Meanwhile, Cascade sponsors an employee home-ownership program, a welfare-to-work program, and twice has been recognized by Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids for its placement efforts. Next month, it will be honored with the Environmental Stewardship Award at the 2005 Global Plastics Environmental Conference.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality named Cascade a Clean Corporate Citizen, a competitive designation granting expedited DEQ permits. Waste reduction in processes and design efforts toward sustainability and the removal of absorbents from the waste stream are other eco-conscience efforts that created competitive advantages for the firm.

"There is this idea that if you are building social capital, you are taking away from economic capital," Keller said. "This is good for business, good for the economy, the ecology and the community. You can have all these things at the same time."

Keller expounded on these principles, using Cascade Engineering as a case study, at his alma mater, New York's CornellUniversity. He talked about the company's values — about Midwestern, West Michigan values. The college told him that wasn't what was taught there; the school taught things that maximize in three to five years and sell. Keller explained that wasn't his belief, and soon found himself teaching an accelerated course on his sustainable business philosophy.

"Two years ago, people would have thought sustainable business was some sort of liberal fantasy," he said. "These are values that we've always had; now we just have a new way to talk about them.

"Quite frankly, this is an opportunity for West Michigan to be a leader and become known nationally for its sustainable business activities."

Now, Keller is teaching a sustainable business class at AquinasCollege, home to the nation's only bachelor's degree in sustainable business. The degree is designed to integrate science, business and environmental studies through a curriculum balanced with input from businesses like Steelcase, Dow Chemical and General Motors.

Created with the support of the Van Andel Institute's Luis Tomatis, M.D., and college trustee emeritus Peter Wege, the program has far surpassed expected enrollment in its first two years. Program director Matt Tueth had hoped to have 15 majors by this fourth semester. There are 30, with nearly 50 students at the minor or continuing education level.

"We think we're fulfilling a demand here in West Michigan," Tueth said. "A misconception about sustainable business practices is that it is just another environmental program. Most businesses think it will increase production costs without a return in profits, but it's not and they're now interested.

"Profitability is No. 1."

Last May, the program sent the first of two delegations to Tokyo, accompanied by another Aquinas professor: Heartwell.

Because of Japan's fiercely proprietary business culture, sustainability pioneers like Toyota don't share successful practices. So a group of Japanese professionals and academics reached out to the only educational institution they could find teaching sustainable business.

And while Tueth and company were teaching seminars, the mayor was selling West Michigan as a prime location for innovative sustainable practices.

"We are a hotbed," Tueth said. "West Michigan is a core of sustainable business development nationwide and even internationally. We can be a technology producing center and an innovative business center that will distinguish us in this global market."

Professor Bruce Nanzer believes the world offers few better places to teach sustainability.

Herman Miller was recognized with the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) Green Building Leaders Recognition Award last month. Likewise, Steelcase has embraced sustainability, driven partly by Wege, a member of one of the Steelcase founding families and one of the area's foremost philanthropists.

Eleven percent of the nation's USGBC Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings are in West Michigan, and green building is firmly entrenched in the business models of firms like Bazzani & Associates and Progressive AE.

"We can take people and show them," Nanzer said. "If they want to see a LEED building, the (Bazzani & Associates' The East Hills) Center of the Universe is only a few blocks away."

The Japanese group already has formed an organization styled on the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. Created in 1994 as a partnership between the business community and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, the forum is the first and largest of its kind in the United States

"The fact that this exists shows that West Michigan is in a leadership position," said current forum President Mark LaCroix of Guilford of Maine.

Through its more than 80 member companies, the forum has helped drive the region's sustainability agenda. Executives from competitors like Steelcase and Herman Miller are seen sitting next to each other, collaborating.

The forum's larger members provide an energy manager for the smaller companies, identifying opportunities for energy cost savings.

Construction members have formed a partnership with the Inner City Christian Federation. They will break ground this year on My Healthy Green Home, a model for an affordable green-built multifamily home.

The region will have yet another demonstration opportunity with the completion of the LEED-readyMetropolitanHealthVillage in ByronCenter

Providing its energy needs is The Center for Sustainable Energy and Education. Created in partnership with Aquinas and Novi Energy Inc., the center includes a thermal and electric power plant as well as classroom and lab space.

This will likely be the first of many partnerships for Aquinas.

Next month, the school will announce that it has received funding for a center for sustainable business. Planned as a clearinghouse for sustainable business information, Nanzer expects that it will help to centralize the region's sustainability efforts.

"A lot of stuff is going on in this field in West Michigan," he said. "But it's very uncoordinated."

Tueth and Nanzer have been actively involved with administrators from GrandValleyStateUniversity and FerrisStateUniversity in Grand Rapids as they work to develop their own sustainability programs.

Tueth believes the community would benefit from cooperation.

"Instead of competing, we can cooperate and see if the pie is big enough for everyone."

GVSU's Muskegon Alternative and RenewableEnergyCenter offers significant collaboration opportunity. CalvinCollege's BunkerInterpretiveCenter and Ecosystem Preserve could be another possibility.

The greatest value might be in complementary concentrations not available at Aquinas, such as engineering and design.

FSU-GR academic dean Don Green is designing a sustainable business degree, and has been actively soliciting input from the business community for a new Sustainable Product Design and Manufacturing Bachelor of Science degree.

"We are responsible for changing the way the next generation thinks," Green said. "When you begin to change perceptions about environmental impact, you create new possibilities and a new vision for the future."

The proposed FSU program integrates the competencies of the school's industrial management, manufacturing and product design, plastics, digital animation and chemical engineering programs along with the design expertise of Kendall College of Art and Design.

Sustainable business, low-impact manufacturing, biomimicry, life-cycle analysis, environmental science, entrepreneurship and alternative energy all are concepts that Green would like the program to address, with a central emphasis on applied research and product design.

With that in mind, Green has worked to line up partnerships with local businesses.

"The trend of sustainable development will require we redesign almost every product in the market today," said Crystal Flash Energy President Tom Fehsenfeld. "West Michigan could become a center for sustainable product design."

Verbally committed to an FSU partnership, Crystal Flash is one of the Midwest's largest recyclers of used motor oil. Ten percent of its sales are from recycled or renewable products, and its Soy Diesel XC is the only biodiesel available in the local market.

A new federal program was launched this month to remove the price barriers of biodiesel fuels, and Fehsenfeld is preparing an aggressive marketing plan around that development.

Meanwhile, Crystal Flash is dedicated to finding new markets for waste products, developing a marine fuel for large freighters from used motor oil and a program to recycle industrial hydraulic oil that should launch this year.

Waste is something Buzz Lynds knows all about.

Lynds — of Allied Waste Industries, parent company to Sunset Waste — accompanied Green to the USGBC national conference last year. He hopes FSU can help find new uses for hard-to-recycle materials.

An ardent environmentalist, Lynds came to work for the natural enemy of sustainability four years ago as a construction sales representative. Although it didn't fit into the landfiller's corporate philosophy, Lynds' sales manager allowed him to become involved in environmental interests.

"I was overstepping my bounds quite a bit," Lynds said.

He developed a full-service waste stream management solution for LEED construction. Waste management counts for points toward LEED certification, and Lynds' program can manage that through predesign, construction, occupation, and the course of the five-year certification period. Last week, he was tapped for a new corporate position to propagate that program on a national level.

FSU is also working to strike a partnership in this program with GRCC.

In GRCC president Juan Olivarez' tenure, the GRCC campus has built rain gardens and undertaken energy audits, with plans to install a vegetative roof on the Applied Technology Center this spring.

GRCC, Aquinas and GVSU have partnered with the city and the Grand Rapids Public Schools on a new sustainability effort with $100,000 in support from Wege.

"We think this is a critical piece for our kids' understanding," said GRPS Superintendent Bert Bleke. "So many of our kids don't have an opportunity to get into the environment and understand and feel that it's important to sustain us."

There are currently four schools within the Small High School program. The next two will both have sustainability themes.

Based largely on Wege's 1998 book of the same title, The Economicology Institute will focus entirely on sustainability. The School of Residential Construction will teach some green building principles through partnerships with firms like Bazzani & Associates.    

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