Assessing Eco Impact In Advance

February 18, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — It's the next best thing to hiring a scientific laboratory.

It's also a lot less expensive.

The Environmental Impact Matrix (EIM) from the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF) gives local manufacturers the chance to determine how friendly a new or revised product or package would be to the environment before it's designed.

It also allows firms to compare different materials for the same product, decide how much energy it would use to produce something, and how re-useable or recyclable a finished product would be.

EIM can also be used to evaluate sub-assemblies and sub-processes. And the matrix is free of any charge.

EIM is a ready-made scoring system that the WMSBF Product Design Workshop has put together. It lets companies measure a product's impact over 14 components across four categories:

  • Environment and ecosystem
  • Health and welfare
  • Amount of energy required
  • Building operations

All a company does is assign a value ranging from zero to five — zero being the most environmentally friendly — for each of the components within a category, and then total the numbers across the four categories for a final score.

Like golf, the lower the score the better — the better the product is for the environment and, most likely, for the company's bottom line.

EIM surfaced about five years ago, evolving from the assessment guide the forum created in 1997.

"We've had a good response to our publications. We've handed out a lot of them and, of course, the members have made good use of them," said Tom Leonard, a WMSBF officer and executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC).

The sustainable business forum is a WMEAC program.

"It was essentially developed by people who are among the leading manufacturers in the region, who are also members of the forum," he added.

"They created it as a practical tool for businesses approaching the sustainability aspect from the direction of design. I think design has always been one of the strong features and concerns of the forum and one of the strengths we have regionally."

Thomas Newhouse, owner of Thomas J. Newhouse Design LLC, chaired the committee that designed the matrix. Newhouse currently serves as WMSBF vice president and will step into the president's post in June when Mark LaCroix's term ends.

"Any company that has an internal technical staff should be able to figure (EIM) out because it really is an internal document of measuring one's own company's strengths and weaknesses in the environmental sense," he said.

"It's not an absolute set of numbers that we would compare to another company's numbers. It is internal," Newhouse added.

"It needs to be done by the company and shouldn't be shared outside of the company. There has to be some knowledgeable people in the sense of environmental impact materials in a company in order to do it confidently, like maybe an environmental manager," he added.

The matrix offers an example of two stacking chairs.

One design uses a higher content of recyclable steel than the other and finishes with a lower score, meaning it will have less of an impact on the environment. There are five steps to the evaluation process and the matrix is available at www.wmsbf.org.

"We tried to simplify it enough so a company would do it, rather than not do it because they couldn't afford an LCA — the jargon for lifecycle analysis — which scientific laboratories can do," said Newhouse.

"But that would take tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours. We developed this tool so that people could compare how they're doing with this package and how they're doing with the next package."

Next up for WMSBF is to join with its counterparts in Southeast and Central Michigan to host the tenth annual Sustainable Business Conference and Expo, taking place on May 11 and 12 at Grand Rapids Community College

Leonard said most of the speakers have been lined up and the breakout sessions were being put together for the two-day event.

"For the first five of them, we were lucky if we got 50 or 75 people to each one," he said.

"But this time I'm very confident that we're going to fill the capacity, which is probably going to be around 400 to 450 people," he said.

If the conference does reach its attendance capacity, the May event would mark a nine-fold increase in attendees over the first few held.

Hitting that mark would be good news for Leonard, who sees the region as a "fertile crescent" of sustainable business, because firms are interested in the triple-bottom-line concept.

"We're also adjacent to Chicago, which is very interested in sustainability," he said.

"We have great leadership in building design and in LEED-certified building. I just heard this morning that we have more LEED-certified buildings per capita than any place in the world," he said.

"I think we have an opportunity here to do sustainable business and to attract sustainable business. We should build upon this because to do that in the long run will help us economically and environmentally, and that is what we really want to accomplish."    

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