Sustainability Conference Expects Sell-out

April 25, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum is anticipating its largest event to date next month during Michigan's 10th Annual Sustainable Business Conference and Expo, May 11-12.

With its theme, The Future of Commerce: Sustainable Solutions for Business, the two-day event will look to capitalize on the state's growing interest in green building and sustainable solutions. In addition to examining the new economy's triple-bottom line of financial, ecological and social stakeholders, companies will learn innovative supply chain processes and how to align the principles of business with ways to protect the environment.

Keynote speakers include preservationist and Wall Street banker Theodore Roosevelt IV, Cascade Engineering founder and CEO Fred Keller, Interface Inc. founder and Chairman Ray Anderson, and Green Business Network founder Joel Makower.

"I think I'll make the business case for sustainability," Anderson said from his Interface headquarters in Atlanta, Ga. "I'll frame that with a couple of trends — one, the demise of the biosphere, the major culprit of that being our industrial systems, and then the trend in the other direction, this rising sense of ethics that has extended into environmental ethics.

"At the nexus of those two trends is a business case for sustainability."

Ten years ago, Anderson began applying the concepts of sustainability to his multi-billion dollar company.

"We've been going up this path for 10 years; it's a very tall mountain," Anderson said. "The demand for green products is growing, the demand for responsible, commercial interiors is growing and the demand for green building is growing.

"We're finding a receptive market. Our customers put us on the path to begin with by asking what our company was doing for the environment. We didn't have answers, so we set out to find some answers or create some."

Anderson said he took the view early on that compliance was only the threshold.

"That's the floor," he said. "It's about going way beyond compliance and we're winning the goodwill of the marketplace in doing so; and we're reducing costs, not increasing costs, and our products are better than they have ever been."

With its focus on commercial furniture and the built environment, Anderson believes Grand Rapids is in a strong position to profit from the sustainable business movement and in particular the green building market spearheaded by the U.S. Green Building Council.

WMSBF President and Interface Fabrics Divisional Vice President Mark LaCroix believes the region's sustainable business opportunities aren't limited to green building.

"I really think that in West Michigan we've reached a critical mass," he said. "It's catching on — not because business people have become altruistic or environmentalists. What has happened is that their perceptions of sustainable business have improved."

The perception of sustainable business has always conjured up thoughts of regulations and added cost, LaCroix noted, but the companies leading the movement have used sustainability to drive costs out of their business. Lean manufacturing is a perfect example: Many of its core tenets overlap those of sustainable business.

LaCroix said the forum has built solutions-focused programming for the conference.

"We want people to walk out of the conference with practical ideas that they can apply to their business the next day," he said. "It isn't about encouraging people to make bad business decisions; it's about making good business decisions that just happen to be good for the community and the environment."

Cascade Engineering has pioneered the triple-bottom line in West Michigan. Keller teaches sustainable business at both CornellUniversity and AquinasCollege. When Mayor George Heartwell made sustainability the theme of his state of the city address this past winter, Keller was the emcee.

"There are some misperceptions about what sustainable business is about," Keller said. "People often associate sustainable with survivable and the idea that if you're doing sustainable business and building social capital, you are taking away from your economic capital.

"But this is not something way off on the left side of the political spectrum. It's just good business."

Roosevelt, great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, advocates protecting wild areas from development. He frequently lobbies the White House and testifies before Congress on behalf of environmental causes. He is a managing director of Lehman Brothers in New York City

He will speak about diminishing natural resources, cradle-to-cradle technology, China and the impact of emerging Third-World nations.

"We're expecting a sellout crowd for the conference," said Tom Leonard, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. "I'm hoping we can use a successful conference and the sellout crowd to help position the whole state of Michigan for economic progress in sustainable business, and environmental and social progress, as well."    

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