GRAND RAPIDS — Himself a member of West Michigan's most distinguished industry, Herman Miller Inc. CEO Brian Walker made the observation that all of the nation's industries have formed in clusters.
The automobile industry is in Detroit, high technology is on the West Coast, the financial markets are globally centered in New York, and West Michigan has the commercial furniture industry.
"What happens is that they surround themselves with suppliers, and companies locate there because of that," Walker said. "If we get all these companies around us, it will attract more people to come to the area to use that supply base."
Between office furniture and tool and die, West Michigan already has at least a pair of manufacturing clusters. One is in the midst of a recovery, the other hoping for one. Seated on a panel during last week's 10th Annual Sustainable Business Conference & Expo, Walker suggested that the growth of a new cluster is already well underway in West Michigan — sustainable manufacturing and product design.
Joining Walker in the discussion, "Building 21st Century Commerce — Progress, Partnerships, Programs Focusing on the Triple Bottom Line," was Steelcase Inc. CEO Jim Hackett, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, and The Right Place Inc. President Birgit Klohs.
"We're in a process right now of looking at a number of new manufacturing opportunities in Grand Rapids," Heartwell said. "We've got manufacturers having these conversations, imagining a center for sustainable manufacturing."
While overshadowed by larger and trendier efforts across the nation, Grand Rapids has quietly created a reputation for business practices that take into equal account economic, environmental and social consequences.
The city was left off The Green Guide's list of America's Top 10 Greenest Cities, but per capita, the region has the largest percentage of LEED-rated buildings — and unlike other regions, both the public and private sectors are involved. Companies such as Herman Miller, Steelcase and Cascade Engineering are nationally regarded leaders of the movement. Other notables such as Interface Inc. have divisions here.
AquinasCollege is home to the first undergraduate program on the subject, with similar initiatives happening at CalvinCollege, Grand RapidsCommunity College, GrandValleyStateUniversity and FerrisStateUniversity
Klohs, who was first exposed to sustainable design in Europe decades ago, said she attended a conference on sustainable design at Kendall College of Art and Design the previous week. She believes that these resources and others such as the Van Andel Institute have poised the community to present itself as a sustainable manufacturing center with a special focus on design and innovation.
"It should be deeply embedded that if you are interested in this and you need this type of design, this area is known for that and the suppliers are based here," Walker said. "So if you want that, you're going to locate here."
Klohs noted one problem with that: Of the region's more than 2,400 manufacturing companies, 80 percent have fewer than 50 employees. Without the resources of a Herman Miller or Steelcase, these companies often are ill suited to adapt these concepts.
"If we can get people on board with this, we can become the center in the United States for this kind of manufacturing," she said. "In and of itself, the more successful business is, the more sustainable the community is. Only successful companies can donate money or employees to social issues."
The Right Place has a number of programs aimed at getting companies excited about the concept, including the sustainability user group and the EPA's Green Supplier Network.
Walker and Hackett believe that companies must take further steps.
"There needs to be a trading back and forth of information," Walker said. "We (Steelcase and Herman Miller) partner in sustainability. If both of our companies gain, it's a gain for all of us. You don't want to be the last one standing in a toxic sea."
Steelcase and Herman Miller recently partnered to develop a new fabric chemical protocol, Walker said.
He added that it was equally important to share this information with suppliers.
"As far as design, there is a huge potential for the future of commerce," said Hackett, only a month removed from the announcement that Steelcase was closing its remaining Grand Rapids and Kentwood plants. "What we're seeing is that traditional systems of manufacturing aren't the most efficient. They haven't been for a while.
"But it doesn't mean that all of our jobs need to be lost to other places. It means we need to strive to get better."
"If all we do is move from here to there and adopt the old ways, we gain nothing," Walker added.