A Sustainable Business Hub

January 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — The sustainable business movement set its roots in West Michigan nearly a decade before Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell devoted his 2005 State of the City address to the subject.

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 has become a central and resounding theme for West Michigan business, government and academia.

Since Herman Miller first brought the concept home in 1992, dozens of separate efforts representing all corners of the West Michigan economy have appeared — many of these the first or only such initiatives of their kind — transforming the region into a national hub of the sustainability movement.

Eleven percent of the nation’s United States Green Building Council 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. The latest update of the LEED standard was penned by local firm Catalyst Partners. The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association wrote its sustainability principles here. Ada is home to the Biomimicry Guild.

Created in 1994 as a partnership between the business community and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum is the oldest and largest organization of its kind in the country.

“The fact that this exists shows that West Michigan is in a leadership position,” said the forum’s immediate past president, Mark LaCroix, of Interface Fabrics.

Grand Rapids was a pilot site for initiatives by Allied Waste and the EPA’s Green Supplier Network, as well as My Healthy Green Home, a model for an affordable green-built multifamily home built in partnership with the Inner City Christian Federation.

“The trend of sustainable development will require we redesign almost every product in the market today,” said Tom Fehsenfeld, president of Crystal Flash Energy and local bio-diesel pioneer. “West Michigan could become a center for sustainable product design.”

Best of all, West Michigan is proving that policies judged by merits of social equity, environmental value and economic prosperity — the triple-bottom line — are also good business practices.

Take Cascade Engineering, for instance, one of the most public of a legion of local manufacturers that have adopted sustainable business practices. Recent years have seen many of the region’s manufacturers suffer, yet Cascade has seen double-digit growth. 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.

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.

“This is good for business, good for the economy, the ecology and the community. You can have all these things at the same time,” said Cascade Engineering founder and CEO Fred Keller said.

Keller teaches a sustainable business class at Aquinas College, 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.

“We are a hotbed,” said Program Director Matt Tueth. “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.”

Recently, the program sent two delegations to Tokyo, one accompanied by another Aquinas professor: Heartwell. While Tueth and company were teaching seminars, the mayor was selling West Michigan as a prime location for innovative sustainable practices.    

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