Economic Development, Nonprofits, and Sustainability

Local First organizes Sustainable Business Conference

March 25, 2013
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Local First's offices are located in Grand Rapids' East Hills neighborhood. Photo via Facebook

Local First will host its fifth annual Sustainable Business Conference on Wednesday at Aquinas College.

The half-day conference will feature a Local First member business expo, speakers, expert panels and breakout sessions, and a reception following conference events.

“It’s a coming together of many people to share best practices,” said Doris Drain, Local First board member, conference session facilitator and vice president of commercial loans for United Bank of Michigan. “What we hope for the attendees is that they will learn ways that they can implement these sustainability practices into their businesses.”

Sustainability encompasses the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. This year’s conference will look at all three pillars, with workshop sessions focused specifically on succession planning, engaging employees in sustainability, creating and sharing a vision, and alternative sources of capital.

Drain said that alternative capital sources are a particularly hot topic right now.

“It can be difficult for them to find bank loans, especially for startups,” Drain said. “We’ve got four panelists that are going to talk about either what they’ve done … different ways you can approach finding capital.”

Another hot topic right now in sustainability is beneficial corporations and B Corp certification. A dozen states have legislation in place allowing for the creation of B Corps, and there are several hundreds of B Corps or B Corp-certified companies across the United States, including Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, Method and Etsy, to name just a few.

Keynote speaker Steve Cochran, vice president at Vermont-based King Arthur Flour, will discuss the benefits of becoming B Corp certified.

“They approached us because we are a founding B Corp, which is a tool to measure businesses on more than financial metrics, so it includes triple bottom line metrics,” Cochran said. “My focus for the talk is going to be on how we use that and why we do it.”

King Arthur Flour knows a thing or two about being a sustainable company. It has been around for more than 220 years.

“The company went through some changes,” Cochran said. “It started in Boston in 1790 by importing flour from England. The U.S. was not really producing high quality wheat at all at that point … there were a number of shifts throughout the company’s history of what their business was.”

The company shifted from importing flour to purchasing it from within the United States. It also made the decision not to adopt the bleached flour process, despite the fact that bleached flour outsells non-bleached flour by a substantial amount. But it also cuts down on product quality. Throughout its history the company has expanded and compressed as needed to fit its long-term strategy. It also moved from Massachusetts to Vermont.

King Arthur also transitioned from a fifth generation family owned business to operating as an employee stock ownership plan, with employees owning 100 percent of the company.

“King Arthur contributes stock to each employee every year, but they don’t have to pay for it,” Cochran said. “It’s an additional financial benefit, but a long-term benefit, so it’s considered a retirement benefit. That is a very basic, simple way to understand it.

“We see that as a very sustainable model, first long term … but it also means the benefits from our company are being shared with our employees, which is our first community. Our next community is the town in the area where we work. By keeping the benefits of any success in business as a part of that community we think that makes us more sustainable.”

Cochran said King Arthur’s experience as both a B Corp and ESOP has been very positive toward reaching its sustainability goals, and he plans to share some of those success stories during his address.

In addition to Cochran, speakers representing Brewery Vivant and Founder’s Brewing Co. also will discuss their best practices.

Local First expects more than 200 individuals to attend this year’s conference.

“We’ve seen a lot more businesses take these practices, implement them into their company and been successful at it,” Drain said.

The conference takes place from noon-5 p.m. with a reception following. Ticket and additional conference information is available at localfirst.com.

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