Economic Development and Sustainability

WM Sustainable Business Forum celebrates 20 years

Initially, businesses and environmentalists often felt pitted against one another.

September 12, 2014
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The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum has come a long way since its founding in 1994, when the idea of businesses and environmental organizations collaborating was mostly unheard of.

While 10 companies signed on as founding members of WMSBF, there were plenty of others that were resistant to joining an environmentally focused organization.

David Rinard, director of global environmental performance at Steelcase Inc. and member of the WMSBF board of directors, said the Grand Rapids community was more open than some other communities at that time, but the organization still had its challenges recruiting businesses and environmental groups. Steelcase joined WMSBF in its second year.

“There were some in the business world and the environmental world that believed the two disciplines were at cross purposes,” Rinard explained. “The environmental community saw engaging with businesses as letting the fox in the hen house, and in the business community … (there were) some who saw engaging with environmentalists as a risky proposition.”

Back in the early 1990s, businesses and environmental organizations felt pitted against one another in the battle over growing environmental regulations.

“Businesses, for the most part, were resistant to the host of environmental laws that had been passed in the 1970s and 1980s,” Bill Stough, president and CEO of Sustainable Research Group, explained.

Stough was a West Michigan Environmental Action Council board member at that time and had been working in the field of environmental restoration since 1982. He had earned one of the first degrees available in the area of environmental sustainability a few years earlier.

“William James College at Grand Valley State University offered a degree in environmental planning,” he said. “I was one of the first people to come out of college with a degree that focused on environmental restoration. The college was kind of experimental.

“There weren’t any jobs when I first graduated. They sold me on the idea that they were preparing students for jobs that would be available in the future, and they were pretty close to the mark.”

Though he had a passion for sustainability, Stough said it was learning about the United Nations’ Earth Summit conference in 1992 that led to his efforts to found WMSBF.

“I ran into a statement of goals put together by the International Chamber of Commerce,” he said. “It was so radically different from what I had been used to seeing from the Chambers of Commerce in the United States, which were leading the fight against environmental regulations.

“It listed about 25 things businesses could do to improve performance, increase profit and reduce their impact on the environment.”

At the same time, Stough became aware of some international and national level environmental organizations that were developing corporate partnerships aimed at advancing environmental issues, and he wondered if something similar could be done on the local level.

“I presented the idea to the WMEAC board of directors to establish a subsidiary program between the environmental community and business community and foster sustainable principles,” Stough said.

Through WMEAC, the WMSBF was founded. WMSBF left WMEAC in 2009, becoming a stand-alone nonprofit.

The first 10 companies to join WMSBF were Aqua-Tech Consultants, Crystal Flash, Environmental Resources Management Inc., Donnelly Corp., Earth Tech. Inc., Herman Miller Inc., Lorin Industries, Perrigo Co., Varnum, and West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

Stough said the goal of the organization was to find the areas where business and environmental organizations could agree, and focus on those issues, essentially bridging the gap that had existed between the two previously.

“The idea was, let’s not fight about what we don’t agree on, but let’s work on the things we do agree on,” he said. “The Business Forum, I think for the first time, said let’s look at proactive things — what can we start doing today that will prevent those bad things from happening tomorrow?”

“It’s been a place where you can learn from a business or environmental perspective,” Rinard said. “You grow your understanding and begin to develop appreciation for what it’s like to walk in the other guy’s shoes, and when you do that, you focus on solving problems rather than throwing rocks at each other.”

WMSBF focused on education, decided to stay politically neutral and emphasized the link between profitability and sustainability, decisions that likely led to its success.

Stough said WMSBF also brought in thought leaders from across the country to share sustainability successes, which drove innovation locally.

“It agitated a lot of leaders in the community who are now in positions of authority that are guiding their companies and organizations,” he said.

He gave an example of a visit in 2002 from Janine Benyus, who talked about bio-mimicry as a way to achieve sustainability.

“Back in those days, we used very toxic adhesives and glues, and they were made out of solvents and they off-gassed some very cancerous materials,” Stough said.

“Janine Benyus said, ‘I’ve been studying biology and I know albacore and mussels stick to the bottom of ships and rocks, and they make that adhesive without any chemicals other than saltwater and oxygen. How can we mimic what nature is doing in a more nontoxic manner and achieve the same goal?’ It started that lifecycle thinking.”

In addition to bringing in the best and brightest thinkers and innovators in sustainability, WMSBF also created a sustainability assessment tool for companies.

“One of the very first successes the forum had was when we developed a groundbreaking self-assessment guide, which was a tool organizations could use to develop an understanding of what sustainability means and where were they on the spectrum,” Rinard said.

“Since that time, there has been more work done to enhance the usefulness and effectiveness of that tool.”

The corporate mindset around sustainability has changed dramatically in the past two decades, and WMSBF has increased to more than 100 corporate members alongside the growing idea of the triple bottom line.

“Most of the major international companies located in West Michigan have design for environment programs now,” Stough said. “At the beginning of the design process, (they) integrate how it can be made with the least amount of materials, energy and toxic materials to provide the services their customers want. That wasn’t there 20 years ago.”

Rinard and Stough said WMSBF continues to serve a need in West Michigan. Rinard pointed to the growing area of social responsibility as part of the conversation today, and Stough pointed to continued environmental challenges.

Stough said as resources become scarce and population grows, companies are grappling with how to source materials and services locally and how to provide them with the least amount of impact to the environment.

“We have to be more innovative,” Stough said. “The people involved in the forum right now are the people thinking about those potential solutions. You are going to see some break-through products and services come out of people who are involved in the WMSBF — that is my prediction.”

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