Inside Track, Retail, and Sustainability

Inside Track: Sustainability is her game

Alison Waske Sutter finds ‘perfect fit’ as manager of corporate responsibility for SpartanNash after originally pursuing law degree to work for EPA.

December 30, 2016
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Alison Waske Sutter
Alison Waske Sutter earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture, but her true calling is building sustainability frameworks for environmentally conscious companies. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Alison Waske Sutter graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, but she already knew she wanted to pursue a different career path.

“I’d done a co-op with environmental architect William McDonough, who is a world renowned architect. He did the green roof on the Ford Rouge plant, and he did the Herman Miller building,” Waske Sutter said.

“When I worked for William McDonough + Partners, they had me do an economic analysis of putting the green roof on the Ford Rouge plant. I had the opportunity to evaluate the financial reasons for doing environmental programs and got to promote the environmental benefits.

“McDonough helped me realize that as a business, you can operate more environmentally friendly and still be successful, and that is what I wanted to pursue.”

Waske Sutter said initially she wanted to join the Environmental Protection Agency, which led her to pursue a law degree.

She attended Indiana University, earning a joint degree, which included a master’s in public affairs and her law degree with a concentration in environmental law.

Next up, she joined Warner Norcross & Judd in Grand Rapids, putting her law degree to work for the next three years as part of the firm’s environmental practice.

She worked on a lot of remediation and air compliance projects during that time.

After three years, she knew she wanted to do more work in the area of sustainability than her practice allowed for, so she approached the firm’s managing partner with an idea.


Position: Manager of Corporate Responsibility
Age: 37
Birthplace: Detroit
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Husband, Bill; son, Shaw
Business/Community Involvement: West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum board president, member of Van Andel Institute J-board, member of the Food Marketing Institute’s Sustainability Executive Committee and member of Farmland Preservation for Kent County.
Biggest Career Break: Creating the position of sustainability manager while at Warner Norcross.


“I proposed creating a position at Warner focused on sustainability,” she said.

She became the firm’s first sustainability manager, working with clients on sustainability matters as well as launching sustainability initiatives within the firm.

“I helped develop a new legal practice that was focused on sustainability topics, such as LEED certification — any litigation issues that might come up with that — and helping businesses that were interested in sustainability programs that would have some associated legal issues. I helped the firm establish a program to address those clients’ needs.

“The other part of my role was to implement sustainable business practices for the firm. Warner had six offices at the time, and I rolled out a recycling program for all the offices, created the first sustainable business plan, established a sustainability policy and helped them do a greenhouse gas footprint (study).

She said that yearlong experience helped her realize her passion for implementing sustainability programs, and when an opportunity to join Metro Health presented itself, Waske Sutter took the leap.

She said despite never having been involved in health care previously and the steep learning curve ahead, she was excited to join an organization with an established and nationally recognized sustainability program.

Waske Sutter was tasked with producing the first sustainability report for Metro. She also expanded and managed the hospital’s on-site garden, which she grew to 2,500 square feet, and she worked with the executive chef to incorporate the garden’s bounty into cafeteria offerings.

A downsizing at the hospital left Waske Sutter without a job, but she quickly landed at Key Green Solutions in Grand Rapids, a company that was one of Metro’s vendors.

Key Green Solutions, which provides software for tracking energy, waste and water usage, asked Waske Sutter to start up a sustainability consulting practice for health care organizations.

Through the new practice, Waske Sutter worked with Metro, Belmont Health System, Johns Hopkins and Stanford, helping them manage their sustainability programs and compiling numerous applications for Practice Greenhealth’s Environmental Excellence Awards program.

“The application takes about 40-60 hours to complete, and I managed the applications for those four hospitals and they all won awards, which was very fulfilling for me.”

During her time at Key Green Solutions, she also developed a module to track food and beverage purchasing for hospital systems.

She said hospitals particularly were interested in finding out how much of their buying was local, how much meat was being purchased and how much of the purchases were going toward sugary beverages.

“I helped develop and design a module, so hospitals could track that information and report, for instance, that ‘11 percent of all the food we buy is local or we’ve reduced our meat consumption by 15 percent,’” she said. “I worked very closely with clients, and that is how I started to get involved in the food side of sustainability and enjoyed working on the food components.”

When SpartanNash came into existence following the merger of Spartan Stores and Nash Finch, the combined entity needed to integrate its sustainability practices across all of its facilities and operations, so it put out a call for a manager of corporate responsibility to take on the task.

Waske Sutter said the job description was a “perfect fit.”

“They brought me on, and really the first year, it was identifying the great programs that have been implemented across such a large company,” she said.

With nearly 16,000 employees and a national footprint, Waske Sutter looked at everything that was going on at the different locations and considered what could be rolled out company wide. The work involved establishing a framework for identifying those programs, as well as collecting data on program results.

“That culminated in the corporate responsibility report we published in November,” she said. “It does a nice job of (providing) a high level overview of the corporate responsibility, which includes environmental, social and financial performance.”

Waske Sutter also created a corporate responsibility advisory committee, which she said is a leadership committee that helps provide strategic input for the programs SpartanNash will focus on.

She noted one area many people might not consider when thinking about SpartanNash is its huge transportation fleet and the environmental impact of that fleet.

“After our merger, the predominant aspect of our business is transportation,” she said. “We have 17 different distribution centers, and we drive almost 50 million miles a year. We’re like the UPS of grocery products, constantly trucking products to over 2,000 independent grocery stores and other types of customers.”

Because of that, SpartanNash’s vice president of transportation sits on the corporate responsibility committee.

“He is really engaged and, through his team, is focused on implementing efficiency programs,” she said.

Waske Sutter said one of the most interesting areas of focus for her right now is in the area of food education.

“There is a lot of interest around genetic modification but not a lot of education,” she said.

She said when asked, most people will say they do not want to purchase genetically modified food, yet they don’t really know what “genetically modified” means.

“If you go to a grocery store, 70 percent of the items in the store have genetic modification, but people don’t understand that process,” she said. “There is a lot of opportunity there in terms of education and understanding.”

Besides her work at SpartanNash, Waske Sutter is the current president of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, a one-year term she began in June.

“Right now, we are in the process of finalizing a three-year strategic plan, which will guide future growth and focus for the organization,” she said.

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