Nonprofits and Sustainability

Panelists forecast future of sustainable business

WMSBF Future Hall of Fame inductees predict how next generation will shape the planet.

September 20, 2019
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From left, Matthew VanSweden, Sarah Chartier, Eric Saigeon and Brock Rodgers, were part of a panel hosted by the WMSBF. Courtesy West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum

Experts in sustainability recently convened at a forum to explore the key issues and opportunities that will arise in the world as the next generation comes of age.

The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum hosted a lunch panel called “The Future of Sustainable Business — the Next 25 Years” on Sept. 16 at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids.

Four recent West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum Future Hall of Fame honorees were featured speakers — Matthew VanSweden, integrative designer, Grand Rapids-based Catalyst Partners; Sarah Chartier, senior sustainability project manager, Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health; Eric Saigeon, senior global sustainability and energy manager, Intertek in Kentwood; and Brock Rodgers, director of sustainability, Zeeland-based Foresight Management.

“By several measures, the next 25 years will provide an enormous opportunity for sustainable business to help develop a better community and planet for future generations, especially in terms of climate change, the development of a circular economy and advancement of an equitable economy,” WMSBF said in advance of the event.

Sara Meyer, WMSBF board president and senior consultant with the Holland office of Environmental Resources Management, introduced the guest speakers and mentioned that as this season of lunch forums kicks off, WMSBF is celebrating its 25th anniversary as an organization.

“We’re looking at the next 25 years of sustainability. At the Triple Bottom Line Bash (on Oct. 16), we’ll be looking at the past 25 years. This event is a look forward, which means we’re putting a lot of pressure on our future Hall of Famers. Could you have predicted 25 years ago what it would look like today? We’re going to ask them to take a shot at it for when the forum is 50, what will things be like in 25 years?”

The panelists answered a few prepared questions, including “How do we see sustainability evolving over the next quarter-century?” and “What do you expect from the next generation?”

Sustainability evolution

Rodgers — whose job at Foresight focuses on reducing environmental impacts and costs for the company’s clients, from product design to facility operations — said he would like to see humans increase their focus on managing our common spaces well in the next 25 years.

Referencing an 1833 essay by British economist William Forster Lloyd that developed the idea of “the tragedy of the commons,” Rodgers said humans are too apt to take advantage of the planet for their own personal gain without regarding the long-term interests of the human race. He cited micro-pollution in oceans from plastics, chemical discharge into soil and groundwater, carbon emissions and even space pollution as examples of self-interested actions that will need to change in order to protect the Earth.

“I don’t want to see our future generation going to war for clean drinking water because that’s possible,” he said.

“I’ve heard of people who don’t have access to clean drinking water say, ‘Have you ever been worried about the Great Lakes and people coming and stealing your water?’ for those reasons. Taking care of our common spaces and treating those things with respect is important.”

Saigeon — whose job it is to report U.S. and Canadian greenhouse gas emissions to Intertek’s London headquarters for disclosure — said he sees “bad news on the horizon” for the next generation.

He said the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) is pushing companies to do worst-case scenario planning for how their business will be affected by climate change — such as how rising sea levels will affect real estate portfolios — but he said that’s not enough.

“While, personally, I think that that’s a really valuable thing to do, my gut instinct is to tie that back more locally and understand what we can do in local businesses, because ultimately, I think that a lot of what we’re doing now is not going to carry into the future,” he said.

“I’ve studied energy quite a bit. I don’t see business as usual continuing for 25 or 50 years in the future. … The energy landscape is going to change, and we’re going to try everything we can for a technological fix. I don’t believe it’s going to work.”

Chartier — who helps Spectrum identify environmental and financial opportunities, reduce waste and mitigate its environmental footprint — agreed with Saigeon’s assessment to the extent that Spectrum already has seen negative impacts from climate change, including resource scarcity.

“Our organization already has had business impacts from some extreme weather events. We, like every other health care organization, didn’t have access to IV solutions, which are used on most of our patients because of the impact of a hurricane last year,” she said. “So, that has made us reflect on where our products are coming from in the global economy.”

She said she is curious about “when the robots are going to take over” and how automation will impact the social order — and she sees opportunities in the next quarter-century for “dismantling existing historical energy systems” while building new ones “that are more inclusive to all groups.”

VanSweden said he sees the need in the next 25 years — even in the next cycle — for a political movement that demands a better approach to caring for the planet from leaders.

Additionally, he said he hopes the sustainability movement shifts from minimizing businesses’ negative impacts to focusing on “cultivating resilience solutions.”

“Resiliency is at base our ability to respond to change. As all the panelists have said, change is imminent. Change is happening, and it’s happening faster than we predicted. The more we can bake resiliency into our solutions, the better our whole region will be set up to respond to the changes that are coming. That’s not done by accident; that’s done by thoughtful intention.”

VanSweden noted the sustainability conversation today largely focuses on objects rather than systems.

“The projects we’re working on are all artifacts of larger systems — buildings, lightbulbs, our waste receptacles — and we need to focus more attention on the systems that produce the artifacts and getting those systems to be regenerative … (rather than) us having to push rocks up hills all the time to prevent the catastrophic effects of the current status quo,” he said. 

Expectations for the next generation

VanSweden said he expects the next generation to act with “resolve, tenacity and justice” when it comes to sustainability.

“We need to be resolved around what we need to accomplish. We need the tenacity to actually get together and do it, and we need to do it in the most just and humane way possible,” he said.

Chartier said she looks at Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, as a model for how she hopes the next generation will act.

“I know in my time as a college student, when I was getting my undergrad, how much of an advocate I was, and I see the younger generations doing even more of that because they recognize the urgency in a way that many of us don’t,” she said.

“They’re also much more diverse and have a variety of perspectives to offer us that maybe we in our current system don’t fully understand.”

She noted countries such as India, which is by and large vegetarian, and other up-and-coming economic powerhouses have a lot to teach the U.S., which is behind on the world stage when it comes to climate action.

Saigeon said he expects the next generation will be very resilient and ready to take on the challenges they inherit, but he also expects to see turmoil and a lot of mental health challenges caused by the stress of coping with our ecological threats.

“Things are moving really, really fast and I really, really don’t think we should be going in some of the directions we are. A lot of things that are playing out right now I think are a direct result of the past 25 years (of decisions),” he said.

Rodgers said his son was born on Earth Day 2019, and he thought to himself that day, “He’s going to have some chores to do. We’re a little behind. He’s going to have to pick up some trash that doesn’t belong to him.”

On the prevention side, Rodgers said his hope for the next generation is they will learn to appreciate the simpler things in life instead of striving for affluence and the wastefulness that comes with having a large disposable income.

“We have a disposable society and disposable income, and it’s pretty wasteful. I hope they can just take a step back and try to live within their means or below their means and just take appreciation for the simpler things,” he said.

He added he hopes the emerging generation will get out in nature, travel, try to understand other cultures and gain a sense of connectedness to the human race and how we all affect each other.

“These things are all really important, and we tend to forget them,” Rodgers said. “I hope that the next generation really can value those things because it’s really going to make a difference.”

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