A great article on our forward-looking West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum:
“Once companies harvest all of the proverbial low-hanging fruit in the pursuit of sustainability, they’re faced with tackling far more challenging and complex issues within their operations.
That dynamic is no different for the region’s preeminent sustainable business organization, which has changed and evolved to meet the needs of its members. Formed in the early 1990s, the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum acted as a sounding board for early adopters in West Michigan. In the years since, it has turned to offering programming that helped members shave costs and increase revenues during tumultuous times. Amid the economic recovery, the group pivoted once again to tackle global issues such as climate change and waste reduction on a local level for West Michigan employers.
Now the organization is faced with another challenge. As members continue to advance their sustainability initiatives, the Sustainable Business Forum must provide increasingly technical and sophisticated programs to provide value, while also finding ways to appeal to smaller, less savvy companies to grow its membership base.
“I think our primary value of networking and education is still valuable despite the growth of the practice,” said Dan Schoonmaker, the director of the WMSBF. “It’s challenged us to deliver a more advanced product and keep things fresh and interesting.”
Although the organization’s membership has grown from roughly 90 members in 2013 to about 150 businesses today, Schoonmaker notes that the technical concepts discussed by its members can scare other companies away.
“I think we may struggle a little bit in accessing that original audience we had 20 years ago, which was the novice sustainability people,” Schoonmaker said. “Some of the things we might talk about might be too advanced. If you’re an organization that’s relatively new to the process or an organization like a coffee shop, you may have a harder time finding a lot of what we do relevant.”
The organization is in the process of developing programs such as a simplified waste audit to court those smaller businesses, he added.
To bolster membership further, the Sustainable Business Forum is on the cusp of adding another 80 members as it works through a tentative merger with Michigan’s Great Southwest Sustainable Business Forum, a similar organization in St. Joseph. The merger would allow the organization to spread administrative costs over a larger pool and “participate in a higher weight class” as it seeks to attract larger-scale projects beyond West Michigan, Schoonmaker said.
“We aren’t the most visible sustainability group in West Michigan and certainly aren’t the largest staffed or funded, but we definitely have the largest audience and the most consistent audience,” he said.
For its more advanced members, the organization has embarked on several legacy initiatives, including a climate change resiliency project aimed at preparing businesses for the impacts of a warming planet and a multi-faceted approach to waste reduction.
“Our model has always been built around education, collaboration and resource development,” Schoonmaker said. “I think moving forward over the next three years, we’re looking to realize that and invest more and create resources that fill gaps in the market.”
The Sustainable Business Forum’s climate resiliency program aims to create a “toolkit” of programs that help businesses examine their exposure and vulnerabilities to climate change, such as how many extreme heat days — defined as days when the temperature climbs over 90 degrees Fahrenheit — will impact a company in a given year.
“We have a vision to be the place people look at in the region when they want to have an understanding and appreciation of climate change, in a non-political sense,” Schoonmaker said. “I think we’re well positioned for that.”
The Sustainable Business Forum also is working on a multi-part initiative to reduce the waste that companies send to landfills. In conjunction with Kent County, the organization launched the Imagine Trash campaign, which challenges companies to reduce the waste they send to landfills by 90 percent by 2030. That initiative is part of a larger waste-reduction strategy to encourage companies to design products with the total lifecycle in mind, a concept commonly referred to as the circular economy.
“We’re not expecting, in the near term, that all our members are going to go zero waste,” Schoonmaker said. “But we think as an overall objective, we want to move people in that direction and establish more of circular economy approach.”
The West Michigan Sustainability Forum got its start as an offshoot of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC).
Bill Stough, the president of the Grand Rapids-based Sustainable Research Group LLC, at the time served on the board of directors for WMEAC and piloted development of the forum.
An early champion of sustainability in West Michigan, Stough was inspired by the role of European businesses in the first Global Earth Summit convened in Rio De Janeiro in 1992. As such, he lobbied WMEAC to form a subsidiary partnering with businesses on sustainability issues.
However, the 1990s were a turbulent time marked by an adversarial relationship between businesses and environmental groups.
“At that time, the environmental community and business community were on the opposite sides of the spectrum and were like enemies,” Stough said.
Despite the trouble between the groups, businesses in West Michigan saw through the vitriol and identified economical and practical benefits of the burgeoning sustainability movement, he said.
The forum officially launched in 1994 with 12 charter members, including the likes of Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc. and Grand Rapids-based Crystal Flash Inc.
In its early days, the members focused collectively on addressing environmental impacts from their businesses. It developed into a larger networking group, reaching approximately 60 members over its first decade, Schoonmaker said.
As the Sustainable Business Forum gained steam, the organization garnered the attention of other communities in Michigan and throughout the country. Stough was tapped by cities including Detroit, Bay City, Lansing, South Bend, Ind. and Mobile, Ala. to form similar business-focused sustainability organizations.
“At one point, I was feeling like Johnny Appleseed,” Stough said. “(The forum) was always looked at as the mothership. It had been in business eight years before anyone else considered doing it. … West Michigan developed a lot of expertise early and it coincided with the green building movement. Those two things came together at the perfect time and really pushed West Michigan ahead of other communities.”
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
When the Sustainable Business Forum formed a separate nonprofit and spun off from parent organization WMEAC, the leadership wanted to focus more on providing networking opportunities and collaborating on best practices for businesses pursuing sustainability.
But the move came with some growing pains, notably a large project with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that produced mixed results, related to a lack of manpower at the organization and its over-reliance on volunteers.
That led the organization to restructure and hire a small staff in 2013, tapping Schoonmaker, a former journalist who was working in communications at WMEAC, as its full-time director.
At the same time, sustainability received a shot in the arm as numerous corporations embraced the movement. In 2011, fewer than 20 percent of the companies listed in the S&P 500 submitted sustainability reports, according to a study from New York-based Governance & Accountability Institute Inc. By 2015, that figure had jumped to 81 percent — where it has remained, according to the study.
With the national discussion around sustainability ramping up, Schoonmaker bootstrapped the nonprofit group, operating it as a startup company. That startup mentality has translated to growth for the forum, which has increased its revenues each year under Schoonmaker.
The forum currently operates with an annual budget of $160,000, almost triple from 2013 when Schoonmaker assumed the role of director and shifted how the organization functioned.
Instead of working on various committee projects, Schoonmaker and the forum’s board members decided to throw the collective weight of the organization into a handful of key sustainability issues.
“It worked pretty well,” he said. “We were able to put a little effort into opportunities and have it spring out some larger projects.”
Those larger projects included setting the groundwork for its current climate resilience initiative, which the organization plans to push forward in the coming years.
“We have a mandate to normalize and operationalize West Michigan’s response to climate change,” Schoonmaker said.
Looking forward, the Sustainable Business Forum aims to remain nimble and adapt to changes in the sustainability movement to provide its members with the most value. In addition to its legacy projects in waste reduction and climate resilience, the forum also expects to offer new programs in the coming years.
For one, the group plans to incorporate further discussions on social responsibility with its members after focusing largely on the operational and technical side of sustainability, said Alison Waske Sutter, the current board president and manager of corporate responsibility at SpartanNash Co.
“We’ve had a lot of members who have been very involved for a long time, but sustainability hits on a lot of different programs,” Waske Sutter said. “We’d like to bring in social elements and invite diversity managers and other employees.”
The forum is also in talks with the Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds, a program of the Grand Valley Metro Council, to partner on a professional education program promoting green infrastructure and low-impact development in the region, Schoonmaker said.
Most of the forum’s new programs will come online in the second quarter of 2017.
However, that path forward is not without its challenges, particularly as the country transitions to a presidential administration that has an adversarial relationship with climate change science and looks skeptically on environmental concerns, according to sources interviewed for this report.
Despite the uncertainty the future may hold, stakeholders in the forum say West Michigan’s sustainability movement will continue to move ahead regardless of shifting politics, which is a testament to how ingrained the concept is for local businesses and consumers.
“Many people in the early days thought that this was just the next fad, a flash in the pan, but it’s definitely something that is rooted in stewardship, conservation and reality. It’s here to stay,” Stough said. “To me, it’s still sustainability and it’s making conditions on earth livable. Anything that falters from that direction has to be questioned.”