Where is Sustainability Headed in the Future?

With all of the recent changes on the national political scene, many business and organization leaders have raised the question of where sustainability is headed in the future. There are expressed concerns about the continuing support for ongoing programs and initiatives, especially those around environmental sustainability. Some of those issue areas include protection of our natural environment and the watersheds here in West Michigan, as well as the ongoing work in climate impact, preparedness, and resiliency. To begin, there are no quick and easy answers! However, I do believe that a positive picture can be painted based on the approaches being taken here in West Michigan.

  • First, there is a shift going on in the marketplace from one of a compliance, policy, and regulation mindset to one of innovation and creativity based on the application of applied sustainability best practices. Take for example the journey of chemicals and the environment. From 1950 until now there have been over a dozen major key environmental policy legislation acts that include the control of water pollution, clean air, solid waste, safe drinking water, resource conservation, toxic substances, energy policy, and chemical safety, as well as other areas. These policies and regulations have led to a major focus on “chemicals of concern” and what materials not to use in the environment. However, in 1998 the 12 principles of green chemistry were developed, followed by the 12 principles of green engineering. Today, the US EPA is further developing these principles and guidelines in their work, as well as pursuing the platform of sustainable chemistry that now opens up an era of creativity and innovation. Major industries and businesses in the automotive, healthcare, furniture, and food processing sectors are now beginning to use green chemistry and green engineering in their product development efforts. More information on green chemistry can be found at epa.gov and www.acs.org.
  • Secondly, there is the concern for federal budgeting and support of future sustainability initiatives, even though there are many ongoing sustainable development programs that have been supported by the federal government to date. This concern may be a blessing in disguise, as now the opportunity shifts to the business community to take the lead in the future development of specific applied sustainability best practices. For example, the private sector has certainly taken the lead in the design, engineering, and construction of Leading Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) building projects here in West Michigan across the private, public, and academic sectors. For example, Grand Valley State University alone has 24 LEED certified building projects on its campus locations. Greater Grand Rapids has received ten various world first rated LEED building projects, as well as the highest rated building project in the world – Catalyst Partners. LEED building projects have proven energy and water cost savings, as well as documented benefits on reduced environmental impact. The West Michigan chapter of the US Green Building Council (usgbcwm.org) is one of the most active chapters in the United States. Future projects in West Michigan will now take us into new areas of sustainable development, such as with sustainable neighborhoods and communities.
  • Third, today the emergence of new proven green, sustainable, and clean technologies are evidenced in many new products that serve a growing demand for both industrial and retail customers. Many times these new breakthrough products are disruptive and “game changers” that offer significant competitive advantage. Just look at the business of “lighting.” For decades, we all used incandescent light bulbs as our primary lighting source for homes. Then came the compact fluorescent light bulb, or CFL. However, looming on the horizon was light emitting diode, or LED technology. LED technology has become pervasive as the lighting technology of choice for both indoor and outdoor lighting applications, as well as accessory products such as flashlights. LED lights use 2/3 less energy and last 10 times longer. LED lighting prices have continued to drop and become more cost performance competitive, as more uses and products have reached the marketplace. The opportunity to raise the bar, introduce new breakthrough products, and gain competitive advantage now rests with the business sector with the development and use of these new clean technologies. The utilities, Consumers Energy (consumersenergy.com) and DTE Energy (www.dte.com), as well as the City of Grand Rapids (www.grcity.us) are helping lead the way with applications for new connected lighting technologies.
  • Fourth, and of critical importance today is that many businesses and enterprises do not have to go it alone in developing knowledge and expertise in the specific areas of interest. These organizations can enter into cross-sector partnerships across the private, public, and academic sectors to gain this expertise, while also outwardly showing unity and inclusion for their work. Of significance is the Grand Rapids Community Sustainability Partnership [CSP] (grpartners.org) that now has over 270 endorsing stakeholder organizations as members across the private, public, academic, municipal, and service sectors. These CSPs are now found in many other West Michigan communities including Muskegon, Ludington, Holland, Grand Haven/Spring Lake, Portage/Battle Creek/Kalamazoo, and Benton Harbor/St. Joseph, as well as in other communities. A recent example has been the development of a new version of the E3 furniture sustainability standard for its members by the Business Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (www.bifma.org). This new standard was developed through a multi stakeholder collaborative process involving organizations in the public, private, and academic sectors.

Although there are concerns about the future of sustainability and potential headwinds, the horizon does appear bright and opportunistic. Sustainability innovation and creativity will be of critical importance as new products and business models usher in systemic change. Increased importance will be placed on fiscal sustainability, with a key driving force being sustainability cost savings and reinvestment. Validation and credibility for sustainability projects will be achieved through collaborations and partnerships. Long term value creation for sustainability programs will pave the way for tomorrow.

I wish you the best on your sustainability journey!

Norman Christopher
Director, Office of Sustainability Practices
Grand Valley State University
Author, Sustainability Demystified

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