Are the Business Models in West Michigan Tapping Their Full Potential?

Much has been written lately about companies embracing the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their strategic plans (1). There are 17 goals in total that support sustainability through environmental, social, economic, and cultural impact. A sense of place is becoming increasingly important for SDGs to be achieved successfully, by building upon local values, culture, and heritage.

The SDG goals address environmental concerns such as clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, life below water, life on land, and climate action.  Economic issues include decent work and economic growth, and industry innovation and infrastructure.  Social problems like no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, and strong institutions, are also included.

There are a number of global companies that are successfully implementing SDGs in their planning and operations (2). Many times the products and services from these companies and enterprises have been developed to reach the growing population in underdeveloped and emerging, as well as established and developed countries. A recent report on sustainable and responsible business models determined that there is a $12 Trillion economic potential for companies that leverage SDG platforms and pursue SDG goals for all demographic populations (3). A few examples include:

  • VISA offering financial services to the underserved
  • General Mills providing meals to local food banks
  • Kaiser Permanente advancing healthy communities
  • LEGO supporting children’s play, learning, and creativity
  • Cummins investing in solar energy and technology
  • Siemens honoring communities that foster green and sustainable economic solutions
  • JetBlue coaching customers and crew about climate change
  • North Face caring for outdoor areas
  • Citi advocating diversity as a source of strength
  • Nike incorporating recycled materials in most of their products
  • Discovery Channel embracing clean oceans

What can West Michigan enterprises and organizations learn from these companies? First, these businesses are all adopting and developing new systems and processes to chart a successful future path and vison including sharing, circular, lean service, big data, and social entrepreneurship practices.

Secondly, West Michigan companies can tap into this potential in the regional and local economy. The paradigm shift lies within looking at the entire population and demographics locally and regionally as business development opportunities. Future product and service offerings could address those living with medium to low, as well as high per capita incomes. An added and critical benefit will be the ability to train, develop, and employ those living within our inner cities that experience high unemployment rates of over 25%.

What could some of these sustainable business opportunities look like?

  • Ride sharing and improved mobility
  • Urban and neighborhood economic development
  • Urban and local food systems
  • Mobile medical and community healthcare
  • Mobile and remote banking systems
  • Connectivity and sensing technologies
  • Disaster preparedness

The new business opportunities in West Michigan will be similar to the global business opportunities being pursued using SDGs. One bright spot in West Michigan is that there are now eleven Benefit Corporations (B Corps) with more information being available at Disruptive technologies, scalability, and new consumer and customer behavior and purchasing patterns will be the driving forces for this change. The opportunities will be there! The bigger question will be are we ready to pursue them?

I wish you the best on your sustainability journey!


Norman Christopher

Director, Office of Sustainability Practices

Grand Valley State University

Author, Sustainability Demystified

February 26, 2017



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