Approaches toward sustainability in business and everyday life have seen major shifts in the past several decades. Attendees at the February Luncheon Meeting not only learned about new efforts that WMSBF members have been working on in recent months, but also explored the shift in sustainable business management in Andy Hoffman’s keynote presentation on cultural shifts in sustainability.
Hoffman, Holcim Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan and focused his presentation around the waves of sustainability innovation that have occurred over the past 50 years, and the idea of the Anthropocene—an epoch in which it is impossible to describe the global ecosystem without including humans and the changes they have created.
Hoffman highlighted that the shift to sustainable innovation is an immense social change and market-driven shift in business culture. He noted that, as a contractor in the past, the development of green roofs is a good illustration of how drastically consumer demand and the ideas surrounding buildings have changed. “When I built houses, it was all about keeping all the elements out there and keeping me in here, warm and dry, and never the two shall meet,” he said. “The idea of introducing dirt on a roof? That makes no sense—I want that roof to be as clean as possible.”
Market forces have shifted many businesses to focus on sustainability, but Hoffman also noted that consumer demand has created both positive and negative consequences: while humans now enjoy increased lifespans and a far better quality of life thanks to innovation, ecological consequences like deforestation, depleted fisheries, increased pollution and mass extinctions have come with progress. In addition, the consequences and benefits are not equally distributed across populations—and consumers are paying attention.
Throughout the past 50 years of development, the idea of sustainability and the concern over negative consequences of innovation has triggered a shift from ‘normal’ to ‘revolutionary’ science in waves, much like in a media cycle, said Hoffman. In his presentation, Hoffman highlighted three separate waves in sustainability progress and culture that have already occurred, beginning with the publication of Silent Spring in the 1960s and the subsequent regulations that followed, changing products, ideas and the market. Later waves monetized ecological concerns through increased insurance premiums and other market forces, triggering further innovation and changing mindsets. According to Hoffman, we are currently at the peak of the third wave, which sees sustainability as the chief ecological concern affecting the market—which may be dropping off.
In his presentation, Hoffman predicted the idea that we may be entering a fourth wave with knowledge about the Anthropocene. Environmentally-friendly business practices will have to shift from simply thinking about reducing unsustainability to actively thinking about incorporating sustainability on an overall systems level, from the ground up.
For Hoffman, this means that issues of sustainability have gone hand-in-hand with innovation to the point where they cannot be dismissed simply as a marketing standpoint . “I don’t care, you can be agnostic about the science of climate change and still see it as a business issue,” he said. “Regulation and Insurance costs are a major factor now. Consumers, employees, young people want to see companies addressing this issue. Suppliers and buyers all throughout the supply chain. Sustainability becomes translated into a business issue,” he said.
Preceding Hoffman’s presentation, Tom Newhouse, Design Committee Chair, presented WMSBF’s case study of composting efforts in food services at Grand Rapids Community College, and invited members to submit any white papers or case studies of their business practices for publication on the forum. “We want to get the word out about west Michigan innovation and sustainability,” he said.
Newhouse was followed by Sam Pobst of Eco Metrics and Erik Cronk and Jeremiah Johnson of Advanced Green Architecture‘s presentation on the replacement of Newhouse’s 30-year-old green roof. The new green roof is currently registered as a certified wildlife habitat with the National Wildlife Federation. To read more about the green roof renovation, click here.
Watch the entire February meeting on Grand Rapids Community College’s Youtube channel, here.