When Tom Fehsenfeld of Crystal Flash Energy became involved with what would become the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, there was more to it than his passion for environmental concerns—it just made good business sense. At Crystal Flash, new environmental regulations had required the removal of aging underground fuel storage tanks, which revealed contamination problems that Fehsenfeld had no idea existed, requiring costly cleanups and much frustration.
“I think our experience was typical of a lot of companies back then,” he said. “Many companies were affected by regulations that came up at that point during the 70s, 80s, and early 90s when they found out that they had unintentionally created a lot of unknown liabilities for themselves. A lot of people were struggling to figure out how to get ahead of the curve so that we wouldn’t be playing catch-up.”
The experience encouraged Fehsenfeld to look for collaboration and advice from other sustainably-minded West Michigan business leaders—a partnership which would develop into the forum in 1994. Much like today’s WMSBF monthly meetings, the original collaborative sessions focused on sharing ideas and the development of sustainable business practices.
“We went through a period of time […] just talking about what everyone was doing, and who else would be interested in joining the conversations,” he said. “It was kind of an exploratory time when none of us really knew what we wanted to do with the group.”
As the forum moved from a loose collaboration to a more tightly-knit organization, a sense of impatience developed at meetings, according to Fehsenfeld. Meetings would sometimes span three or four hours, with participants exchanging examples of successful sustainability strategies and working to understand the environmental issues facing their businesses. “Out of those meetings came the idea that we should create a self-assessment guide,” said Fehsenfeld.
The Self-Assessment Guide to Environmentally Sustainable Commerce, published in 1997 after months of work, proved to be an influential document for West Michigan businesses and beyond, providing a tool for industry professionals to benchmark their progress in sustainability efforts.
Crystal Flash also discovered new possibilities through the forum later years: Fehsenfeld credits the organization for encouraging Crystal Flash’s work in plant-based diesel fuel and waste fuel production in the early 2000s. “We were able to make some contacts with some people that were developing a soy-bean based diesel fuel that was labeled as biodiesel,” said Fehsenfeld. “We got involved in that in a strong way.”
Fehsenfeld and Crystal Flash are still innovating and adapting, creating new, more sustainable opportunities alongside traditional petroleum products. Currently, Crystal Flash is looking into propane-powered transportation as an emerging market for their products.
For Fehsenfeld, the opportunities presented by the forum have provided members with an opportunity to take a look at sustainability from a wider perspective. “What influenced us in terms of what we learned from other companies was the holistic view of environmental sustainability. It’s never just one thing,” he said. “You look at everything you do in a company, and you look at the impacts you’re creating big and small.”
Fehsenfeld was quick to note the emergence of a new generation of sustainability-minded young professionals, companies, and consumers that take those impacts seriously in their decisions. These new consumers ensure a continued audience for the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum’s focus on knowledge sharing and leadership sustainable business practices.
“It seems like there’s a groundswell of environmental concern coming,” he said. “If you’re in businesses, and you’re not adjusting your business to your next generation of workers and customers and suppliers, you’re going to get blindsided.”