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Looking Back: Bill Stough on Founding of the WMSBF

When Sustainable Research Group‘s Bill Stough and his West Michigan colleagues began collaborating to form the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, the concept of sustainable business was still hazy. As a member of the WMEAC board and former chair of the environmental committee at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Stough had seen the business community and the environmental community butting heads regularly, never making significant progress on preventive environmental efforts.

Over time, however, businesses and nonpofits began to gain some background on the issues facing the environmental movement, and how they could impact it. The first Earth Summit held in Rio de Janiero in 1992 brought a new significance to environmental concerns, examining how ecosystem destruction could not only be stopped, but reversed. Around that time, Stough discovered the Sustainable Development Goals that the International Chamber of Commerce had published out of Switzerland, which influenced him to begin applying similar concepts in West Michigan.

“As I started reading through those, it was mind-blowing. What a set of aggressive, practical, sustainable development goals for business!” he said. “It was everything I would had written as an advocate if I had written it myself.”

Stough realized that the time was right to find a way for business professionals and environmentalists to collaborate and interact on these common issues. “The idea came to me that maybe there was an opportunity for a group of some kind that would meet to discuss these issues. As I talked to people on the WMEAC board, the idea came up—why don’t we spin off a group within WMEAC?”

Taking corporate partnerships in other national environmental groups as an example, Stough brought to the WMEAC board the idea of a subsidiary organization of businesses that could collaborate and encourage more sustainable business practices.

“To my great surprise, the board passed it,” he laughed.

Ten original companies agreed to put forward $1,500 each as starting funds for programming and meetings in the coming months, and West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum began its work in education, collaboration, and sustainable development. The forum went public soon after at a press conference in 1994, which drew in more members. An additional boost came from Perrigo’s retiring president, Richard Hansen, who heard of the forum through WMEAC and donated $10,000 to the effort.

Even with this support, West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum faced resistance from many members of the business community at its beginnings. Stough would often find that business leaders were hesitant to join yet another environmental organization. “My response was that none of those other organizations are addressing the issue,” he said. “To distill it down, this issue is the simultaneous advancement of ecological integrity, social responsibility, and economic vitality—all three at once. How does the intersection of all those things on the day to day operations of a business move you forward, or backward, as a more sustainable company?”

In early meetings, forum members not only shared best practices and their own successes, but also discussed ways in which the organization could guide others to become truly sustainable companies. “We rapidly settled in on this idea of the triple bottom line [as a guiding principle],” said Stough. “Everyone agreed on the economic vitality part. But what does ecological integrity mean? What does enhancing social responsibility mean? We started looking at, how does marketing apply, how do operations apply, how does governance apply? And we started evolving discussions.”

“No one knew what sustainable development meant for industry,” he added. “Up until that point, that term had been thrown around a lot. But when you did literature research, 90% of the literature was on farming—you’d get all kinds of farming literature, nothing to do with industrial practices.”

To assist other organizations interested in establishing sustainable practices and measuring their progress, the forum established the Concise Guide to Sustainable Commerce as a method of measuring progress in terms of triple-bottom line framework. Further education and conversations were fostered through monthly meetings and annual conferences, which drew some of the most significant names in sustainable business and environmental science, such as Ray Anderson, Bill McDonough, and Jeanine Benyus. Stough noted a presentation by engineer and physicist Amory Lovins describing the future of transportation. “He just kind of exploded everybody’s minds at the time,” he said. “He was talking about fuel-cell cars and carbon fiber bodies—what actually turned into the Nissan Leaf and the GM Volt.”

According to Stough, WMSBF  has had an impact on the general community locally and the national business community, as well.  Members involved in green construction have accelerated the West Michigan region’s adaptation of green buildings, as well as developing new standards for product design in the furniture industry as a consequence. Other industries, such as the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers and the resilient flooring manufacturers, soon followed suit with new sustainability guidelines in their respective industries.

While these accomplishments have ensured the forum’s successful past, Stough is also optimistic about the future influence of the forum as well, having trained some of the next generation of sustainability professionals as part of the Sustainable Business degree program at Aquinas College.  “I can see their commitment to make a difference.. There are plenty of people out there,” he said. “That may not be in powerful positions now, today—but they are motivated and interested and hungry for information on how to be economically viable and environmentally and socially responsible – they will be the our future leaders.”