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Looking Back: Paul Murray on Sharing Ideas Beyond West Michigan

A long-time participant in sustainable business in West Michigan and beyond, Paul Murray, Vice President of Sustainability and Environmental Affairs at Shaw Industries, has seen the ideas of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum develop and spread to communities across the nation—an impact that the original members of the forum may not have seen coming 20 years ago.

“The Forum has really allowed both large and small companies to share best practices in a way that not many other groups have,” said Murray.

At the founding of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, Murray was working at Herman Miller as the Director of Environmental Safety and Sustainability. At a lunch with Bill Stough and the director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Murray was introduced to the idea of a forum for idea-sharing and collaborative education in the West Michigan community. “Bill had a novel concept to get businesses together to talk about the environment and sustainability—which was a relatively new concept at the time,” he said. “There were five or six of us that decided this was worth pursuing after talking about how good it would be to have environmental groups working with businesses rather than against them.”

“That seemed like a good idea, and that intrigued me to get involved,” he said.

In the first year, meetings could be difficult and filled with bylaw writing and compiling rules and regulations, said Murray. “It blossomed very quickly though, and there were some very effective business-to-business discussions. After those first meetings, we started having a lot more fun,” he said. “Since there was no real barrier to entry, there was no reason that any company in the West Michigan area could not join.”

The diversity of members in WMSBF allowed Murray and others to not only share best practices with some smaller up-and-coming companies in the West Michigan region, but also to gather ideas from businesses that normally would not have communicated with larger organizations. For Murray, productive interaction and education between businesses was one of the most important aspects of the forum—and one that has allowed the business forum concept to expand beyond West Michigan.

“For example, at Shaw in Georgia, people knew about cradle-to-cradle thinking,” he said. “Gabe Wing at Herman Miller had presented it way before the rest of the company had even heard of it. It wasn’t a protected idea, it was something that Herman Miller felt was a gift to the community.”

“I think that the concept of a forum is the biggest and best idea we have shared,” he continued. “There are other communities that have benefited. Some of them are still operating, others have discontinued, but every community that has shared the vision of having a business-to-business sustainability forum has leveraged improvements based on each others’ performance.”

The spirit of collaboration found in West Michigan is something that Murray is working on replicating in other areas. “In West Michigan, we had the office furniture industry as our main business. But we had other industries in town participating, like Amway and Cascade Engineering, that were in different fields,” he said.  “In Northwest Georgia, it’s carpet and floor coverings as the main industry—but that spirit of collaboration really isn’t as developed as it was in Michigan.”

“I hope that this forum helps people understand that collaboration can yield dividends for everyone,” he added.