West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum was founded in 1994 and has been an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit since 2009.
With the rise of the modern environmental movement in the second half of the last century, the nation began to take notice of the negative impact of certain business practices on the natural environment and human health. Regulations followed. In West Michigan, largely spared the malicious actions that gave rise to the activist movement, local businesses were forced to reconsider and often account for actions that had been routine and commonly accepted. Some reacted with animosity, making industry the many-headed villain of the environmental activist.
Others were more pragmatic, becoming proactive, even principled. Adjustments in practices, systems, and equipment to comply with regulations could be a large financial cost. Aiming beyond compliance toward more sustainable business practices could limit the risk of future regulations, and in many instances provide economic value back to the organization.
A select group was taking it even further, experiencing personal revelations about the role of business in environmental and social concerns. Emboldened by a West Michigan culture that prioritizes natural resources and the well-being of employees and the community, pockets of very forward thinking emerged locally, parallel to national efforts by large environmental organizations to organize corporate partnerships.
One such forward-thinking professional, Bill Stough, held a seat on the board of West Michigan Environmental Action Council, the organization that led the charge locally for increased environmental regulation through the 60s and 70s. With the concept of a collaborative effort between West Michigan leaders in mind, Stough approached the WMEAC board with a proposal for a subsidiary organization comprised of businesses with an interest in collaborating on business practices that were more environmentally and socially responsible.
“As I talked to people on the WMEAC board, the idea came up — why don’t we spin off a group within WMEAC? To my great surprise, the board passed it.”
Twelve original founding members agreed to join, each putting forward $1,500 to establish a financial base for the fledgling organization. Early meetings between members featured the sharing of best practices and sustainable business techniques, as well as lengthy discussions about what direction the newly-formed “forum” should take. It was long, hard work.
Through it all there was a common thread: This forum should help organizations balance its impacts on people, planet and profit, the Triple Bottom Line. Members would focus on environmental concerns, but also on the impact their businesses and their efforts were having on their communities and society. Of course, any efforts undertaken by the group had to be financially feasible as well, preferably increasing the profitability of an organization.
The original members of West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum were first-generation sustainable business practitioners. There was no literature for sustainable industry. What little there was on the subject focused primarily on agriculture. With no best practices available, they began to create their own. Forum members were self-educated and entrepreneurial. They also put competitive differences aside to pursue common goals, as the forum played a key role in facilitating the office furniture industry adoption of sustainable business practices. Informal knowledge sharing at forum meetings has quietly produced countless environmental and social outcomes for the region.
Work groups formed to attack key issue areas over the years, most prevalently the lack of a general entry tool for sustainable business understanding. Over the course of many months a cross-functional team of volunteers produced what would become the most impactful product of the organization, the Concise Guide to Sustainable Commerce. Commonly known as the Self-Assessment Guide, it allowed businesses from diverse industries to take a look at their practices, establish benchmarks and areas for improvement in sustainability, and measure improvement over time. The comprehensive guide proved to be a significant development-tracking tool for West Michigan and beyond: commercial development groups across the nation adopted the format for their own industry-specific self assessment guides as sustainable development grew in relevance through the past two decades. A guidebook for sustainable design followed, “Designing Products with Sustainable Attributes,” with an effort focused on affordable housing, “My Healthy Green Home,” some years later.
Of course the flagship forum program has always been its monthly meetings and annual conferences. The forum has offered approximately 250 professional development events in its history, educating thousands on best practices, emerging issues, and innovative thinking, playing host to a who’s who of national scale experts, including both local talent and global name brands such as industrial ecology pioneer Ray Anderson, sustainable design innovator and Cradle-to-Cradle leader Bill McDonough, biomimicry expert Janine Benyus, and renowned environmental scientist Amory Lovins.
As the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum began to develop its programming and efforts, its impact was felt through West Michigan’s industrial cultures, especially in the fields of sustainable design and green building. The region’s sustainability claims and green bona fides are well known. The forum deserves credit for making it acceptable, even mainstream, for local businesses and government to pursue such efforts.
The forum serves many different roles. There are the speakers and the knowledge. The work group projects. For some it is a networking venue, a means to meet peers, vendors or potential clients. But ultimately, the largest value of the forum through its first 20 years has likely been its ability to bring together disparate interests from business, government, education, and the non-profit world.
“One of the things we have to be proud of in West Michigan is that we were a real pioneer in initiating this dialogue between traditional environmentalists and the business community,” said Mark LaCroix, a long-time forum member and past president. “That wasn’t very common.”