Michigan’s Sustainable Businesses Inspired by Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben speaks at Green Meets Black conference at the University of Michigan.

Sustainability is a common attitude in cities like San Francisco and Austin, but for many it doesn’t immediately spring to mind when thinking about business in Michigan, home of the auto industry and one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

However, there are many stories of sustainability in Michigan, including a large furniture company with a long history of corporate citizenship, an insurance company which undertook a major LEED project in the heart of the recession, a company who goes out of its way to hire the homeless, and, most importantly, individuals with the faith and perseverance to believe that Michigan, and other less-recognized cities and regions, can advance a sustainable agenda.

The Southwest Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, The University of Michigan Business School Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and EarthShare Michigan partnered to gather an impressive list of speakers from around Michigan for a single day conference – Where Green Meets Black: How Sustainability Creates Profitability for Business. Speakers represented companies including Herman Miller, GM, Dow Chemical, MASCO, Delta Dental and Cascade Engineering, among others. The day culminated with a speech by 350.org’s Bill McKibben (who actually gave four speeches that day in various location on campus to “maximize his travel carbon footprint”).

A Better World
Bill Birchard, author of The Merchants of Virtue: Herman Miller and the Making of a Sustainable Company, started the day with the story of how Herman Miller started down the road toward becoming a high-profile, sustainability patron when its owner D.J. De Pree, declared in the 1950s that the company “will be a good corporate neighbor by being a steward of the environment.” De Pree also instituted the first employee profit-sharing plan in the 1950s. In subsequent decades, Herman Miller continued its sustainable efforts up to its present-day iteration, A Better World.

Insuring a sustainable future in Michigan
Herman Miller is familiar presence at sustainable events, but some lesser-known companies also had some impressive tales to tell. Delta Dental, a large dental insurance company, launched a $91 million, 3-year LEED project just as the recession hit and doggedly saw it through, achieving LEED Gold (one of 68 buildings in Michigan to do so). The Delta Dental property bordered a neighborhood in Okemos, Michigan, and Nancy Hostetler, Chief of Staff and Senior Vice President, described the extensive community outreach they did in order for their neighbors to feel included in the project.

We’re committed to Michigan, committed to growing our business and creating jobs in Michigan. We want to be an asset to the community. This project was not undertaken in a vacuum, we worked very closely with the township and with all the people whose property is adjacent to ours. We have 60 acres (50 which is developed). We were very concerned that the neighbors know firsthand what the project was going to entail, when it would be loud or disruptive and we wanted them to have input. We sent mailings, met with them, showed them what the impact would be and let them have input on the landscaping that many would be looking out their windows at every day. We took those points of view into consideration and we’ve had great feedback from the neighbors. We wanted to do this the right way so that it was a facility that looked great for the community and our immediate neighbors appreciated having us in the neighborhood.

Giving the disenfranchised a leg up
Cascade Engineering, the second largest benefit-certified corporation in the U.S. behind Patagonia, is another Michigan company that goes above and beyond to benefit the community. In addition to their plainly stated anti-racism pledge, they commit resources to hiring qualified applicants that might currently be on welfare, homeless, recently released from prison, or returning veterans.

“Our overall philosophy,” said Kenyatta Brame, “is finding something good (focusing on people and planet) and making it profitable… If we can eliminate the barriers, we can have successful employees… We are the only company in Michigan that has a Department of Human Services employee on staff. If one of our employees is having difficulties, they can walk down on their lunch hour and get help immediately.”

It all comes down to individuals in the end
Although the day was about businesses and their sustainability initiatives, what came through was the important role of individuals in driving and sustaining change. Many of these projects, these programs, these philosophies, start with a single person, a single idea, and change begins.

Mark Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy, has said that he works with big companies because together they can effect the biggest change. Conversely, this conference, while populated with companies large and small, showed the importance of listening to individuals.

In The Merchants of Virtue, Birchard recounts the story of Paul Murray, a paint chemist at Herman Miller who, in 1988, engineered the paint finish to such a degree that he cut Herman Miller’s previous wasted stock from $150,000 to $5,000 annually. At the same time, his young son’s skin and breathing issues made him wonder about the chemicals he was transporting home on his clothes. Herman Miller’s philosophy of empowering its employees to make changes enabled Murray and others within the company to not only embrace change, but implement it.

EarthShare is a nonprofit organization that connects businesses and environmental causes, facilitating more than $300 million in donations from individuals who give from their paychecks and donate countless more invaluable hours through volunteerism. Conference moderator and CEO Kal Stein has long championed employee engagement, green teams and workplace philanthropy to promote change and support causes. Stein’s favorite story about a single employee at Walmart (a guy getting a soda) who suggested one change (taking the LED lights out of the vending machine buttons) which led to $1 million in savings companywide each year, joined several other examples of how a single person can make a big difference.

“This is why you have to engage the entire employee population because you never know where the big ideas will come from,” Stein said.

What about when people, or companies, can’t change fast enough?
The day wrapped with Bill McKibben’s speech, held in the main auditorium and open to all students and the public. McKibben’s organization, 350.org, is the embodiment of individual involvement and the power of a group to effect change. McKibben showed a series of vivid photos of 350 chapters worldwide and their efforts to spread the message and combat climate change. But McKibben’s speech held a note of sadness. Even with all these people, with all these groups, with all this passion, he says, “It’s not enough.” Climate change is still heating the Earth too quickly due to human actions.

As we look back on the stories of people, groups and organizations implementing change, it’s heartening, but McKibben cautions that “all environmental victories are temporary.” We will always need individuals to make a difference, and keep on making a difference.

EarthShare Michigan Managing Director, Natalia Petraszczuk, said that they hope to make the conference an annual event.

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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