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More Michigan Businesses Embrace ‘Sustainability’

Firms’ leaders say state should adopt new economic approach

February 6, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Michigan-based Ford Motor Company is using sustainable design principles, including “green roofs,” to improve its profits and the ecology surrounding its Rouge Center plant in Dearborn.

KALAMAZOO — When Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm lays out her 2005 agenda in the annual State of the State address on Tuesday evening, she may well offer a theme that until recently lived outside the state’s political mainstream: Sustainability.

Those who are familiar with that word agree that Michigan’s current situation is a study in non-sustainability. The state ranks among the nation’s leaders in jobs lost. Municipal and state budgets are awash in red ink. And the region’s economic ace in the hole, its utterly unique Great Lakes ecosystem, suffers from widespread toxic contamination and alien species invasions.

Business and political leaders know that the state needs a governing strategy that inspires durable economic growth, raises the standard of living, and generates 21st-century prosperity. Now, a question seems to be emerging among some of the Great Lakes State’s more forward-looking industrialists, local officials, and scientists: When will the State of Michigan commit its considerable power and influence to the sustainability movement, a worldwide phenomenon that builds strong economies by properly harvesting local ecologies? Some of them believe that the time to act is now.

“We could be near the tipping point on sustainability in Michigan,” said Bill Stough, CEO of Sustainable Research Group, an independent consulting firm based in Grand Rapids.

Witness to Change
Respectfully referred to as the grandfather of Michigan’s sustainability movement, Mr. Stough began more than 10 years ago organizing regional roundtables of business, government, and environmental leaders to explore “sustainable economic development.” He views sustainability as both a philosophy and a practice. It means development that simultaneously generates economic prosperity, builds social equity, and adds value to, rather than steadily degrades, the natural environment that human communities depend on. According to Mr. Stough, it comes down to a simple principle: 

“Nature is the guiding principle,” he said. “We’ve lived in an era of plenty where we have been taught that the economy drives everything. But we’ve learned that is not necessarily true. Ecology drives everything. The economy is a subset of ecology. If we destroy the ecology, we have no economy.”

“The goal is a system of commerce that is value driven, life affirming, and ethically based,” he added. 

Today, individual Sustainable Business Forums are active in West Michigan, Lansing, and Detroit; the Southwest Michigan Sustainable Business Forum held its inaugural event here on January 19. Clearly, sustainability is catching on in Michigan, according to Mr. Stough, who counts some 225 companies across the state active in the movement.

“We are witnessing the early stages of an economic transformation,” Mr. Stough said. “We’re leaving an era when [natural] resources were abundant and people were scarce. And we’re entering a new era where resources are scarce and people will be abundant. The smart companies realize that they must adjust to this new world situation. That is the purpose of a more sustainable development strategy.”

Mr. Stough said that a number of trends are driving sustainable business concepts into the mainstream. They include things most businesspeople appreciate: A desire to limit regulatory requirements, the need to attract new investment, the rising costs of environmental restoration, and the growing interest in corporate social responsibility.

Steps Forward, Steps Back
The matter of sustainable development lies at the heart of many of the challenging issues that now confront Michigan’s state government. Consider Great Lakes water use. A recent law passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by Governor Granholm, a Democrat, charged a special advisory council with studying the sustainability of state groundwater use trends. In several places heavy pumping draws down nearby lakes, wetlands, and wells. Water experts contend that such practices are not sustainable and that the state needs a better policy to make responsible water use decisions. 

Meanwhile, land use experts question the sustainability of current development patterns that consume huge amounts of land, money, and resources to serve relatively small numbers of people. To date, most state spending patterns favor the construction of new highways and schools ever farther into the countryside, even as many local governments struggle to maintain existing roads and facilities in older communities.

Governor Granholm bucks that trend with her support of a fix-it-first policy that ensures the state Transportation Department lives within its means by repairing existing roads before spending scare dollars on building new ones. That is by definition a more “sustainable” approach to transportation in Michigan, but some Republican leaders publicly scoff at that idea.

“It will take the next Henry Ford, and not the next (Transportation Department) director, to change people’s behavior, preferences or the need for good roads in this state,” newly elected House Speaker Craig DeRoche, a Republican from Novi, recently told The Detroit News. “Until that day, we need to get back to fixing and building quality roads where people choose to live, work, and pay taxes.”      

Businesses Lead the Way
While elected leaders vie over where to spend increasingly rare tax dollars, Michigan’s business community strives to trim its expenses, too, as well as increase productivity and gain a competitive advantage in uncertain economic times. Mr. Stough said more companies are discovering that a sustainable approach reigns in operating costs, improves employee moral, reduces regulatory burdens, and lures new investment. Beyond those obvious ways to stay ahead of the competition, leaders that fully embrace sustainability say it drives innovation, leading to truly original products and services, and the establishment of new markets.

Mr. Stough said this happens in many ways and in many places. He points to things as various as the amazingly rapid, worldwide rise of wind energy, bio-fuels, and other alternative power sources; the galloping popularity of the Toyota Prius, a gas-electric hybrid car, in Japan and North America; and the booming, global success of Falcon WaterFree Technologies, a Grand Rapids company that manufactures a waterless urinal. While he admits that pioneering companies often face a tough fight breaking through with new ideas, they also appear to be winning.

“Sustainability is ushering in disruptive ideas and technologies that represent the wave of the future,” Mr. Stough said. “The status quo continues to fight them. But they make too much sense to go away quietly in the night.”

Fred Keller, chairman and CEO of Cascade Engineering, a Grand Rapids firm that specializes in plastics systems for automotive, industrial, and solid waste markets agrees that the sustainability movement could become a new economic engine for Michigan.

“Sustainability is about this concept of being able to increase three capitals all at the same time — economic capital, ecological capital, social capital,” said Mr. Keller, who represents Michigan on the special Manufacturing Council established in June 2004 by President George W. Bush. “We live in a time when there are tremendous challenges facing business, government, and individuals. This forces us to learn faster. In the manufacturing world we learned about quality in the 1980’s. In the 90’s we learned about becoming more lean. And in this new century we’re learning about sustainability.”

Pioneers’ Profits
Early practitioners of the concept are already achieving remarkable results. Zeeland-based furniture maker Herman Miller, for instance, applied sustainability concepts to the design of a state-of-the-art factory. The facility, which opened in 1995, immediately slashed the company’s water and sewer costs by as much as 65 percent, greatly reduced its energy and heating expenses, and, thanks to its airy and open design, increased worker productivity. Ford Motor Company followed a similar strategy in the rehabilitation of the company’s historic Rouge Center plant in Dearborn. The facility boasts a plant-covered “green” roof that absorbs rainwater, plenty of opportunities for less expensive interior lighting via sunshine, and other innovations that are saving the company money and boosting productivity.

The State of Michigan seems to be catching on. A white paper produced in November 2003 by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found that a $40,000 capital investment in Constitution Hall, the agency’s six-story brick building in Lansing, would yield $180,000 in annual energy savings. “In these dire budgetary times,” the report stated, “these assessments should be expedited to all buildings where the state pays for utilities.”

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell already has run the numbers on his city’s power use. He calculates the City of Grand Rapids alone spends $7 million annually on traditional electricity generation that contributes more than 290 million pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In his State of the City address, Mayor Heartwell committed the city to developing a plan for sustainability and, notably, reducing its dependence on nonrenewable energy by 20 percent by 2008.

“In the years ahead we must be thoughtful, intentional, and strategic if we are to sustain our way of life,” the mayor said. “Government leaders must take steps to preserve the environment, promote social equity, and to generate economic value while using tax resources wisely.”

Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes Project and reports on Smart Growth from the Institute’s Grand Rapids office. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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