Up in Michigan

How the contract furniture industry became a beacon for sustainable design.

Standing on a bluff on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, it’s impossible for any Michigander not to feel a certain pride and sense of the sublime in its vastness and natural beauty, until one realizes that this astonishing body of fresh water—covering an area of 22,300 square miles—has been so badly polluted by mercury and PCBs that some of its fish are no longer safe to eat. The story of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), which recently opened its new headquarters in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids, begins with a similar realization.

After publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, it became widely known that the pesticide DDT was causing the near extinction of bird populations in this largely agricultural region. In 1968 a group of churches, parent-teacher associations, businesses, men’s clubs, students, women’s organizations, labor unions, and conservationists founded WMEAC, and within a year they had won the first federal lawsuit banning the use of DDT, followed a year later by the first comprehensive state-level environmental legislation.

The organization’s new headquarters, with its green roof, parking lot bioswale, and interiors outfitted with the region’s best sustainable offerings, would have been impossible if not for the success of another WMEAC initiative: the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (SBF). The organization brings together regional furniture and textile manufacturers, architects, contractors, and an assortment of other businesses to spread the gospel of the “triple bottom line”—sustainability guru John Elkington’s initially heretical twist on the corporate dogma of profitability, which gives equal value to social responsibility and environmental performance.

Now it’s the mantra of corporations like Steelcase, Herman Miller, Interface, and Haworth, who have all donated sustainable products for the WMEAC office’s interiors. Designed and developed by Bazzani Associates with interiors by Lake Affect Design Studio, the project has transformed a derelict gas station into an anchor for neighborhood redevelopment that doubles as a demonstration site to measure energy savings and the functioning of water drainage systems—and to spread the message of green design to the uninitiated.

In this historically conservative Republican-dominated area of the Midwest, it would be easy to assume that environmentalism is as strictly frowned upon as drinking on Sundays. But a convergence of hunters, naturalists, manufacturers, and Calvinists has made the area one of the nation’s strongest and most unlikely advocates for business as a force for social good. The district’s Republican congressman, Vernon Ehlers, a nuclear physicist and early WMEAC board member, was actually elected on an environmental platform. “There’s a good environmental sense in this part of Michigan—and in much of Michigan in fact,” Ehlers says. “We have the same environmental consciousness as Oregon and Maine but the industrial base of Ohio and Illinois.”

The Dutch Reformed settlers who came to western Michigan in the mid-nineteenth century and later made the region the center of the furniture industry brought with them a belief in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: the best way to assuage the fear of eternal damnation was through good works and stewardship, and enterprise was regarded as a principal means of putting religious and ethical ideas into practice. And rarely have the piety of the faithful and that of environmentalists found such a perfect harmony as in the WMEAC headquarters, which functions like a chapel of sustainable principles and entrepreneurship.

“This is very much a church-based community,” says SBF member Rich Vander Veen, president of the wind-turbine company Mackinaw Power, which is pushing for wind farms near the shores of Lake Michigan. “I’m not saying for a minute that this is a spiritual organization per se, but if you think about the way people orient their lives, it has a lot to do with the fact that they take their stewardship seriously.”

The short history of the SBF marks a series of paradigmatic shifts in the thinking of businesses in relationship to the environment. Their first reaction to antipollution regulations was defensive: they would at best comply with the law but do little else. In the mid-1990s they moved to the intermediate posture of recycling materials, which was not required by law but helped appease environmentalists. But in scarcely a decade the consensus has moved toward the wholehearted embrace of renewable resources and energy conservation as a way of replenishing nature and maximizing profits. According to this model businesses not only have an obligation to comply with regulations but serve as the main agents of progress.

“The idea was to create an organization composed of the business and environmental communities that would focus on what they agreed on,” says SBF board member and sustainability consultant Bill Stough, who initiated the forum in 1994. “The purpose was to identify common ground and work on those issues.”

The SBF enables companies to share information about waste reduction, renewable materials, energy conservation, and the “best practices” to help save the environment during the quotidian activity of making money. This last aspect is no less essential for its ostensible lack of progressiveness: the group’s participants are convinced—in keeping with the best tradition of the Protestant work ethic—that the only way to really save the environment is to make sustainability profitable.

“There’s no question that it’s made us more profitable,” says Paul Murray, a founding SBF board member and environmental affairs director for Herman Miller, which donated its latest Ethospace office system—made of 60 percent remanufactured components, wheatboard core construction, and fabric composed of polylactic acid, a corn-derived substitute for petroleum-based plastics—for the new offices. “Our department was the only one that grew during the 2000 downturn.”

Haworth jumped on the bandwagon a few years later but has meanwhile fully committed itself to sustainable design. “Our thinking as a company changed,” says Jim Kozminski, an environmental manager for Haworth, and a SBF member since 2000. “We said, ‘Okay, we know where this is going. It’s quite obvious that there are few markets more focused on sustainability than the office furniture and green building markets.’” For Haworth this meant reconceiving the company as a supplier of adaptable work spaces and durable, flexible architectural interiors—such as their LifeSPACE movable walls, TecCrete modular raised flooring, and daylight-monitoring lighting system, all featured in the WMEAC headquarters. The company has also shifted to agricultural materials like wheatboard. “When you use bio-based materials it actually contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gases and the carbon impact on the planet.”

The most compelling aspect of the forum is the willingness of its participants—companies often in direct competition with one another—to collaborate, sometimes to the point of treating proprietary information as a common resource. “The model is such that I can openly share ideas with competitors about how to improve environmental performance,” Murray says. “We’re all leapfrogging each other, and shame on the person who gets left behind. We have the CEO of every western Michigan furniture manufacturer on the record saying, ‘This is stuff we can share, folks.’”

SBF’s influence doesn’t stop on the shores of Lake Michigan, however. Members of the forum are increasingly being sought out by manufacturers in other parts of the country (including the eco-insensible automakers of southeast Michigan) to create similar platforms for sustainable practices. “There’s a deep love for the environment here in western Michigan,” Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell says. “And WMEAC has really seeded that ground for all these years.”

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