On a sunny afternoon in Grand Rapids, a group of earnest, middle-age folks is gathered in a conference room, looking at slides of wind turbines and charts about wasteful energy use. A full-bearded man, who looks as if he's just back from a nature walk, talks about his plans to build a home showcasing the latest in low-impact design. At the front of the room, the speaker asks, pep-rally style, "What's the most effective source of renewable energy today? Conservation!"
But this isn't a meeting of Earth-loving Hippies Reunited. The speaker, Michael Ford, is an executive at Cascade Engineering, a plastics manufacturer that makes ducts for Ford, dashboard silencers for Chrysler, and all manner of doodads for other industries, and he's presenting at the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum's monthly meeting. The attendees are top managers from major companies in and around Grand Rapids, the region's commercial center and Michigan's second-largest city. "We are in business to make money," Ford reminds them. They're doing it by turning eco-friendly, in the belief that reducing the environmental cost of commerce will raise their profits, boost the regional economy, and burnish Grand Rapids' increasingly credible claim to the title of greenest city in America.
Grand Rapids leads the nation in the number of LEED-certified buildings per capita. In 2005, Mayor George Heartwell pledged that more than 20% of the city's power would come from renewable sources by 2008; it hit that target a year early, and Heartwell upped the target to 100% by 2020. The municipal government's energy use has been cut by more than 10%. The public-transit fleet features hybrid buses. And here, in the heart of the Rust Belt, manufacturers are leading the greenification charge. Office-furniture heavyweightsand both have LEED-certified buildings in the area, as do industrial firms such as Cascade Engineering.
Peter Wege, Steelcase's retired chairman, is the father of green Grand Rapids. "In 1937, when I started working in the desk plant of my father's metal-office-furniture company, I learned that we recycled steel to cut costs," Wege recalls. "Seven years later, flying an Army plane into Pittsburgh on a sunny day, I became an environmentalist when I had to ask for tower lights because I couldn't see the airport through the black smog. Those two experiences helped make me an economicologist — a word I coined to define the balance we need between economy and ecology."
Over the years, Wege ordered various eco-friendly moves, introducing the reprocessing of toxic solvents and investing in a baler for recycling packing materials — a purchase he cites as a proof of economicology because "once the baler was paid for, Steelcase began saving $20,000 a year." Last year, Wege gave $20 million for the construction of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the world's first LEED-certified art museum.
Wege also popularized the term "triple bottom line" here, listing human welfare and environmental responsibility on par with fiscal profit. Today, that's the most common eco-biz buzzword in Grand Rapids. "Environmental drivers may be the reason companies try sustainable business practices, but eventually business drivers take over," says Dave Rinard, Steelcase's director of global environmental performance. The company's LEED-certified wood-fabrication facility, for example, cost up to 5% more to build than a traditional plant, but it uses about 30% less energy; Steelcase recouped the extra cost in 18 months. It also refined its wood-manufacturing process, replacing harsh solvent-based chemicals with a water-based one. The new finish costs more but proved easier to recover and reuse, and takes just 24 hours to cure wood, compared to 90 days for the toxic solvents. It also makes workers happier. "At the finishing point in most plants, workers wear hazmat suits and respirators," says Steelcase manager Kevin Kuske. "Ours wear shorts and T-shirts."
Like Steelcase, Cascade Engineering sought LEED certification — its HQ is rated platinum — and greenification has opened the company's eyes to new lines of business. Its new EcoCart, a curbside trash receptacle made with recycled plastics, has quickly become a hot seller, and the firm has inked a deal with a Scottish company to be the exclusive North American marketer of an innovative wind turbine that includes a plastic propeller produced by Cascade. "Most businesspeople think of instituting sustainability as a zero-sum game," says Cascade founder and CEO Fred Keller. "But it is the right thing to do — and we think we can make it a good business, too."
In becoming a green center, Grand Rapids is also turning itself into a lab, a training camp, and both an exporter and a magnet of expertise. Keller teaches a sustainable-business course at Cornell University, and it was there that he recruited Michael Ford, one of his MBA students, who has launched two energy-related subsidiaries in the past two years. Integrated Architecture, designer of several of Grand Rapids' LEED-certified buildings, has an expanding list of out-of-state clients drawn by its hometown work. Aquinas College launched the nation's first undergraduate-degree program in sustainable business in 2003, underwritten by a $1 million donation from Steelcase's Wege. "We see ourselves as part of the new knowledge-based economy," says Bill Stough, CEO of Sustainable Research Group, a consultancy with a growing national business. "We're exporting the information we've learned to other parts of the country."
Matthew Tueth, chair of Aquinas's sustainable-business program, goes so far as to call what's happening in Grand Rapids a "movement" that could secure the region's economic future. "You can make lots of money while at the same time having a restorative — not just a less-bad — effect on the environment," he says. "This is not a fad. And if it is, we're done as a species."
A version of this article appeared in the October 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.