Experts share region’s progress in sustainability


Participants gathered at the Pepsi Stadium Club at Fifth Third Ballpark for WMSBF’s 25th annual meeting. Courtesy Aaron Bouwkamp

A sustainability nonprofit last week reported a year of progress toward strategic goals and shined a spotlight on three member organizations excelling at the triple bottom line.

West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF) hosted its 25th annual meeting June 17 at the Pepsi Stadium Club at Fifth Third Ballpark.

WMSBF’s mission is to promote business practices that demonstrate environmental stewardship, economic vitality and social responsibility through education and collaboration.

The program featured three WMSBF members the organization said are doing noteworthy work on the triple bottom line of people, planet and profits.

They included Ann Erhardt, founder and principal of Commons Logic and chief sustainability officer for Michigan State University; Elliott Rader, co-founder of The Gluten Free Bar; and Justin Beene, founder and director of Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation (GRCCT).

WMSBF progress report

First, WMSBF Executive Director Daniel Schoonmaker shared a brief report on the organization’s achievements and financials in the fiscal year ending May 31.

In the past year, WMSBF launched a new website; renewed a partnership with the Community Foundation for Muskegon County to extend the Sustainable Muskegon program; and renewed and expanded its Equitable Sustainability program, an initiative seeded by a Wege Foundation grant that is helping WMSBF explore its relationship to diversity, equity and inclusion and to take a “just and centered approach” to sustainable business, Schoonmaker said. The renewal commitment is for three years.

WMSBF reported it completed 19 of its strategic benchmarks in the Equitable Sustainability program during the previous year and another nine are in progress, with four currently stalled. Some of the highest priorities on the benchmark list include “authentic engagement” of minority-owned businesses in WMSBF membership rolls; and working closely with an equity task force to establish annual audits and revisions of WMSBF vendors, contractors and suppliers.

To commit more resources to equity, WMSBF two months ago hired Carissa Patrone as equity program manager.

WMSBF reported assets of $72,022 as of May 31, 2019, compared to $70,090 a year ago. Its liabilities decreased from $15,875 in 2018 to $8,183 in 2019. Its equity rose to $63,838 this year from $54,215 the prior year.

Revenue dipped slightly from $198,583 in 2018 to $195,408 this year. Expenses were at $185,785 this year, up from $183,522 in May 2018. Net income was down from $15,062 in 2018 to $9,623 this year.


A consultant, sustainability strategist/leader at MSU and soon-to-be adjunct professor at Loyola University, Erhardt shared her experiences in climate leadership.

Erhardt led MSU to achieve a gold rating from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education — one of only three Michigan institutions to have done so.

She pointed to successes at MSU such as the decrease of greenhouse gas emissions on campus and a growing renewable energy portfolio that includes a series of solar carports installed on her watch that produce 10 megawatts of energy, produce 18% of the campus’s peak demand energy and are expected to save the university $10 million in energy costs over a 20-year period.

Another solar installation — this one capable of producing 20 MW — is in the works. It is expected to save the university $7 million per year and produce up to 20% of its power.

Under her consulting firm, Commons Logic, Erhardt currently is developing a multiyear climate action plan for the city of Lansing that will involve a six-month baseline and discovery phase, development of a vision for climate adaptation and resilience, conducting a vulnerability and risk assessment, and building competency for sustained positive climate action among the city and community.

Erhardt said such change-making is possible anywhere if leaders follow the methodology of discovery, impact mitigation, sustainable practices, climate adaptation and resilience.


Closer to home, Rader is co-founder with his brother, Marshall Rader, of The Gluten Free Bar (The GFB) based in Kentwood and established in 2010.

He discussed how the company — a certified B Corp since 2015 — is on track to become the first local business to earn the TRUE Zero Waste certification while also advancing equity and community investment through its employment practices.

The GFB makes gluten-free, protein-packed snacks that are sold in about 12,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada, including Meijer.

Instead of outsourcing production, the brothers chose to keep it all in house. This gave them the opportunity to do the hiring and training of employees, of which they now have about 60.

As part of the triple bottom line commitment required of all B Corps, the Raders committed to equitable hiring practices — specifically when it comes to felony/criminal backgrounds. About 70% of its workforce has some history with the criminal justice system and about 40% are returning citizens who have spent time in prison. Many are hired through Mixed Staffing, a local agency that specializes, among other things, in placing those with employment barriers.

“It just has opened our eyes to the difficulties and the challenges that a lot of people face when finding jobs. They are just the average person. There is nothing really when you look at the data over time that separates them from someone else coming in off the street,” Rader said.

“We’re able to provide opportunities for people, and a lot of these folks are extremely grateful for the opportunity, and they turn out to be people who stick with the company for a long time, move up, become managers and see a lot of opportunities for their own personal growth. It’s something that we’re very proud of.”

The GFB also actively seeks out supplier diversity, including sourcing its cashews from a company that hires women from war-torn parts of Africa.

On the environmental sustainability front, The GFB was ranked at No. 33 on Real Leaders’ list of the 2019 Top 100 Impact Companies in the U.S., in part for its current 90% waste diversion rate it achieves by recycling supply buckets, films, packing materials and so on, as well as efforts on the front end to prevent waste and compost food scraps.

Rader said The GFB has been building its programs around what the TRUE Zero Waste certification requires, so it can eventually pay to be audited and certified.

The GFB also holds non-GMO, gluten-free and vegan certifications.


As founder and director of a nonprofit that aims to help disadvantaged youths in the 49507 ZIP code take charge of their lives and create positive change, Beene spoke on GRCCT’s efforts to create opportunities for transformation through meaningful relationships, work, education and community revitalization.

He said these efforts require a move away from “toxic charity,” which creates dependency and discourages personal responsibility, and a move toward reimagining the roles of businesses, churches and other institutions in developing a stronger community.

Beene said there are a lot of things Grand Rapids residents love about their city, including its philanthropy, vibrant culture and attractiveness as a place to live, work and worship.

But there also is a great deal of economic disparity — particularly in the GRCCT neighborhood of 49507, with reported levels of unemployment at 25%; the highest lead-based paint levels in the state; an average reading level of just above fourth grade for the most recent cohort of 19-year-olds surveyed upon entry into GRCCT’s GED program; and low rates of homeownership and business ownership for people of color.

“These problems will continue to be exacerbated as we see our city grow if we don’t begin to engage in this conversation of equitable outcomes, and specifically in this community, how they’ve been racialized. There’s no escaping that,” Beene said.

He said GRCCT was created to answer the problem of “too-powerful” service institutions that make communities “impotent” through massive philanthropy and needs-focused nonprofit programs that “create and compound dependency” rather than acting only as a safety net.

“Business actually is the normative way in which people move out of poverty. It’s not social services. It’s not nonprofits. It’s not the church,” he said. “The normative way in which people move into sustenance is through business. But businesses have to be equitable. They have to provide access.”

According to relatively new research on a “human services values curve,” Beene said the ideal way to approach helping poor and marginalized populations is for businesses and nonprofits to work together, “co-creating” solutions.

With that in mind, GRCCT has created two social enterprise businesses under its umbrella that train and hire youths in the 49507 neighborhood — Building Bridges Professional Services, a landscaping and construction company, and Rising Grinds Café, a coffee shop.

GRCCT operates under a trauma-informed system of care that acknowledges and addresses the police brutality and racism many of the young participants have witnessed and/or endured. As a result, 98% of the youths who came through GRCCT’s doors in 2018 reported feeling welcomed and supported by staff.

In 2018, GRCCT reported a quadruple bottom line impact — people, planet, profit and purpose — of engaging 442 youths in development opportunities; placing 175 young people in jobs; awarding 59 vocational and employment-related certificates; setting up a centralized composting system and diverting 788 pounds of food; planting 932 trees in the city; and offsetting over 4,000 tons of carbon emissions.

Beene said the most important question people can begin to ask if they are serious about diversity, equity and inclusion is, “Through whose eyes do I see my city?”

“That begins to change the way that you engage,” Beene said. “To say, ‘Does (my city) uniquely concern itself with those who have been disenfranchised?’ That’s really the question that equity is beginning to look at.”

Facebook Comments