Forum finds common ground in the earth beneath our feet

Businesses haven't always thought of "being green" as being profitable. 
The Southwest Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (SWMSBF)  is changing that perspective.  
SWMSBF is a non-profit organization with a mission to promote business practices that demonstrate environmental stewardship, economic vitality, and social responsibility. 
How do sustainable business practices affect the bottom line? By providing a forum for networking and to discuss that very issue, SWMSBF has been offering a platform for a meeting of green minds since 2004.
"We've seen interest cycle, interest that leads to change," says William (Bill) Rose, president and CEO of Kalamazoo Nature Center and board member of SWMSBF. "In the last 10 years, we have had a groundswell of support. We used to have to pressure businesses to be green. Now, they are looking for changes on their own."
Audrey Wierenga, retired field representative, Pollution Prevention and Technical Assistance Section for the State of Michigan, was one of the founding five members of SWMSBF. She remembers watching interest cycle and now--the groundswell. 
"We were a small group from Kalamazoo who attended the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum that met in Grand Rapids," she says. "And then we thought--we could start this in Kalamazoo, too. We sat down to discuss it in 2004."
By 2006, the Kalamazoo branch was up and running, accepting memberships, ready to elect a board and looking for financial support in the community. Founding members included Audrey Wierenga, Steve Allan, Jeff Hawkins, Lynn Spurr, and Mike Tenenbaum. 
"We worked hard to come up with our bylaws," says Wierenga. "We saw ourselves as a planning group that was morphing into a steering committee. Our first event took place in September 2004 and was called 'Green Roofs: The Competitive Edge.'"
The Green Roofs event was in conjunction with the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and drew about 100 people. The event opened the door to show how a green roof provides heating and cooling benefits and reduces rainwater runoff, adding up to a lower overhead for the business. 
Today, SWMSBF has about 70 businesses and individuals as members and works with a contact list of about 700, according to president of the forum, Lisa Moore, account executive at LKF Marketing.
"Many businesses now have sustainability managers," says Rose, "and many of them attend our events."
"We are also bringing in advocates from colleges and universities," adds Moore. "We usually have several students from Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College attending, both of which have great sustainability programs in place."
Today's mission for the forum has been honed and defined to SWMSBF's seven guiding principles. Members work to: 
• Promote sustainable business practices that encompass the environment, economy and social responsibility;
• Identify and minimize the environmental impacts of facilities and materials used in our products, processes and services;
• Strive to surpass environmental regulations, using compliance as the minimum standard;
• Follow the waste hierarchy of eliminate, reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, incinerate and landfill;
• Develop awareness programs and practices and implement technologies that safeguard and preserve the environment;
• Encourage environmental organizations, businesses and governmental agencies to collaborate on common issues;
• Create opportunities to expand SWMSBF's concept into a national network of sustainable business forums.
Memberships begin at $50 for individuals and organizations with fewer than 10 employees, on up to $500 for organizations with more than 500 employees.
"I learned about SWMSBF through Steve Allen, one of the founders," says Rose. Allen, like Rose, was from the Kalamazoo Nature Center. "KNC became the host organization, and we keep the membership database here."
Wierenga adds: "The Nature Center provides all our administrative support. They handle the funding part for us."
"We got involved because our similar missions were such a good fit," says Rose. "The Nature Center has kids and families as our core audience, and from there we expanded with SWMSBF to reach out to businesses. We can leverage our expertise to help the forum."
Lisa Moore, SWMSBF president, learned about the forum by answering an invitation to attend a Green Drinks event. "I work at a small marketing company, but I've always had an interest in the environment, too. I liked the comfortable, friendly atmosphere of Green Drinks, and I met Lynn Spurr there. She encouraged me to come to other SWMSBF events."
Hosted by the SWMSBF, Green Drinks takes place every 4th Tuesday from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Old Dog Tavern, 402 East Kalamazoo Avenue. The unstructured gatherings provide an opportunity for people to brainstorm ideas and network in a casual atmosphere. 
"I admit to being a little intimidated to join the forum, coming from a small firm," says Moore. "But I really enjoyed Green Drinks, and I realized a small firm could fit just fine."
"We support people with a passion," says Rose. "There's really no other requirement but having that passion. We saw the leadership skills Lisa Moore had, and we encouraged her to take more of a role."
Moore grins. "It's been great to have everyone back me up in my role as president. It's been a very rewarding experience, although it still feels a little funny to hit the gavel and tell Bill to be quiet."
The two laugh, but then get serious again about the requirement of passion for preservation of the environment. The threats to the environment, after all, are serious ones. Some have lost hope, citing statistics that put the planet beyond the tipping point, damaged beyond repair with increasing climate change. 
"Kalamazoo's first LEED-certified building, the Hicks Center at Kalamazoo College, is a good illustration of what a difference passion can make," says Moore. "It was the student body demanding that the building be renovated in a sustainable manner, a homegrown effort, that made it happen."
"There is always room for help," Wierenga says. "We will always look for that next step, the next thing we can do. One drop can swell the ocean."
The next SWMSBF event takes place  from noon to 1:30 p.m. February 21, at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, 7000 N. Westnedge. Peter Sinclair, environmentalist and syndicated cartoonist, will speak about climate change. The event costs $15 for members and students, $25 for non-members, and registration is required.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.  
Photos by Erik Holladay.  

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