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Sunday, 30 September 2012 19:53

Q&A: Norman Christopher, Executive Director, Grand Valley State University, Sustainable Community Development Initiative

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Q&A: Norman Christopher, Executive Director, Grand Valley State University, Sustainable Community Development Initiative Courtesy photo
Norman Christopher is West Michigan’s de facto swami of sustainability. He’s a staunch supporter of sustainability efforts across the region, having helped launch many of those groups and lent some institutional knowledge to others. It’s a passion he brought to Grand Valley State University after a quarter century of corporate experience at companies including Dow Chemical, Olin Corporation and Haviland Enterprises. He currently helps lead the Grand Rapids Community Sustainability Partnership and serves as the executive director of the university’s Sustainable Community Development Initiative, where he continues to track the evolution of corporate sustainability and how it impacts the West Michigan region. Christopher spoke with MiBiz Staff Writer Elijah Brumback about the state of sustainability in the region and what’s next.

How much of the corporate sustainability implemented today is simple greenwashing compared to real quantifiable initiatives like monitoring waste disposal?

Early on, sustainability really took some time to be demystified, but there are a lot of local case studies in West Michigan that have turned out a number of useful principles. What’s fascinating is that I don’t think much of it is greenwashing. Sustainability practices really have the traction, not just for progress, but also from an impact standpoint for companies. The furniture industry, for one, has launched a lot of sustainability and best practices we can share with small to medium sized business. There is clear evidence now that it’s not just another wave to ride. Companies are investing resources so they must be able to retain some returns for those investments.

Do you think sustainability efforts have made companies more transparent in relation to business practices and how they impact the communities they do business in?

Products used to be made with the thought of ‘what’s their end of life.’ Now companies are thinking in broader spectrum of product use. Life cycle analysis that goes from cradle to the grave, total cost accounting and design for the environment are three things coming from sustainability that provide better perspectives on cost and value in the marketplace. Corporate social responsibility and more rigorous environmental certification are also major players in this. Companies are realizing that the journey of sustainability holds together across the triple bottom line and has to be applied at the top of the pyramid. It’s a toolbox that allows you to make better decisions.

The university recently released a study claiming that sustainability efforts at Grand Valley had an economic impact of around $773 million. What is the significance of putting a number like that out there and how do you really account for all those dollars?

Data on that was provided by Tom Butcher (General Counsel for GVSU) and that number is developed annually. We looked at 10 major areas rather than throw together a bunch of different metrics. Things like, ‘what is the impact of local purchasing’ is one area that is more important than some others. The reason this was done is because you have to assess where you are. The first study was done in 2005. The study in 2008 dealt with progress. We’ve been at this for a while now and unless you take time the time to develop the data, unless you put the metrics out there, you don’t understand the impact. These studies allow the discussion to take place. This is not greenwashing; this is standardization.

It’s been a decade since the West Michigan Strategic Alliance and regional partners issued the Common Framework: A Region in Transition plan. The 2002 report details West Michigan’s assets, connections and other important economic and environmental factors. Has there been any discussion around an update to that report?

We’ve had some discussion. There are some areas like energy, the environment, economic development, arts and education that weren’t covered well enough and could use more study. That was terrific work that was done, but I think there is a case for putting together a revised update that could look at asset utilization and the area being built upon. The tools we used to do that study 10 years ago are getting more sophisticated. I think it’s still worth revisiting.

Read 3491 times Last modified on Monday, 22 October 2012 13:05
Elijah Brumback

Staff Writer

ebrumback@mibiz.com

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