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Published in Economic Development

Q&A: Bill Stough, Founder of West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum Founder and former president of Sustainable Research Group

BY Sunday, August 30, 2020 11:22am

It’s more than fitting that Bill Stough was the inaugural inductee into the West Michigan Sustainable Business Hall of Fame in 2014 — he has been a driving force in the sustainable business movement both in West Michigan and throughout the state. Stough’s passion for sustainability dates back to 1979, when he joined the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. More recently, Stough served as a founding member of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and just wrapped up his role as president of Sustainable Research Group, which he founded and sold to Grand Rapids-based energy consultancy Foresight Management. Stough is now self-employed and recently reflected on his “long and extremely satisfying career.”

What got you interested in sustainability to the point that you made it your career? 

As a young idealistic person, I was looking for a meaningful career that I believed would leave the world in a better place because of my involvement. In that respect, I was lucky to find a college degree in urban and environmental planning at Williams James College (once part of Grand Valley State University), which solidified my passion for environmental stewardship and social justice. I was also lucky to find a string of organizations that allowed me to work in that field until I find myself here with you talking about a long and extremely satisfying career.

Bill Stough, founder of West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum Founder and former president of Sustainable Research Group COURTESY PHOTO

What would you consider your biggest accomplishment over the years?

I think the accomplishment that has the most lasting impact is the founding of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. I was on the board of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and convinced them to create a business subsidiary that would try to work with businesses as opposed to always being against them and, to my surprise, they agreed. From there, it’s been what (WMSBF Executive Director) Dan Schoonmaker has made it.

Talk about the evolution you have seen in how manufacturers approach sustainability. What’s changed over the years in their approach?

You have to separate these businesses in two categories. The large international companies — they get pressure from all sides, so they get it. When you get to the small, medium-size manufacturers, they have become more attuned to the sustainability imperative in the past five years. 

Two major issues have helped many manufacturers adopt sustainable business practices. The first is that a growing list of high-profile customers are demanding that their suppliers provide data and documentation on the environmental and human health impacts of their products. Secondly, a growing number of the best and brightest employees are not interested in working for a company that doesn’t have a sustainability vision or plan. They live their values and more likely than not these days go to companies that can articulate their sustainability strategy.

How did the office furniture industry serve as an example for other industries in embracing sustainability? 

The office furniture industry was one of the first sectors to take the issues embedded in sustainability seriously. Again, initially it was a primary concern of their customers, evidenced now by a majority of office furniture bid documents that request information about the environmental and social impacts of their products and organizational values. As far back as 2006, BIFMA (Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association) began developing a state-of-the-art voluntary product sustainability standard with third-party certification branding. This was years ahead of other industry sectors and has since become the model for many other industries to replicate.

How harmful is greenwashing to the overall sustainable business movement? What can be done to root it out? 

The act of falsely or insincerely marketing information that appears to be environmentally friendly but is just the same old approach with a green spin is extremely harmful as it always ultimately comes to light and customers are turned off and legal problems may also be on the horizon. Greenwashing is so easy to fix — just do the homework on the environmental impacts of your products. No one is perfect, so identify the strengths and weaknesses and celebrate the strengths and continually improve on the weaknesses.

Where does Sustainable Research Group go from here and why was Foresight the right buyer for the business?

It continues to develop into the nation’s premier sustainable business consultancy. The synergy between SRG and Foresight is enormous as each has skilled talent and areas of expertise that are complementary, yet not overlapping. I look forward to seeing how their combined talents will accelerate sustainable business practices in the future.

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