I've just returned from a whirlwind visit to Cleveland and I'm pleased to report that it's a burgeoning hotbed of sustainable business activity.
That's right: Cleveland. Cleveland, Ohio. The erstwhile "Mistake by the Lake."
The occasion was a speech I gave at Cleveland's Museum of Natural History, sponsored by Entrepreneurs for Sustainability, or E4S, one of the more remarkable green-business groups I've seen anywhere. Founded by Holly Harlan -- an indefatigable woman whose energy is exceeded only by her ideas -- it serves as a model for how business people can come together to learn, share their knowledge, and turn it into action inside their companies.
Harland started E4S in 2000, she told me, "to save manufacturing in northeast Ohio," the heart of the Rust Belt. "Manufacturing is my love," says Harlan, an engineer who previously worked for GE and John Deere. At the time, she had recently heard Amory Lovins talk about turning waste into new feedstocks and products, and thought the notion represented an opportunity to resuscitate northeast Ohio's ailing job base. The group started out with a few dozen members, who attended monthly programs and networking events. Now, the group claims a membership list of 3,500 people, up more than 50% from just one year ago. The event at which I spoke was E4S's 57th monthly "Third Tuesday" event. (Most events are held at the local brew pub, itself sporting a straw-bale wall.)
Please understand: This is no consortium of treehuggers. During a seemingly nonstop series of meetings and events I attended over a 24-hour period, I met with a wide assortment of what, for lack of a better descriptor, I'd call "regular folks" concerned and committed to sustainability and the potential benefits it offers their companies and community.
For example, there's Bill Oatey, vice chairman of Oatey Company, a 90-year-old family business that makes rough plumbing fixtures -- pipes and the like -- as well as cements and solvents used by plumbers. Oatey cleaned up a brownfield to build a 250,000-square-foot distribution facility that achieved a LEED Silver rating. He has worked to develop less-toxic solvents and adhesives, some of which he donates to water projects in Central America.
There's Michael Dungan, vice president of sales at Business Interiors and Environments, a 30-year-old contract furnishing company with offices in Cleveland and Akron, which embarked on a journey several years ago to envision, and become, a "sustainable organization." It's clear that Dungan takes great pride in the spirit of learning, sharing, and modeling sustainability practices that he has helped to foster among BIE's employees.
I met E4S members representing local hospitals, museums, colleges and universities, a handful of bigger companies like AT&T, Eaton, and Shorebank, and dozens of proprietors of small, local businesses, such as architect Bill Doty, principal at Doty & Miller, who has been doing some form of green design and architecture for nearly 30 years.
Harlan and her team have created some exemplary programs. During my visit, I attended a meeting of one of E4S's "Sustainability Implementation" groups, a peer-based learning program that helps participants reduce costs, discover new revenue streams, motivate employees, "and create a healthier environment both inside and outside your facility's walls," as one brochure puts it. The group uses whole-systems design strategy to teach the principles of sustainability; how to apply those principles in facilities, processes, products, and markets; how to develop a sustainability implementation plan; and how to engage employees along the way.
This is what local green-business groups should be about: raising consciousness, sharing knowledge, improving everyone's performance. In other words, demonstrating the hard-core business value of being a cleaner, greener operation.
With more than a little humbleness, Harlan at one point asked me for some perspective -- how E4S compared to other similar programs around the country. "How," she asked, "are we doing?"
Well, Holly, let's see. You've got 3,500 businesspeople from northeast Ohio engaged in and learning about the business value of sustainability. They're taking courses, showing up at events, implementing changes, and measuring their progress.
I'd say you're doing pretty darn well. Indeed: The rest of us could learn a lot about sustainable business from Cleveland.