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Entrepreneur: Sustainability drives innovation, can fuel economic recovery

by Ed Cohen

October 4, 2011

Business Chart


Fred Keller wanted a show of hands.

How many of you, he asked his audience of college students, think that business has an opportunity, if not an obligation, to try to fix the problems of the world?

Most in the audience at the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business on Oct. 4, 2011, raised their hands. He said he found that remarkable.

Then he asked how many thought business, as practiced today, is comfortable with that responsibility.

A much smaller number of hands went up.

That came as no surprise to him.

Keller, founder, chair, president and CEO of Cascade Engineering, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a leading proponent of the so-called “triple bottom line” approach to business. That means building three kinds of capital at once – financial, environmental and social – rather than focusing almost exclusively on profit, as is still the norm in most of the business world.

Cascade manufactures, among other things, office furniture and truck parts, but the company has a growing number of other businesses involved in recycling and sustainability. The firm is said to be the country’s largest certified B-corporation.  That’s an emerging form of business chartered to act in the best interests of not just shareholders but all stakeholders, including employees and local communities.

Keller told the students–members of the “Entrepreneurial Insights” course of the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies—that sustainability has become strategically important to his company. And that it’s the key to overcoming the daunting new economic reality facing the United States.

The entrepreneur showed a series of charts tracing the decline of manufacturing and other jobs in the United States, especially during the recession that began in 2008. He then described some of his company’s sustainability efforts.

These included a more practical, eight-pound alternative to the 300-pound, sand-based water filter commonly used in the developing world. Cascade developed the product to help combat water-borne diseases, which kill nearly 4 million people in the developing world each year.

Another initiative involved pink carts for trash or recycling, which Cascade’s Container Group began making and selling in 2010 to raise awareness of breast cancer. The idea came from a company vice president whose mother had died of breast cancer 23 years earlier.

The wheeled carts include a molded-in label that provides information on maintaining breast health and the importance of early detection.  For every cart sold, Cascade donates $5 to groups promoting breast-cancer awareness. The company has sold more than 50,000 so far, Keller said.

“All of this stuff doesn’t take away from our business,” he said. “It actually strengthens it.”

He showed a chart of the company’s annual sales and pointed to the results of the past few years.

“It looks like we’re on a bit of a rocket ship.”

Keller said sustainability is not just good for society, but drives innovation, which leads to economic growth. The materials-science engineer teaches a course on the subject at his undergraduate alma mater, Cornell University.

Entrepreneurial Insights is a fall lecture series and course that features entrepreneurs, investors, innovators and business leaders. They offer their experience and advice in areas critical to the creation of new ventures, the ongoing viability of existing business, economic growth and the betterment of society. For more information about the series or the Gigot Center visit http://business.nd.edu/gigot_center/