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Businesses urged to embrace sustainability

75 attended the Earth Day event

POSTED: April 20, 2011 10:25 p.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Jim Hartzfeld, managing director of InterfaceRAISE, delivers the keynote address at Wednesday evening's sustainability in business forum at the Featherbone Communiversity.

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Jim Hartzfeld was talking about sustainability when the term didn't exist.

When the carpet production company he worked for announced it was embarking on a revolutionary green initiative in 1994, everyone said it was an insane idea.

"We turned our heads toward this idea of sustainability but not in response to environmentalists, not in response to government regulations, not in response to pickets at our shareholders meetings," Hartzfeld said to a group of business leaders gathered Wednesday at an Earth Day forum. "...We said, ‘There is a way to create a better company.'"

Today, that company, Interface, is one of the nation's leading sustainability enterprises, and Hartzfeld heads the business' green initiative consultation arm, InterfaceRAISE. His keynote address was at the center of a community forum that focused on big ideas about how businesses can embrace sustainability in ways that are good for the environment and the bottom line.

Moderator Maria Zayas, chair of sustainability initiatives at Brenau University, framed the concept of sustainability for the group as "being wise stewards of our resources so we don't deplete them for future generations."

"What we would like to see is for there to be a proactive, interactive approach to dealing with our resources," she said. "And often we think of them in three segments, those being people, meaning the engagement of individuals; planet, which means the environment; and profit, that means we have to be able to make money."

Hartzfeld's message stressed that all of those components can function together. When his company was first stepping into the sustainability movement, it drafted a mission statement.

"Our promise is to eliminate any negative impact our company may have on the environment by the year 2020," the statement reads.

It's a radical thought and one Hartzfeld said many in the company argued was ludicrous and inaccessible. But on Wednesday Hartzfeld urged the 75 people in attendance to think radically about the impact a company can have on its surroundings.

"Unless you throw out a big, hairy, audacious idea, you will never get close to it," he said. "... What is the vision you can have for your company, for Brenau, for the Communiversity, for Gainesville that takes people's breath away? It's almost like if you can't take people's breath away you're not going to be able to get their attention."

Elizabeth Umberson, president of wind turbine gear box manufacturing company ZF Wind Power, told the group her company was born out of an impossible idea. The average wind turbine lasts for 20 years and uses three gear boxes over its lifetime.

"Our innovative idea, our goal, was what if we could produce the gearbox and you only needed one?" she said.

ZF Wind Power is putting the final touches on a $96 million plant in Gainesville to create those gear boxes.

"Our company thinks that sustainability and business are terms that go together, that sustainability is not done at the exclusion of profit," Umberson said. "We think they go together."

Wednesday's event was held at the Featherbone Communiversity and sponsored by several community organizations including the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, EnvironShare and Brenau University. The other forum speakers were William Silva, president and CEO of the solar energy provider United Renewable Energy; and Carol Couch, senior public service associate for the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia.

Hartzfeld challenged those in attendance to embrace sustainability not because of societal pressure or guilt born in environmental crises, but because of the power and excitement found in the movement.

"Find what is working and multiply that as fast as possible," he said. "We need to understand the stuff that's going around us, because make no mistake, our decisions are causing that. But ... we haven't changed the world by responding to some crisis."

 



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