Detroit is poised to become a global leader in business sustainability, but this will require a new approach to collaboration. The newly formed Sustainable Business Network of Detroit (SBN Detroit) recently held its inaugural event, “Detroit’s Moment: Accelerating the Sustainable Business Revolution.”

The landscape
Detroit’s environmental, social and economic issues are intertwined, and sustainability is a critically important driver of business in the region. However, Detroit lacks a sustainability community that brings together these different players. SBN Detroit has begun to do just that. The network’s founding organizations are the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, the Erb Institute, the Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, TechTown Detroit, Wayne State University and Inforum.

The Network
The group’s goal is to create a sustainable business ecosystem through a network that brings together transnational corporations, entrepreneurs, small and medium businesses, and grassroots organizations. It will serve as a hub to share ideas, programming, and other activities to accelerate the systemic adoption of sustainable business practices.

We face systemic problems that require systemic solutions, noted Andrew Hoffman, Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Business Enterprise at the University of Michigan, who moderated the panel. This will include thinking differently about collaboration and competition, he said.

The panelists included Bob Holycross, vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering at Ford Motor Co.; Amy Peterson, co-founder and CEO of Rebel Nell; and Carla Walker-Miller, founder and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services.

The opportunity for SBN
About half of Detroiters are employed by small businesses, Walker-Miller pointed out. SBN Detroit can invite them in and let them know that this revolution cannot be successful without their voices, opinions and insight, so that this can be the most inclusive, sustainable economy in the country, she said. These issues are “real and relevant to every single Detroiter.”

Detroit is undergoing a renaissance, and business can lead development and revitalization in ways that respond to critical environmental and racial justice needs, Hoffman said. “Not many cities can do this. We can,” he said. He pointed to Ford’s revitalization of Michigan Central Station as an example, as it prioritizes the community’s needs.

At Ford, this approach has meant changing the mindset of how the company does business, considering how to make the world a better place, and connecting with the local community to make sure Ford is responding to their needs, Holycross said. When people are allowed to innovate, businesses can grow in new ways, he said.

Peterson said she has felt there is a “true disconnect in Detroit between big players and small businesses.” Detroit is home to many small manufacturing businesses. “How do we get them in a room with the giants to help us brainstorm and learn best practices?” she said. How can companies of all sizes work cohesively and collaboratively?

Walker-Miller agreed, emphasizing the value of small businesses in Detroit. Large companies set the agendas for cities, she said, adding: “Give us access. Include us in the thought leadership that would change Detroit and would change the state.”

Collaboration and creativity can accelerate the pace of sustainable change. In 2020, the Erb Family Foundation conducted a study to assess the status of sustainable business efforts in Southeast Michigan. It found that while many local businesses have sustainability initiatives, there is an urgent need for collaboration. With global climate change accelerating and equity declining among marginalized populations, the Erb Family Foundation created SBN Detroit. Now, the network is ready to galvanize bold action.