Leading the charge toward community sustainability

In this Coffee Klatsch, Vince is joined by Dan Broersma, Sustainability Manager for the City of Holland, Michigan, to talk about some of the sustainable practices brought forth by the community. Plus, how can your organization be more sustainable without costing you money? Dan gives tips on where to start.

Top Takeaways:

  • Although sustainability is a more popular topic of conversation today, it has been an integral part of community development in Holland and other towns since the 20th century.
  • While government regulations can be effective in sustainability efforts, they are not necessary to move those efforts forward. Organizations in both the public and private sectors can successfully encourage community involvement in sustainability through leading by example.
  • Sustainability projects should not cost your organization money. In fact, if sustainable practices are properly integrated into your organization’s practices, you should be saving money in the long term.


Vince Boileau: Hey friends! Welcome back to the Coffee Klatsch, our series where we bring on people that we think are interesting to talk about topics, and insights, and practices, and new ways of thinking. Today I’m joined by Dan Broersma, who is a Sustainability Manager at the City of Holland. Prior to that he did a couple years at Goodwill, also as a Sustainability Manager, and then prior to that [he] was at Herman-Miller for 18 years where last he was doing corporate program management also in sustainability. I think what I wanted to start [with] was, how is Holland unique in our approach to sustainability maybe versus other cities?

Dan Broersma: Sustainability has been ingrained in our community for so long. Now we’re starting to talk about the things that we do, but that particular mindset is still carrying forward into the projects that we’re working on today.

VB: I don’t know that it can be said about a lot of cities that they take an active role in sustainability leadership. I think when people think about the relationship between government and sustainability we think about rules, we think about regulation, but when we think about it maybe at a more local level, I think it looks differently, and there’s a leadership aspect of things. And so I’m wondering if you can talk about, maybe, just some of the things that the city [of Holland] has done that are different as far as sustainability leadership.

DB: The thought process from a government role is: let’s create opportunities. Let’s create things that people want to be a part of. So council says, “We want to do this.” Great. “We want to recycle.” How do we do this better so we bring together community members, we bring together business groups, we actually get the buy-in from the community and get the best model that we think will be the fit, and then tweak it along the way. The recycling carts that just came out, right? So it took our task force a good year and a half to move to the carts, away from the yellow bags, because of the data, because of the thought process, and we actually picked a cart that was made out of the stuff that would go into the cart, which was very important. So again, it goes: we’re going to lead by example, not by policy.

VB: How do you make sure that a program around sustainability reflects the values of the people?

DB: We bring together folks that, one, that have to manage the program and, two, again, are experts and ask them, “Hey this is what we’re thinking about.” Or people who’ve already gone through the program, [we ask them] “What were the problems?” Taking every aspect of our community, business, residential, and getting their feedback into the program, and then rolling out a program — but yet be willing to change it again. We always take a look at, what are the barriers, why aren’t people getting involved in that? Okay, how do we remove those barriers so people want to be involved?

VB: One of the things you once told me is, like, if sustainability is costing you a bunch of money you’re probably doing it wrong.

DB: You’re doing it wrong.

VB: And I’m wondering if you could just build on that idea for me.

DB: You need to take a look at sustainability projects as [they integrate] into your organization. There might be a little bit of upfront money but it’ll pay back if you think through the process. Well, there was a certain waste product [when] I worked at Herman-Miller that we were throwing away. We did a lot of research (which costed money) and actually were able to integrate that product back into the products we make. So it cut down on materials that we had into the products that we made, and it cut down on the waste that we were throwing away. But without that way of thinking, you just think, “Oh, well, it’s going to cost us money from a research perspective.” Well, we were okay with that as long as the other things lined up. Then all of a sudden you realize it’s starting to pay itself back.

VB: Yeah, awesome. Well, thanks for joining us today.

DB: Thanks for having me.