As soaking mist shrouds Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest, loggers topple the massive Brazilian rosewood tree. To get to just one mature rosewood specimen, they gash a road corridor through acres of woods. In their wake, farmers rush in to burn trees and slash along either side of the new jungle byway. Trees give way to agriculture. And the native jungle is lost forever, its burned stumps sprouting like tombstones on a rolling canvas of cattle pasture.
This was the picture in the mid-1980s. The deforestation of tropical forests topped the list of environmentalists’ causes the world over. Rainforest Action Network and Friends of the Earth grabbed headlines. They decried the violation of Brazil’s natural heritage. They wailed over the loss of species diversity. They sounded the alarm over the costs of losing forests that pumped oxygen into an atmosphere increasingly flooded with carbon dioxide. “The lungs of the earth are burning!” came the cry.
American industry awakened slowly to this alarm. It slept through the early noise of the activists. It hardly opened an eye to the rumblings of U.S. lawmakers, who were writing legislation to save jungle from oblivion. Only in 1988 and 1989 did industry sit up and pay attention. And one of the first of its members to do so was Herman Miller, Inc., the office-furniture maker in tiny Zeeland, Michigan.
Zeeland, a part of Ottawa County in West Michigan, offers an unlikely haven for corporate environmentalists. The Republican Party considers the county a stronghold—the last Democratic candidate to carry it was elected in 1864. West Michigan companies, often founded by Dutch settlers, make clocks, chairs, boilers, plastics, and car mirrors. Along with neighboring Holland and nearby Grand Rapids, the region boasts such a large complex of office-furniture makers—Herman Miller, Steelcase, Haworth, and their suppliers—that it has been dubbed Furniture Valley.
In the late 1980s, this region, on the opposite side of the state from Detroit, became a crucible of corporate environmental activity. Herman Miller, a company formed in 1923, was at the center of it. The founding De Pree family had always favored careful treatment of nature. The surrounding patchwork of farms and gorgeous strips of Lake Michigan beaches called out for it. The De Prees made sure everyone understood that employees had special license to both do their jobs and do well by the environment. From such an understanding, enterprising employees would often emerge who would take on the mantle of environmental activism.
Max De Pree, son of the founder D.J. De Pree, called these people “roving leaders.” De Pree, former CEO and still chairman in 1989, talked often of people who take charge no matter what their level in the organization. In his bestselling Leadership is an Art, published in 1987, he sized up such leaders this way: “The measure of individuals—and so of corporations—is the extent to which we struggle to complete ourselves, the energy we devote to living up to our potential.”
The obvious question for many of these leaders at the end of the 1980s was this: Are we living up to our potential in caring for the environment? Are we helping the company live up to its potential?
The specter of rainforest decimation caught the eye of a couple of roving leaders within Herman Miller. One of them was Bill Foley, the man responsible for evaluating materials the company bought to make its furniture. Another was Bob Johnston, a writer and policymaker responsible for corporate relations. Together, the two men realized that the trees falling in Brazil could shake up their potential to do good at the traditional Midwest manufacturing firm.
Foley, dark-haired and handsome, started at the company in 1979. He began as a factory hand, applying fiberglass with glue to acoustical panels. He opted, while working for Herman Miller, to get a degree in business, and after a couple of promotions, he took the materials-assessment job. Designers came to him when they wanted to specify a new wood for a chair or desk or shelf.
Johnston, a self-starting leader like Foley, thought of himself as a passionate environmentalist. He had previously edited a local newspaper, assigning reporters to write stories on clean water, lakes, and municipal water systems. He joined Herman Miller in 1988, taking a job in marketing writing. When he later took his corporate relations job, people came to him to assess risks to the company’s reputation. Johnston often proposed ways to deal with those risks.
One thing common to Foley and Johnston was that they, like the other roving environmentalists at Herman Miller, were 30-something professionals raised during a generation of growing environmental awareness. By the late 1980s, they had witnessed the corporate disasters of the Union Carbide gas poisoning in Bhopal, India; the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez off Alaska; and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. In 1988, they witnessed the commotion over early testimony in Congress about the risks of global warming. They had lived through the passage of every major environmental law: the Clean Water Act; the Clean Air Act; the Endangered Species Act; and the Toxic Substances and Control Act.
And yet when it came to tropical forests, Foley and Johnston were caught unawares…
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