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The Next Economy
5 Most Promising Signs of Detroit's Rebirth

Last week, Sustainable Brands staff and corporate members took a trip to Detroit to celebrate the relocation of our flagship conference in 2017. Why are we moving from San Diego to Detroit? The answer is simple: We are inspired by the city’s revitalization; it is a place of burgeoning innovation where business can thrive and create a sustainable and flourishing future — what better place to convene our community? We spent three days in the city, witnessing many promising signs of its rebirth while also witnessing the challenges and opportunities for growth that remain. We learned from the people that are doing the tough, hands-on work to revitalize the community mdash; from sustainable infrastructure to providing food to thousands of underprivileged people. Here are five features of modern-day Detroit that inspired us most as we experienced the city (with the help of our friends at the Detroit Experience Factory).

Green Garage and El Moore Lodge

Green Garage and El Moore Lodge. Located in Midtown Detroit, Green Garage is a shared workspace, startup incubator and what they call an “exploration of sustainability in urban Detroit.” It is hailed as the most sustainable office building in the world and houses about 50 startups, each working to create a more sustainable vision of Detroit. The fact that it was once a Model T factory and is now a shared workspace for young innovators fueling the startup movement is telling of the ethos behind Detroit’s revival. Just down the street is the El Moore — a residential apartment building and urban lodge for short- and long-term guests to “explore the intersection of nature, community, and the city together.” It has been transformed several times: from upscale flats on Detroit’s near-rural periphery to a crowded, Depression-era boarding house; to its late-20th-century decline and eventual vacancy. Now, as Detroit starts the next chapter in its ongoing story, the El Moore’s renovation reflects the city’s remarkable past while looking forward to a more sustainable future.

Goodwill's Greenworks factory

Greenworks is a nonprofit industrial recycling subsidiary of Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit. Goodwill does so much more than thrift stores: Greenworks trains metro Detroit residents with employment challenges to work in the recycling facilities and provides them with real-life experiences in a professional environment. The facility specializes in asset recovery from waste materials, what they call “up-valuing” — especially environmentally sensitive materials such as piping and chemical-laden waste - from Detroit’s manufacturing industry. It then resells usable materials and products on its e-commerce site — overall, a great model for creating jobs and generating revenue for the fight against regional unemployment and poverty, while also repurposing waste.

Earthworks Urban Farm and Food Lab Detroit

Earthworks is a 2.5-acre farm located in downtown Detroit — the only certified organic farm in the city. They host classes for Detroit gardeners, and provide youth after-school programing and a nine-month intensive grower training program for adults. Its partner, FoodLab is a community of food entrepreneurs committed to making the possibility of good food in Detroit a sustainable reality. They design, build and maintain systems to grow a diverse ecosystem of triple-bottom-line food businesses as part of a good food movement that is accountable to all Detroiters.

FoodLab’s Communications Director Devita Davison took the time to speak with our group during our Earthworks visit. She stressed the importance of working not only with local organizations such as Earthworks but also with large corporations to address critical social issues such as racism and social inequity within the food system. Devita’s inspiring talk reaffirmed our commitment to have more “uncomfortable” but important conversations about the plight of food inequality and insecurity — not just in Detroit, but for far too many across the country — at our Detroit event next year. It’s easy to talk about social inequity at an arm’s length, but it’s another thing to experience it firsthand. Many of our corporate members felt deeply impacted by the Food Lab and its work to provide relief to the social issues that Detroit is facing.

The rebirth of manufacturing — both old and new

The theme for our 2017 conference will be “Redefining the Good Life.” In Detroit, we heard from several players at the forefront of doing just this by innovating to reinvent manufacturing and creating unique public-private partnerships that will build a flourishing future for all.

White House Chief Sustainability Officer Christine Harada, keynote speaker at our Detroit launch event, spoke about the crucial work the federal executive branch is doing to help revitalize Detroit and emphasized how business innovation, social responsibility and public-sector policymakers must work together to usher in this new industrial age. General Motors, which also attended the launch event, acknowledged the opportunity that Detroit has to redefine manufacturing for a new era, one that includes the community and businesses working together and that “in order for business to thrive, communities need to flourish.”

During our visit, we were invited to view Shinola’s flagship store in Midtown Detroit, where it has invigorated local manufacturing. Shinola specializes in American-built products, including watches, bicycles, leather, and other luxury goods, employing metro Detroit residents to work in their facilities. CMO Bridget Russo discussed how the company has spearheaded a movement to bring manufacturing back to Detroit and has made “Made in Detroit” a tagline to envy.

And at our biannual corporate member meeting held in conjunction with our Detroit launch, Ford CEO Mark Fields addressed SB members in a keynote speech. He talked about how Ford is “disrupting” its traditional business model to become a leader in connectivity, data analytics, car sharing, and technology in order to create a long-term relationship with consumers. We learned about the steps Ford is taking to usher in sustainable innovation in Detroit, such as integrating an electric fleet with its traditional vehicles and celebrating its new Rouge manufacturing plant as one of the most sustainable facilities in the country.

The passion of the people

Detroit is a special place and only by witnessing it firsthand did we come to understand the immensity of work being done by people on the ground. Residents have a passion for and pride in Detroit — there is a willingness to work on tough problems that are impacting the lives of thousands to improve social equity and environmental degradation, and improve employment opportunities. What makes Detroit a special place isn’t just the infrastructure or the architecture leftover from its golden age (which, by the way, is spectacular), or the legacy of the manufacturing industry of the past — it’s the love that the residents have for their city. Their desire and determination to make it a better place is one of the many reasons we are excited to join them in this movement.


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