The Business of Sustainability

April 10, 2020 | The business of sustainability

Sustainable businesses in the United States can trace their origins back more than 100 years, when pioneering startups in organic food and wind and solar energy popped up in the early 1900s and 1910s. Things have certainly changed in the last century. As climate change has come to the forefront of the national conversation, we’ve seen an explosion of green initiatives on a much larger, global business scale.

Today, sustainability is an integral part of many companies. According to a 2017 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Boston Consulting Group, 90% of executives surveyed see sustainability as important, and 60% of companies surveyed actually had a sustainable strategy.

Iowa companies are helping lead the green movement. Renewable energy, sustainable waste solutions and regenerative agriculture are just a few of the strategies our state’s businesses have implemented.


It wasn’t as if solar energy was off Jenny Steffensmeier’s radar — it was just tucked away in the back of her mind. She drove by houses with solar panels or farms with solar fields, but installing solar power in her business? That didn’t seem like an option.

Steffensmeier Welding and Manufacturing, located in Pilot Grove, Iowa, means a great deal to Steffensmeier. Her husband, Ben, launched it in 1982 as a small shop in a small town. By 2010, the company had grown into a 40,000-square-foot facility, filling laser cutting, mass manufacturing and machine work projects. Many of the orders came, and still come, from the agricultural sector. When Steffensmeier took over the business after her husband died more than five years ago, she wanted to maintain his passion.

In April 2015, Steffensmeier connected with a customer who performed solar installations. In the course of conversations, Steffensmeier learned about the enormous benefits of a solar field, not just in electricity cost savings, but in reducing carbon footprints, attracting top talent and more.

“You live in your day-to-day, your business bubble, so this wasn’t something that I necessarily thought about,” Steffensmeier said. “I’ve gotten a lot better at it. But I felt like the payback that I get in my monthly electric bill is something I can give back to the people that work here and make everything that we do possible.”

In 2016, the 430-kilowatt solar field was installed in a nearby lot, providing virtually 100% of the energy to the Steffensmeier Welding and Manufacturing facilities — the first fully solar-powered manufacturing and fabrication building in Iowa. The large array saves the business about $92,000 per year in electrical costs and will reduce carbon emissions by 8,917 metric tons over the next 25 years.

Before the installation, Steffensmeier Welding and Manufacturing’s electric bill reached $7,000 per month. Today, Steffensmeier said the monthly bill is typically around $20 per month. She said the solar array will be fully paid off by 2023, which will translate to substantial long-term cost savings.

“It’s really very cool,” she said. “We have this giant solar facility, and that matters to people. Sustainability is a big deal, and it’s not going away.”

Steffensmeier recalled the times when her children would come home from school, raving about a field trip to a nearby recycling facility. Sustainability makes an impression on younger generations, she said, and the hope is that this solar facility will help recruit new workers who are interested in working for a company with a reduced carbon footprint.

“We’re in a world with labor shortages everywhere, whether it’s construction or welding electricians,” she said. “I think this gives them a very good reason to come here. It’s a really cool place to work, and now we get to say that we reduce our carbon footprint, and we’re really making an impact.”


International Paper Co. is one of the oldest largest producers of fiber-based products in the world. The 120-year-old company has also taken sustainability seriously for at least the past decade, creating voluntary sustainability goals in 2010 aimed at improving its impact on people and the planet. It recently released its 2030 vision, which aims to build a better future for people, the planet and the company.

A big part of International Paper’s efforts is recycling. Because the company operates primarily with a valuable resource (wood), it has taken steps toward mitigating wastefulness.

“We have to be sustainable because we depend on these raw materials,” said Rick O’Neal, environmental, health, safety and sustainability manager and communication manager. “If we didn’t have the right practices around forestry or recycling, we wouldn’t be in business, right? We want to ensure we have a future at the company, and it’s the right thing to do.”

In Cedar Rapids, International Paper operates an all-recyclable mill, Cedar River Mill, which takes used corrugated boxes to make additional boxes. It’s the largest all-recycle mill in North America, consuming more than a million tons of corrugated containers every year. Without the mill, a large percentage of that product would end up in a landfill.

The Cedar River Mill launched in the 1990s. A now-defunct company came up with the idea of creating an all-recyclable mill in the Midwest, where there was an untapped fiber resource. The company could use that fiber in some of its products. Cedar Rapids had a lot of advantages, the chief being its proximity to several major cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Louis.

International Paper bought the business in August 2008 and has made the mill an essential part of its sustainability initiatives. Not only does it recycle millions of tons of carboard, it also boasts low utility costs.

“It’s a huge part of [our sustainability goals],” said Brian Burmeister, manufacturing excellence manager. “We don’t produce the same emissions that you have in other facilities, so it’s very, very important and integral to the fact that we’re able to do our business in a very environmentally friendly way.”

Derek Depuydt, mill manager at the Cedar River Mill, said there is a robust recycling circle within the company. International Paper creates paper but also operates a division that takes used paper and converts it into boxes, which can be recycled again and again. This loop keeps millions of tons of waste from reaching landfills, and it’s a responsibility that International Paper takes seriously.

“We are one of the industry leaders, and we take that role to ensure we’re building a future for our employees, the people, the planet, and that we have a lot of robust goals around sustainability,” O’Neal said. “Being the industry leader, we wear that badge that we want to be at the forefront of sustainability.”


For as long as she can remember, Kellan Longenecker said General Mills has implemented sustainability goals. She’s been with the company for 18 years. And at least for the last decade, driving toward sustainability has become one of the top focuses for the global food company.

Longenecker is the plant manager for the Avon Mill in Carlisle, Iowa, and has been at the forefront of General Mills’ sustainability goals in the manufacturing space. The company uses recycled products, like cardboard and other fiber-based materials for packaging in its facilities. Efficiency has been stressed with water and energy, reducing overall carbon footprints.

There has also been a lot of work toward achieving zero waste to landfills, meaning all potential waste is diverted from already-overloaded garbage facilities.

“Any project that we complete, we have special attention and focus around reducing the waste and reducing our impact,” Longenecker said.

Over the last year in particular, General Mills has shifted much of its emphasis and rhetoric from sustainability to regeneration. The company believes that it needs to play an active role in regenerating them, because sustaining natural resources is no longer enough.

To General Mills, regenerative agriculture means protecting and intentionally enhancing natural resources and farming communities. This could mean myriad things, but a big part is finding ways to work with nature, like pulling carbon from the air and storing it in the soil. General Mills has made it a goal to advance regenerative farming practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030.

General Mills is seeing real results toward its commitments. From 2010 to 2019, the company achieved a 15% decrease in its greenhouse gas emission footprint. And in 2019, 91% of its 10 priority ingredients were sustainably sourced. Going forward, General Mills hopes to continue being an industry leader in going green — for both the health of the business and the planet.

“We’re tied to that mission of making sure that we’re a big part of the solution,” Longenecker said. “I also think there’s a huge win with employees. One intangible that we can’t quantify is the growing desire to understand how we impact the earth. And if we’re working on systems that improve efficiency, that’s a whole lot less waste. It’s a win-win.” 


Business sustainability is a topic Adam Hammes focuses on every day. The executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, which provides a platform for Iowa companies to share best sustainable practices, Hammes has heard plenty of successful case studies over the years. He compiled them in a book, “Sustainable Business in Iowa: How Leading Companies Profit from Environmental and Social Responsibility,” which was released in January 2018.

The Iowa Sustainability Forum has almost 50 member companies now, which is a sharp uptick from even a few years ago. He’s seen an increased interest in the sustainable movement from businesses around the state.

“Businesses are starting to look a little harder, a little longer and a little more creative at a business solution that acts on the environment,” Hammes said. “A lot of these companies have found that there are really creative ways to make a positive mark on the environment, and sometimes there are business benefits to that.”

Those benefits include significantly smaller utility bills and the ability to attract and retain workforce. Of course, not all sustainable solutions are made with business interests in mind, Hammes said. There are a number of companies in the state that have made the decision to be greener even at the loss of some profit.

“There are companies who could have made more if they had just ignored sustainability,” Hammes said. “They don’t make bad business decisions, but they do things that aren’t purely profitable. They say, ‘Because people believe in this, we as a company and as leaders are going to make this happen.’”

Hammes pointed to a couple of Iowa companies as shining examples. West Liberty Foods in West Liberty has taken a number of steps toward sustainability. It is virtually a landfill-free business, a huge achievement for a food company. Its facilities are also ISO 14001 certified, an international standard that specifies requirements for an effective environmental management system.

The other company is Design Engineers in Cedar Rapids, which operates Iowa’s first and only certified net-zero facility for a for-profit company. That means the building produces as much energy as it uses every year.

“Those are two easy examples to point to solutions where they achieved something great, and then they went to the lengths to get it verified by a third party,” Hammes said. “It’s great to see these companies coming together and watching great Iowa companies represent sustainability to the best ways they can.”