Sustainability Inc. |
Your shopping cart is empty.


Sustainability Inc.

When for-profit companies adopt sustainability as a business strategy, innovation can lead to better worlds and better bottom lines
TruStage Financial Group’s new building on its west Madison campus
TruStage Financial Group’s new building on its west Madison campus

Wisconsin’s long been a national leader in sustainability. After all, former Gov. Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day in 1970. And, in 1968, Madison became the first community in the country to offer curbside recycling. Today, the state ranks number two—only behind California—in its number of organic farms, and has pledged to generate 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. But even before this, Wisconsin’s landscape birthed many environmentalists, including Aldo Leopold, the author of “A Sand County Almanac,” who taught wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1930s; and John Muir, who lived on a farm near Portage with his family as a child in the 1850s.

In recent years this sustainability mantra has expanded into the Wisconsin business sector, inching into industries as small and niche as a dental office and a coffee roaster, but also into a major hospital system, a clothing and lifestyle brand, and a manufacturer of boat parts. Whether it’s about adopting renewable energy, offsetting greenhouse gasses, recycling, or using post-consumer recycled materials, earth-friendly innovators are attracting the attention of both their employees and customers.

Jessy Servi Ortiz, managing director of Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council.

Organizations like the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council foster community and conversation within the business sector so that there is a process for sharing both the positives and the pitfalls. One example is the Council’s Green Masters Program®, a virtual tool open to any business wanting to improve its sustainability. Businesses first measure their own performance and then benchmark themselves against the maturing field.

“The tool helps companies define, prioritize, measure and improve their sustainability performance through systems development, best practices and performance improvement,” says Jessy Servi Ortiz, managing director of Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council (WSBC).

Participating in the program entitles them to use the Green Masters Program logo in their marketing. At the Council’s annual conference, businesses convene to continue to learn and share best practices around mitigating risk around climate and improving their environmental and social performance.

“We have a long history of conservation and outdoor recreation in the state that supports employees and business leaders valuing our natural resources,” says Servi Ortiz. “These values often translate to business practices and wanting to leave a legacy for future generations.”

Landing an Earth-Friendly Ethos

Headquartered in Dodgeville since 1963, the Lands’ End clothing brand is the Midwest equivalent of L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, with outerwear, casual clothing, and home goods like towels and comforters. For the company, durability—products that stand the test of time—is built into its DNA.

“From the beginning of Lands’ End, we’ve always had an emphasis on quality products that last for generations,” says a Lands' End spokesperson. “With that in mind, the hope is our customers use our products continuously and don’t have to worry about replacing their items over and over again.” So it was not hard to move toward greater sustainability.

Recently the company issued six product goals to accomplish by 2025. Two have already been met: 100 percent compliance with the Responsible Down Standard (ensures humane treatment of geese and ducks, whose feathers are used for insulation) and 30 percent of garments made with fabric finishes that use less water in manufacture. The three that are left to tackle are: 100 percent cotton from sustainable sources, 100 percent polyester fibers from recycled sources, and—to bring this all together—a product lifecycle component that allows for recycling.

In 2016, Lands’ End started working with Martex Fiber on an innovative project. Material scraps and clothing that can’t be repurposed by Lands’ End are sent to this textile-recycling company and transformed into post-consumer fibers used in a variety of new ways. This includes noise insulation in automobiles as well as bedsheets, socks, knit caps, and home furnishings.

One of the brand’s own products realized through post-consumer recycling is a line of denim pants for women that debuted in 2023. The pants are made of fabric from Recover, a company—like Martex Fibers—that takes textile waste scraps and makes them useful again. Each pair of jeans made from Recover fabric features 20 percent recycled cotton fiber. In addition to this, there is very little indigo dying that takes place in production, another way of limiting water usage in the manufacturing process.

Sustainable Smiles

While much of the sustainability efforts at Madison’s Artisan Dental can actually be put into practice in other office environments, it’s also getting major attention within the dental industry.

Founders Nicole and Scott Andersen—who operate the U.S.’s first carbon-neutral general dentistry practice—were invited to speak at the first Sustainability in Dentistry, a global conference. They’ve also created a no-cost webinar (available on YouTube) for other dentists about how to shift their practice to carbon-neutral status. And, finally, by collaborating with dental-industry suppliers they’re educating others about how dental offices can become even more green.

Their carbon-neutral operation begins with the purchase of 100 percent of its electrical supply through Madison Gas and Electric’s Green Power program, which draws primarily on wind and solar power installations. As for the day-to-day tasks in their office that lean toward sustainability, they include going all-digital with patient records and communications, eliminating toxic cleaning and disinfecting products and also toxic chemicals normally used to develop X-rays, installing low-flow toilets, using low- or no-VOC paints and ceiling tiles, turning to steam sterilization (because it’s nontoxic), and maximizing natural light (using less artificial light) with tons of windows. Carpeting is crafted from 100-percent recycled materials and anybody—not just patients—can bring in toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, floss containers and mouthwash bottles to be recycled. Artisan Dental partners with the company, TerraCycle, as a public drop-off station for items that don’t qualify for curbside recycling. TerraCycle researches and develops recycling methods for items that would otherwise go in the landfill. The dental office also takes care of recycling clear aligners, a popular product for straightening teeth.

Finally, the company donates one percent of revenue from the Artisan Dental Health Plan to environmental nonprofits, some of which are in Dane County.

The Great State of Coffee

In the big-wide world of food and drink, locally-owned and community-based coffee roasters have been leading the way when it comes to environmental stewardship and social justice for a long time.

Wonderstate Coffee was founded in 2005 by TJ Semanchin and Caleb Nicholes in the agriculturally diverse Driftless Region, which enjoys a flourishing economy for organic and artisanal food. The coffee roaster, originally named Kickapoo Coffee, got its start selling to local coops and boutique grocery stores.

Wonderstate Coffee founders TJ Semanchin (left) and Caleb Thomas. Photo by Neal Olson

Before launching Wonderstate Coffee, Semanchin worked for seven years at Peace Coffee in the Twin Cities, a leader in organic, Fair Trade coffee since its 1996 founding. That experience has helped Wonderstate Coffee lend more support to coffee farmers to ensure they are paid fair wages. Eighty percent of the farms they work with are smaller than 12 acres and the largest clocks in at 125 acres. Nearly all are family-owned and organic, and keep money in the community. They particularly enjoy working with farms that practice organic fertilization, organic composting, and judicious tree pruning. These practices reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by capturing and keeping carbon in the soil or in the living plants—and out of the atmosphere.

Now keenly aware of how climate change affects these farmers, Wonderstate became one of the world’s first roasters to switch to solar power. This new source of electricity is used for heating, cooling, vacuum systems and lights at the roastery.

As a further commitment to honoring the environmental landscape, including its stewards, in 2019 the co-owners went so far as to change their name—a costly process, as any business owner knows—because they felt Kickapoo Coffee’s name did not belong to them; instead, it belonged to the indigenous Kickapoo Nation.

Wonderstate now has four cafes: in Viroqua, Madison, and Bayfield. At the cafes, efforts are made to compost food waste and offer customers a discount if they bring in a Wonderstate reusable cup—instead of filling yet another paper cup. Bonus: twenty-five cents of each drink purchase supports reforestation efforts at coffee farms. And one dollar from each bag of Organic Canopy coffee goes to a fund that helps plant both shade and coffee trees, with those shade trees protecting the coffee trees from effects of climate change.

Wonderstate Solar arrays system at Wonderstate’s roastery in Viroqua. Photo by Neal Olson

Building a True Green Business Model

Known as CUNA Mutual Group until 2022 when they adopted a new brand name, TruStage Financial Group is about more than following the money as most finance-oriented businesses do. While they do sell insurance and investment products to credit unions and their members, the 89-year-old company says it also wants to protect the Earth’s natural resources at the same time.

When building an addition to its west side campus in Madison—dubbed The Lighthouse—TruStage worked with EUA, an architecture firm, to earn LEED Gold certification, the second-highest designation from the U.S. Green Building Council. Earning 72 points, it is the highest point total of any LEED v4 (the newest LEED version) project in Wisconsin with publicly available information.

From triple glazed bird deterrent glass to a 10,000-gallon cistern that collects rain from the roof for reuse, the newly revitalized campus boasts 35 percent restored native vegetation, which also creates a calming environment for workers when coming and going from the office. Energy use was slashed nearly in half thanks to 75 percent of occupied spaces having access to natural daylight and efficient lighting. Indoor water use has also been reduced by nearly 40 percent. The toilets, urinals, and plumbing fixtures alone save an estimated 100,000 gallons of water annually.

Just a peek at the five-story, 125,000-square-foot building reveals this is a smart design. Walls of glass coax in natural light and greenery is abundant, including a living-greenery wall near a floating staircase on each floor. The idea is to make this a healthy and appealing place to work, with a rooftop terrace, auditorium, dining area and collaboration spaces to coax people into conversation and human contact, particularly important after pandemic lock-downs.

Knowing that asphalt and gasoline are air pollutants, TruStage moved the parking structure underground. They were recently recognized for these efforts by the WSBC’s Green Masters Program.

TruStage Financial Group’s new building on its west Madison campus earned LEED Gold certification, the second-highest designation from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Gunning for Green

The impetus for this La Crosse hospital and health-care system to include renewable energy in its thinking and planning occurred in 2008. “As an organization, we were building a new hospital and our CEO came to us and said ‘Can we make this a net-zero building?’” recalls Alan Eber. “We said ‘Yes, and we can make the entire corporation net zero.’”

Eber is director of Envision, a wholly owned subsidiary of Gundersen Health System, which functions as its energy and sustainability division. This is a big job since the company operates six hospitals and 70 clinics in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota.

Instead of the standard way—through a utility—Gundersen Health System was successful in harnessing energy from four other sources: solar installations on-site, biomass (wood byproduct from local wood mills near their northern facilities), biogas from three Dane County farms (cow manure turned into biogas), and local windmills.

It was also important to Gundersen that the energy come from local sources and not out of state wherever possible.

Within the first two years, energy use was reduced by 35 percent at the main campus, in La Crosse. The Legacy Building, completed in 2014, also earned LEED certification.

The company went net-zero for two reasons. One, to reduce costs as a company during a health-care cost crisis. “Today, we’re saving $5.6 million a year,” says Eber. The other reason? If the mission is to keep people healthy and from getting sick, then creating healthy environments free of toxins easily falls in line with that reasoning.

Efforts to incorporate sustainability into one’s business also opens up opportunities that weren’t otherwise there. “It’s helped put us at the table where we might not normally be,” says Eber. “It helped us recruit new staff. We had physicians calling Gundersen to say ‘One of the reasons I want to interview is the sustainability effort,’ especially the younger people.”

In addition to ongoing efforts in La Crosse, Gundersen has since implemented a dozen similar projects centered around renewable energy. Nearly every facility has solar power now. Clinics range in size from 5,000 square feet to 90,000 square feet. In 2014 they became the first energy-independent hospital system in the country—essentially producing an energy surplus.

In January, Gundersen opened a clinic in downtown Elroy as its first on-site, net-zero energy building. This is different from all the other clinics, which rely on energy generated off site, and it represents the company’s movement toward even greater self-sufficiency.

Partnering with local businesses that had waste biofuels to sell was also an important strategy for Gundersen. Examples were a brewery that had a methane byproduct useful for producing electricity, and a county landfill that generated methane gas that could be tapped and used for heating.

A Sea of Sustainability

As a maker of propulsion systems for boats, and operating as Brunswick Corporation’s marine engine division, encouraging people to get out and enjoy the water is built into all of Mercury Marine’s marketing. So why not also do their best to keep Wisconsin’s waterways as clean as possible?

Looking back to last year, three product introductions are in perfect pitch with those sustainability aims. All are Avator electric outboard motor platforms, the first of which debuted in early 2023 at the Consumer Electronics Show: Avator 7.5e. The process of developing these electric outboards took two years. Swap-in, swap-out batteries charge overnight in a standard household outlet.

According to Brunswick’s 2022 environmental report—the latest data available—Mercury Marine has also made significant progress toward meeting three environmental goals with deadlines in 2025: reduce water consumption by a quarter, energy consumption by 25 percent, and emissions of outboard engines and sterndrive/inboards.

For all of its efforts, the company just received its 13th consecutive Green Masters Level Award, a designation awarded by the WSBC.

In addition to weaving sustainability into their products and services, supporting sustainable-minded initiatives through charitable giving is another mantra for these Wisconsin businesses. Many choose to align with projects close to home, to further preserve the communities in which they are located. For example, Lands’ End became a founding corporate partner of the Clean Lakes Alliance of the Dane County area in 2010 by donating clothing, volunteer hours and money—and continues to be a partner. And, in 2022, Mercury Marine donated $5,000 to Winnebago Waterways Program, whose conservation efforts focus on Lake Winnebago.

“We will continue to see a rise in opportunities for businesses to add value through sustainability,” says the WSBC’s Servi Ortiz. “Exasperated with inflation, climate, and social challenges, consumers are rewarding companies for reducing costs and environmental impact, increasing worker retention and satisfaction, and collaborating with customers and stakeholders for solutions. In turn, those businesses are growing through new customers and markets with whom they didn’t previously have access.”



Based in Milwaukee, Kristine Hansen is the author of three non-fiction books about Wisconsin including, most recently, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wisconsin: How America’s Most Famous Architect Found Inspiration in His Home State.

Contact Us

Follow Us

Wisconsin Academy Offices 
1922 University Avenue
Madison, Wisconsin 53726
Phone: 608.733.6633


James Watrous Gallery 
3rd Floor, Overture Center for the Arts
201 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: 608.733.6633 x25