Peter Wege, the respected Grand Rapids philanthropist and retired chairman of Steelcase, Inc. died on this past July at age 94. His constant questioning of the boundaries of what could be done and why it should be done that way were the essence of entrepreneurship and a challenge to all who knew him. Wege worked tirelessly and creatively to build the influence of both his Steelcase office furniture empire and the Wege Foundation’s planned charitable giving and had a truly immeasurable impact on his home city of Grand Rapids and business worldwide.
Peter Wege was strongly committed to environmental and ecological interests from a young age, after air pollution prevented him from landing a training plane in Pittsburgh during World War II. This incident inspired him to consider the long-term ramifications of Steelcase’s business model and its success and to think of what kind of inheritance his generation would leave for those who would come after.
Under his leadership, Steelcase made many strides increasing the sustainability of their furniture systems and architectural products. Wege was not only concerned with the impact the company’s manufacturing made on the environment, but also with its impact on the users of the products Steelcase manufactured. As a result, Steelcase currently recycles nearly 80 percent of its materials, and is continuously innovating its product line through materials chemistry, lifecycle assessments, and reusability. Steelcase believes that the furniture and architectural products workers use and exist with in their workspaces should be entirely non-toxic and should, in fact, aid workers in doing their jobs better.
Mark Custer, of Custer says, “Peter Wege and Steelcase had an enormous influence on Custer’s commitment to sustainable workplace solutions. We always seek to protect and restore the communities in which we serve, and Peter was our model in that pledge to Grand Rapids. Thanks to Peter’s vision and generosity, Custer has had the pleasure of participating in several LEED certified projects, including St. Mary’s, Aquinas College, Inner City Christian Federation, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and beyond.”
The Wege Foundations gift to Kendall College of Art and Design also enabled the creation of the Wege Center for Sustainable Design at Kendall, and the annual Wege Prize contest was created to help inspire students to solve complex problems in new and unique ways. Wege was an enthusiastic proponent of continuous innovation; with this gift he made sure his influence would continue into the Millennial generation and beyond.
Peter Wege also had an abiding influence on downtown Grand Rapids. He chaired the controversial art drive to bring and install Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse to Vandenberg Plaza. “The Calder” was the first sculpture in the United States to be supported with funds from the brand new National Endowment for the Arts. This was far from his only involvement in area arts, however. He donated $20 million for the construction of the new Grand Rapids Art Museum building with the condition that it be built according to what are now commonly known as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards and be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. Grand Rapids, in fact, now has the highest number of LEED certified buildings per capita of any city in the U.S., a fact that owes much to Wege’s passion and efforts.
While Wege founded The Wege Foundation almost five decades ago in 1967 and devoted his time to philanthropy in environment education, arts & culture, human services and health care, he considered his greatest work to be his efforts, along with other foundations, to restore and save the Great Lakes.
Wege had a longstanding relationship with the University of Michigan and its School of Natural Resources and Environment. In 2004, he invited 70 environmentalists to the “Healing Our Waters” conference in Grand Rapids to brainstorm about what could be done about the serious issues facing the Great Lakes including invasive species, contaminated sediments, and non-point source pollution. As an eventual result of that meeting and Wege’s and other environmentalists’ advocacy, President Obama signed the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2009 and real progress restoring water quality, ecosystems, and safety has been made.
Those who live in Michigan, love the Great Lakes and appreciate sustainability owe a debt to Peter Wege’s vision, advocacy, and generosity. He would want it to be repaid not to Steelcase or the Wege Foundation, but in the continuous improvement of our businesses, our lives, and our various living environments.