Jennifer Ann  Gordon, a writer and communications consultant and volunteer with Cool Davis attended the Sustainable Enterprise Conference in April in Rohnert Park, Sonoma County and came back inspired and motivated by businesses committed to solutions to sustainability. This is an edited version of a blog

While most conferences have left me feeling “peopled out,” drained and asking myself, “What of value did I really glean from this event?” I left the Sustainable Enterprise Conference inspired, uplifted, in awe, and motivated to do my part. I left feeling more knowledgeable and aware of the very real potential of business to benefit people, the planet and profitability.

It showed that very smart, caring people from the public, private and education sectors are working incredibly hard together to create a sustainable future with great (and profitable) resultsMany big companies, such as Traditional Medicinals, Patagonia, and Guayaki Yerba Matte Tea, and thousands of small companies, too, are making sure that no one is harmed in the making of their products. The conference traveled far beyond “damage control” of the environment and its peoples to designing and building a good way to take care of people, grow businesses, and value our resources.

I became increasingly excited as the conference unfurled. Mine was a simple epiphany: The collective intelligence, heart, understanding, social and intellectual capital, technology, humanity, experience, passion, ideas, science, words, and everything else we need to create sustainable enterprises are right here, right now. We’ve had it all along, but the urgency to act is causing many to step it up.

“There are signs that sustainability is making it into the mainstream.”—Charlie Stauffer, PE, Nordex Wind Farms

I am excited to have learned that even as big a corporation as Unilever is becoming increasingly sustainable and moving toward becoming the new category of corporation, a Benefit or ‘B’ Corporation. In case the term is new to you, a “B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk. B Corps are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards for social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.”

Inclusive and innovative

There was, however, one expected element missing from the Sustainable Enterprise Conference: blame. There were no hatred, angry rants, disparaging comments about “those who don’t give a damn,” or hopelessness and fatalism that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket as far as the planet is concerned.

Also noticeably absent was moral superiority or a “them and us” attitude. The Conference was a “we” event. An invitation. All-inclusive. There was nothing anti-establishment or hippydippy about it. It was a confluence of manufacturing, education, technology, communication, business, finance, and resource management innovation. In fact, the conference was the most innovative event I’ve ever attended, even more so than a conference a couple of years ago on innovation!

When is the last time that you kept company with people who were 100% solutions oriented? People who continually ask, “How can we educate, connect, inspire, bring out the best behavior in everyone? How can we show that being more environmentally sustainable and paying acute attention to people’s wellbeing can yield the same or better outcomes for the company, the people and the planet?”

“The old, loveless ways don’t work anymore.”—Tim Sanders

Resiliency and Collaboration

“Resiliency” cropped up everywhere at the conference. Resilient … springing back … rebounding … returning to the original form or position after being bent, compressed, or stretched … recovering readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like … buoyant.

Resilient design. Resilient economy. Resilient investors and investments. It really does take an entire village—scientists, educators, forward thinking entrepreneurs, environmentalists, financial institutions, corporations, communicators, and many, many others—to design, refine and align our personal and collective attitudes and practices with sustainability. It takes collaboration.

 Investing in the World We Want

One of the most radical aspects of the conference was the representation by sustainable finance companies. In the kickoff keynote, Investing In the World We Want, Marco Vangelisti, founder of Essential Knowledge for Transition, illustrated just how unsustainable the finance model of Return-Risk-Liquidity is and called it the “narrow lens of conventional finance,” He said that the Return-Risk-Liquidity model was born of greed and fear.

“It’s very difficult to make a man understand something, when his salary depends on not understanding.”—Upton Sinclair

Vangelisti shared that the destruction of forests was the type of transformation that impelled him to leave the finance industry. He said that the financial industry’s quest for “perfect assets for perpetuity is not a right afforded to trees. According to finance, a tree is worth more dead than it is alive.”

“There is too much capital floating around the world, and it’s all created by debt,” Vangelisti said. “We have too much money around the world, and that money is not as real as we think … we already have more [fossil fuels] than we can burn …” Vangelisti explained that we don’t take our Natural Capital into consideration, but treat nature “as a business in liquidation.”  He referred to himself as an “Angel Divestor,” investing in local businesses, with most of his investment being in food and farming.

What if we were to think differently? Vangelisti urged the audience members to ask themselves, “What would my portfolio look like if empathy and biophilia [a love of life and the living world; the affinity of human beings for other life forms] were its drivers?” Vangelisti ended his startling keynote with a call to action: “Assess your net worth. Take 1% of your money and invest it in one of the businesses here today. Then email me and tell me about it.”

Education and changing behavior  patterns

The challenge of educating children and adults in ways to evoke behavioral change arose repeatedly. Sonoma County, the county in which the conference took place, is an award-winning water conservator and has a robust water education program in its elementary schools. Ninety-five percent of Sonoma County’s citizens support having environmental education programs in the schools.

“Water is the foundation of everything we make and everything we know.”—Claudia Luke

Luke said, “Americans are, by and large, uninformed and misinformed. The challenge is that students entering college have had very little contact with the natural world.”  Luke shared that partnerships of the public, private and education sectors that encourage investigation, outdoor learning, and place-based learning are key. To accelerate water education, Sonoma State University’s (SSU) Water Collaborative links faculty advancement to community engagement. SSU also offers Watershed Year, a freshman course founded by the National Science Center for Sustainable Communities.

Water Management Innovation

Sometimes innovation means using existing technologies and resources differently…connecting previously unconnected dots. Water management is complex. Surface water, recycled water, groundwater and water conservation all need to be addressed.

Rixey of Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma shared two vital water-aspects of beer making: water quality and water availability. The majority of the brewery’s costs are tied to wastewater, rather than incoming water. For example, Lagunitas spends $26k per month on incoming water and $180k per month on wastewater removal. They analyzed their processes to see where water is being wasted. And they reduced their wastewater loading by 70% using Cambian Innovation’s EcoVolt technology. They’ll recoup their multi-million dollar investment in 1.5 years. Not bad. Win/win. Save money. Use less water. Create less wastewater. And achieve the same or greater high-quality output.

In Conclusion …

This very long article is only the tip of the conference-berg. I could write a tome. There were many astounding keynotes, boardroom sessions, and 10-minute breakouts. The entire day was abuzz with productive conversations among new and old friends.

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