Data is beginning to show companies that have a sustainability orientation at the leadership level are outperforming more traditional companies, and are having a positive impact on their communities, a lender specializing in Earth-friendly enterprises told a few hundred like-minded professionals and civic leaders at a recent regional conference in Rohnert Park.

“We see sustainability as a journey, so we aim to support businesses at all points in their journey,” said Vince Siciliano, CEO of San Francisco-based New Resource Bank and one of the 50 speakers at the 10th annual Sustainable Enterprise Conference.

New Resource exclusively supports sustainable businesses and nonprofits in order to build a better world. Local clients are Cowgirl Creamery, Hog Island Oysters, Traditional Medicinals, Strauss Creamery and Indigenous Design. Rather than just looking at a company’s profitability, the bank’s mission is to support businesses and investors with a financial return, but also social and environmental returns.

“We only offer loans to socially and environmentally responsible businesses and nonprofits,” Siciliano said at the conference, held April 30 at SOMO Village, formerly known as Sonoma Mountain Village.

Members of the North Bay Sustainable Enterprise Community came together to provide optimism and solutions for some of the region’s biggest challenges. They addressed our critical water supply, regional transportation infrastructure, opportunities in clean energy, financing opportunities for sustainable businesses, and educational programs to get students involved in the environment.

New Resource Bank clients receive a toolkit, free educational events geared toward sustainability and operating a successful business, and opportunities to network with other clients.

Businesses looking to increase their sustainability can also get support from Sonoma County government. Its free Green Business Certification program helps businesses implement environmental practices and get third-party validation of those efforts. The program walks companies through a set of standards and suggests specific measures, depending on the business. Addressed are practices like dealing with wastewater, purchasing green cleaning products and lighting issues.

In the long run, adopting sustainable measures save businesses money and the Green Certification is seen to be a positive reflection on the company, said Kevin Kumataka, program coordinator. In Sonoma County, 163 businesses are Certified Green, from wineries to dentist offices and retailers.

Doing more about drought

As California experiences its fourth year of drought, many of the 350 conference-goers gathered to hear a panel address water worries .

Gov. Brown on April 1 issued an executive order calling for a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water use, and the State Water Resources Control Board adopted that cutback as an emergency regulation May 5. He noted that last year had the hottest November since California has been keeping weather records, and the state overall has only a year’s worth of water left.

But there is reason for hope, conference speakers said. Since the passage of the Sustainable Ground Water Management Act last year, the Sonoma County Water Agency has created several plans to manage ground and surface water, combine stormwater management and groundwater recharge, and will be working with the Army Corps of Engineers on a groundwater banking system, to develop a process for drawing winter water out for the summer.

The agency also achieved its goal of “carbon-free” water (scwa.ca.gov/carbon-free-water) by 2015 through a combination of energy conservation measures and renewable energy development, according to Cordel Stillman, deputy chief engineer of the water agency.

Brewer cuts water use

With the number of craft breweries in the North Bay on the rise, it’s worth mentioning that they are one of the biggest producers of wastewater. The good news is that Lagunitas, the largest beer producer in Sonoma County — expected to produce 600,000 barrels of beer this year at its Petaluma plant — has taken measurable efforts to reduce and reuse wastewater.

“The idea is to be able to grow (as a company) while reducing water use,” said Eppa Rixey, strategic planning manager for Lagunitas.

Until recently, the brewery was spending $180,000 a month to truck wastewater to Oakland, including disposal there as well as the cost of discharge in Petaluma. Looking to save money and water, the company began treating the wastewater using anaerobic digestion, a processes where microorganisms break down biodegradable material. The result was a 40 percent reduction in water use and a dollar savings of 70 percent.

Lagunitas also has plans to add two additional treatments to the process that will result in even cleaner water. Once all of the equipment is in place, the brewer will treat its high-strength waste — 40 percent of the wastewater — with the anaerobic digestion and blend the treated result with the rest of the low-strength wastewater. That combined wastewater stream will be treated with a membrane bioreactor and reverse osmosis.

“The water will be drinkable and completely clean, but we have decided to only use it for applications that do not come into contact with the beer,” Rixey said. That includes boilers, tank cleaning, vacuum pumps and washdowns.

Plugging youth into nature

The four-day conference also spent a day hosting a Sustainable North Bay Youth Summit. The event was designed for youth 15 years and older to support those who have ideas about sustainability and help them learn how to put them into practice. The youth networked with the existing green community, in some cases exploring entrepreneurial opportunities and careers.

Looking at the future leaders in sustainability, institutions of higher learning face interesting challenges, said Claudia Luke, director of Sonoma State University Preserves. Incoming freshmen, who spend an average of 40 hours a week with electronic media, have little experience with direct contact with nature, she said.

“They have very little intuitive understanding of the natural environment,” Luke said. “The best hope to address those challenges is locally, across public and private sectors, to motivate students to care about environmental issues.”

The good news is that 95 percent of the public and 85 percent of government officials support programming in environmental education, she said.

Luke has coordinated a three-year program at SSU (sonoma.edu/waters) that has paired 1,500 students with 20 community partners, including the Sonoma County Water Agency. That has resulted in students getting out into the field in sediment- and erosion-control, riparian restoration, and water-quality projects.