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The 12th annual Sustainable Enterprise Conference, held at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park on April 5, drew a crowd of cutting-edge industry leaders and thinkers, who shared sustainable business strategies, innovative building practices, and wrestled with the notion of what sustainability even means.

“How does the consumer know the whole story?”

Certified organic, fair trade, B-corporation, there are a myriad of sustainable labels and organizations in the marketplace. But what do these labels really mean and do they influence the choices consumers make?

What’s needed is a consistent way of measuring sustainability, one universal rating system comprehensive of everything, according to conference presenter Mark Westwind.

Imagine shopping at Amazon.com, or Safeway and seeing the same recognizable, sustainable rating logo on every product?

“We need a unified framework. We lack a comprehensive rating system and transparent process for everything,” said Westwind, president of the Praxis Group and an advisor for Sustainable Contra Costa and President of Earth Team, an East Bay youth organization.

A universal rating would simplify things for consumers. It would also create competition between businesses, as those with a higher rating could presumably attract more consumers, Westwind said.

As it is now, there are all kinds of certifications and organizations, but none are truly comprehensive. A product that is labeled Fair Trade could be made by a company dumping toxic waste in a river. An organic product could be made by slave labor. How is a consumer to know the whole story?

Westwind proposed a transparent rating system that would partner with existing organizations, such as certifiers for organic and fair trade, in a single overarching rating. A product or service would be given a numeric score based One Planet Living criteria.

One Planet is an internationally recognized framework for sustainability and its principles including health and happiness, land use and wildlife, zero waste and sustainable transport.

If a company’s sustainable rating is next to the price tag, it could potentially influence buyers’ decisions, Westwind said.

“The idea is to have the same logo on every purchase in everyplace it’s in your face, not on a website somewhere,” he said.

SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS STRATEGIES

How does sustainability figure into a business’s brand value and customer loyalty?

Bear Republic Brewing Company, Jackson Family Wines and Clover Sonoma Farms said they are careful about how they present their image when it comes to talking about sustainability.

“Bear Republic hasn’t been the best at getting [that kind of information] out there,” said Peter Kruger, master brewer at Bear Republic, who also serves on the Sustainability Subcommittee of the Brewers Association. “We’re wary of green-washing, making it sound like we’re something we’re not.”

Julien Gervreau, director of sustainability at Jackson Family Wines, agreed.

“We don’t want to overstate our sustainability for fear of consumer backlash,” he said. “It’s a challenge to tell the real story in an authentic way. What does ‘sustainable’ mean? It means everything and it means nothing.”

Gervreau and Kruger sat on a panel discussion that included Kristel Corson, director of marketing for Clover Sonoma Farms.

One thing that Jackson Family Wines has learned, is that to engage employees in sustainable practices, financial incentives work.

With 1,500 employees, Gervreau said a bonus structure tied to meeting water-reduction goals was successful. He also suggested putting a price on things like water usage.

“When you put a price on it, you can show decision-makers how much you are spending, and could be saving by investing in (sustainable) infrastructure,” he said.

WHAT A ZERO-NET-ENERGY PROJECT REALLY MEANS

When Ted Tiffany asks people what zero net energy is, he is invariably greeted with silence. The same was true when he asked a room full of sustainable conference-goers.

It may seem like a fairly straightforward concept — efficient buildings that consume only as much energy as they produce from clean, renewable sources. But it’s actually quite complex, and the government requirements keep changing every few years said Tiffany, who is director of sustainability at Guttmann & Blaevoet Consulting Engineers.

The California Energy Commission has adopted the goal to achieve zero net energy building standards by 2020 for homes and 2030 for commercial buildings.

Bob Massaro, CEO of Healthy Buildings Companies in Napa, noted that zero-net-energy policies and reality don’t necessarily align. In particular, Part 6 of the California Building Standards Code, which is Title 24 of the California Code of Regulations.

The state gives no credit for installing photovoltaic (PV) systems, for example, and the codes resist innovation, he said.

Massaro has been building sustainable properties for 30 years and described how he achieves a sustainable residential design. Elements include highly efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, Energy Star appliances, and LED lighting.

The most important thing, however, is to have an architect who knows their way around sustainable elements and incorporates them into the building’s design. An innovative example would be incorporating a PV system into window awnings. Massaro said he stopped incorporating natural gas five years ago, and instead installs induction stoves for cooking.

“The goal is to create high performing buildings that are cost-effective,” Massaro said.

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.