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September/October 2008
Feature

Meetings Go Green

Minimizing Meeting Impact on the Environment

If you’re looking to make your body healthier at the next conference you attend, you may want to eliminate the two spoons of sugar you usually swirl into your big white disposable foam cup of java.

If you’re looking to make the environment healthier at the next conference you host, you may want to eliminate the foam cup.

It’s not just Al Gore, municipalities looking to decrease their landfill costs, and mom and pop with their single-stream recycling cans who are worrying about carbon footprints, greenhouse gas emissions and melting polar ice caps. It’s also the people planning, supplying and attending 3,500-participant international conferences in exotic locations and small internal seminars one floor down from their own offices.

In the meeting-conference-convention-exhibit world, “green” is getting big. And that, say professionals from industry and government, is good.

Environmentally Friendlier Meetings

“More and more people — from events planners to conference-goers — are becoming aware of and committed to protecting the environment in their professional as well as personal lives,” said Sue Tinnish, director of the Convention Industry Council’s Accepted Practices Exchange and chair of the green meetings and events task group in Subcommittee E06.71 on Sustainability (to read related article, “Collaborating on Standards for Green Meetings and Events” click here). “We see this in many areas, from corporations and organizations staging international events that take into account green concerns, to hotels focusing on environmentally friendly practices and to meeting attendees who are scrupulous about recycling or who refuse to drink bottled water. This is an important focus that can only benefit our world at large.”

Dru Meadows, a principal in theGreenTeam Inc., a Tulsa, Okla., strategic environmental consulting firm that focuses on sustainable development and building industry issues, agrees that the demand for environmentally friendlier meetings has been increasing (click here for sidebar, “ASTM Does Its Part”).

“Greening of events has changed substantially in many ways. First, there are many, many more events that focus on the topic of sustainability, and of course they immediately look at themselves to measure/improve their environmental footprints. But, even if the focus of the event is not environmental, there is an increasing recognition that attendees care about that,” says Meadows, chair of E06.71 and an author on sustainability topics. “There’s a tremendous market interest at all levels. You can’t walk into your hotel room without that little placard on your bed that says ‘If you want to help save water, hang your towel up.’”

That little placard is just the start. Some companies and organizations are abandoning off-site meeting locations and holding teleconferences in which participants from Peoria to Poland can share ideas virtually. Some are vetting their vendors more than ever before, seeking the most environmentally friendly accommodations and suppliers. Some are encouraging participants to be personally responsible in the choices they make during conferences, such as how often they request their hotel sheets be changed.

The Convention Industry Council shares information from Portland, Ore., based Meeting Strategies Worldwide, an event management, consulting and training firm, on two of the major benefits of greening meetings: economic and environmental. “For example, collecting name badge holders for reuse at an event of 1,300 attendees can save approximately $975 for the event organizer.” And, “if a five-day event serves 2,200 people breaks, breakfasts, lunches and receptions using china instead of plastic disposables, it prevents 1,890 lbs. (857 kg) of plastic from going into a landfill.” Meeting Strategies Worldwide also says more environmentally friendly meetings provide advantages in the areas of competition and potential regulation.

Making Meetings Greener

Interest in green meetings starts at the top. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which in 2007 approached ASTM International to work on standards for sustainable events, offers advice for meeting planners, service suppliers, hosts and attendees (click here to visit). While the EPA makes no claims to be the green meeting leader, it does look hard at its own activities. Harry Lewis, attorney adviser in the EPA Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, Washington, D.C., says, “In May of last year, EPA adopted an interim rule for its procurement officials requiring consideration of environmental performance in a number of categories when weighing the overall attributes of a prospective service/facility provider.”

Outside government, many organizations are following suit. Though there may not be a mass green-meeting movement yet, the nod to the environment in meeting planning is growing. That means a change in attitude in some cases, education in others. And it means work.

Shawna McKinley, past executive director of the Green Meeting Industry Council and now a project manager with Meeting Strategies Worldwide, acknowledges that there’s effort involved in hosting an environmentally friendly meeting, but it is possible.

One of the first things planners must do, she says, is “ask the question, ‘Do I really need this?’ We’ve become accustomed to providing a lot of things at meetings and doing things that sometimes we don’t need to do. If attendees are willing to accept change, consider cutting back on some things, such as providing a printed program, giving handouts at educational sessions, having sheets washed every day and mailing invitations and promotions,” McKinley says.

The payoff, McKinley notes, is not just for the environment. “Right now many groups have a foundation of green practices or are looking to develop their own guidelines. The next evolution of this practice will be to consider how to track and measure the effectiveness of their practices. Green meetings are not just about ‘feeling good’ or ‘looking good,’” she says. “They are about return on investment, and the investment needs to be measured financially, environmentally and socially. For each practice, planners and suppliers should ask, ‘How can I measure this?’ and ‘How will I know I am successful?’ There are many examples of measurables: the amount of waste recycled or composted, how much local or organic food was served, emissions amounts avoided and accounted for, costs saved or incurred by reducing paper use or buying sustainable food.”

The commitment to start is the biggest hurdle,” McKinley says. “Creating a team or getting leadership buy in for the initiative is often the biggest roadblock. Once that is overcome you can really build on any level of commitment.”

And once that happens, the options are wide open. “Meetings leading in sustainable practices have moved beyond recycling, saying no to bottled water and carbon offsetting,” McKinley says. “They are tackling more challenging issues like getting sponsors engaged, composting, measuring impact and reducing energy use.”

Adds Meadows, “There is a range of claims now (local foods, green hotels, ecotourism, carbon mitigation for conference transportation impacts, etc.). Any frequent flyer can tell you that most hotels claim an environmental ethic because they will not wash your towels if you hang them up. That does save water, detergents, energy and labor. However, the options and expectations have increased tremendously.”

Ultimately, Meadows says, balance is the key. “I can solve something in one dimension. I can fix water, but that can cause a problem in energy. I have to balance the economic, social and environmental to have something that’s truly sustainable.”

 

Patricia Quigley is an award-winning journalist and public relations practitioner who has written for local, regional, national and international publications. She resides in southern New Jersey, where she earned a B.A. in communication and an M.A. in writing from Rowan University.