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Is your meeting green enough?

  • Story Highlights
  • Political nominating conventions each billed as greenest in parties' histories
  • More companies are taking the environment into account with meetings
  • Requested measures include organic food, energy and water conservation
  • Green meetings don't necessarily cost more than traditional meetings
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By Debra Alban
CNN
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(CNN) -- This summer, Republicans and Democrats will celebrate their presidential nominees at conventions billed as the greenest in their parties' histories.

A workstation at a 2007 conference lets attendees look online instead of printing informational materials.

At the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, biodegradable balloons and recycled confetti will fall on attendees.

Convention hall carpeting will be recycled, recyclable or both. And organizers plan on using environmentally friendly paint for the walls.

Planning committees for the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, are working on improving energy efficiency for the event. They have also cut down on paper use by relying more on electronic communication and will use fuel-efficient vehicles in the convention auto pool.

The measures highlight a major shift in the meetings and conventions industry toward holding environmentally friendlier events.

Holding a green meeting is "no longer a quirky, nice thing to do," said Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com. "It's something that increasingly is being asked, if not demanded, by meeting producers."

If not closely monitored, thousands of conventioneers gathered in large-scale meetings over the course of a few days can accrue plenty of waste.

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For example, a five-day event with 2,200 people could produce one ton of plastic waste in the form of disposable serving pieces, said Bruce MacMillan, CEO of the industry trade association Meetings Professional International.

Meetings and conventions can also leave a hefty carbon footprint from air travel, large-scale paper consumption and the waste that comes from carelessly tearing down trade show exhibits, among other things, said Shawna McKinley, a project manager for Meeting Strategies Worldwide, an environmental consulting firm.

But lately, greener practices have become a priority for businesses. Of the two-thirds of the world's top 500 companies that publish corporate social responsibility reports, 87 percent address climate change and 65 percent have a specific portion on climate change issues. Seventy-eight percent publish quantitative emissions data, according to CorportateRegister.com.

These types of corporate social responsibility mandates -- combined with some managers' genuine concern for the issue and a public demand that companies do their part -- has led to the growth of green meetings.

The 'green lens'

Not surprisingly, companies with the environment in mind, such as the U.S. Green Building Council and the National Recycling Coalition, have been on board with green meetings for years, McKinley said. But in the past 18 months, companies from a wide range of sectors, including technology, real estate, tourism and religion, have begun planning more sustainable events, she said.

At the same time, companies have become more sophisticated in their requests.

Whereas recycling is what McKinley calls the "101 level" and a firmly established standard, she said meeting planners are now moving onto more intermediate practices, such as asking for locally grown or organic food, or requesting hotels and convention centers that take energy efficiency and water conservation into account.

Others are implementing programs such as tree planting to offset the carbon footprints of air travel, McKinley said.

Still, while many organizations are putting forth the effort, it's not yet a perfected science, resulting in greening efforts that are "all over the map," Makower said.

"In some cases, it's sort of random acts of greenness. But in other cases, it's really strategic, thinking about conferences through a green lens including every aspect of it, from how they're produced to what the attendee experience is like to what messages it signals to the industry and the larger community," he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency is working on setting standards for its own events, which may help set a more consistent tone. (The agency already set guidelines last year to give preference to facilities with sustainable practices.) The new standards, which the EPA projects will be in place by June 2009, will regulate only the agency's events, although other government agencies may use them as guidance on best meeting practices.

For now, companies and organizations are learning as they go along.

A recent convention of the Professional Convention Management Association took steps toward limiting waste by distributing recycled bags and refillable water bottles to attendees. But, unbeknownst to organizers, convention sponsors printed materials, resulting in about five pounds of paper for each bag, said Deborah Sexton, association CEO.

The mishap is a lesson for upcoming events, she said.

The bottom line

Many companies and meeting planners have been pleasantly surprised that producing green meetings can be cost effective.

Some elements do cost more, but the increase in efficiency can offset the expense, Makower said.

For example, he said, using pitchers of water instead of individual bottles might cancel out the cost of organic food.

McKinley said a meeting client recently saved money by switching from plastic disposable service ware to compostable serving pieces, because the high price of petroleum increased the cost of plastic.

Best destinations

Web and teleconferencing eliminate the carbon emissions of plane travel, but experts say that's not the only direction the industry is headed.

Conventions can have a positive impact on a city's economy and it's important to expose conventioneers to different locales, Sexton said. To that end, industry professionals say they choose cities and facilities in the United States and abroad with environmentally sound practices.

Despite the unavoidable carbon footprint of flying, McKinley said meeting face to face is essential. "We need it for sales, we need it for education, we need it for personal fulfillment."

Admits Sexton, "You'll never have the perfect meeting, no one will. ... But the more you do year in and year out, the better off it'll be."

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