5 Top Organizations for Green Meetings

How five companies have raised the bar for eco-friendly gatherings

Not long ago, when organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund tried to plan green meetings, finding suitable hotels, venues and suppliers was a challenge. "When I asked questions about their practices, often I was told, 'We do these things behind the scenes,' " says Beverly Atkins, EDF's senior meetings and events manager. "My biggest fear was that they were just saying what I wanted to hear to get my business."

But in recent years, hotel chains, convention centers and others have created solid environmental policies that satisfy even the greenest gatherings. Planners for five very eco-conscious groups recently shared their practices and experiences with M&C.

Sprint Environmental stewardship has become an integral part of doing business for telecommunications giant Sprint. For instance, the company's new e-waste policy aims to recycle 90 percent of all its phones, tablets and yet-to-be-invented gadgets by 2017.

"We already take old phones for recycling during events," says Erin Tate, an event manager for the Overland Park, Kan.-based company, which ranked number six on Newsweek's 2010 list of the greenest publicly traded companies in America. "Internally, we plan to have 100 percent recycling of our e-waste."

Tate works with a team of about 10 planners, arranging product launches, incentive trips, local meetings, media announcements, trade show participation and sales meetings. "From the get-go, we negotiate green concessions into our contracts," she says. "This includes recycling language, turning off air and power in rooms that aren't being used, and composting or giving away extra food. We select venues based on how they can comply, and put language in the contract to make sure they apply those practices." Following events, Sprint planners ask for a scorecard from the venues they use showing how their green needs were met, so they can track savings and compliance.

Sprint's green practices touch all elements of events. Display stands are made of recycled plastic or bamboo and are carefully recovered for reuse. Production elements and décor are repurposed. Invitations are sent electronically. Briefing books are found online, as are press materials. Green products are the first option for amenities or gifts. Vendors that Sprint uses regularly are subjected to a rigorous green audit.

If it's a question of more money or less green, the company's environmental conscience wins. "When we're booking flights, we always use the most direct option, even if it's more expensive, because it cuts down on carbon emissions," Tate points out. While the company is centrally located, the planners are stationed around the country -- Tate is in Chapel Hill, N.C. -- and the closest employee is deployed where needed. "It's very strategic," she says.

For F&B, ingredients are locally sourced, and leftovers are composted or donated. "We've also developed a really strict attrition policy for our events," adds Tate, "carefully monitoring how many people are going to show up, so we don't order too much and won't waste food."

If disposable serviceware is unavoidable, Sprint groups use bamboo or corn-based products that are 100 percent biodegradable.

At a Sprint incentive trip held last October at the eco-friendly Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, Calif., group gatherings were held outdoors to limit energy use, furniture was made from soy-based foam and reclaimed wood frames, all florals came from a local grower and the same décor spruced up three separate events.

5 Green Cost-Cutters

The book Saving Green by Going Green

Planners can save money on the way to environmental sustainability. A great resource: the book Saving Green by Going Green (available at tools.meetgreen.com/book for $29.95) by Amy Spatrisano, Nancy Zavada and Shawna McKinley of MeetGreen, a planning company in Portland, Ore. Among their tips:

1. Choose a walkable destination. Select a hotel within walking distance of the meeting venue, restaurants, activities and shopping, so participants won't need shuttles or cabs. Also, make sure the venue is accessible to the airport by mass transit.

2. Eliminate specific branding.  Don't imprint the year or theme branding on signage and promotional products. These items can be reused from year to year or for other events held by your organization.

3. Save money on waste-hauling charges. Many venues charge for waste hauling from the show floor but don't charge to recycle. Minimize the amount of collateral you bring, then donate whenever possible and recycle the rest.

4. Buy locally. Purchase products at your meeting destination to save on freight charges. Also, ask vendors such as general services contractors and A/V companies to hire local workers who don't need hotel rooms and per diems. Hiring local entertainment and artisans will add a regional flair while reducing costs.

5. Serve beverages in bulk. It's now common knowledge that eliminating individual bottled water can save a tremendous amount of money. Use this philosophy on other beverages, too. For instance, serve iced tea and lemonade in pitchers at afternoon breaks instead of individual soft drinks.   

Environmental Defense FundSunflowers at an EDF event in NYCThe New York City-based Environmental Defense Fund has been raising the bar on greening meetings since it was founded in 1967 to fight the use of the pesticide DDT.

"It is understood throughout the organization that we need to walk the walk as much as possible," says planner Beverly Atkins, an 18-year EDF veteran who worked on the group's main internal meeting, an annual three-day staff retreat for about 350 people, until last year and now handles board meetings and donor events.

The biggest change Atkins has seen since many hotel companies started implementing chainwide sustainability directives is that salespeople and convention services managers now are much more willing -- even eager -- to show off what they are doing.

"In the old days, they might have processes in place, but they wouldn't want to show you, thinking a potential customer doesn't need to know about it," she says. "Now I have companies that want to take me on that tour. I've gotten unsolicited back-of-house tours that I've never been offered before. It's good to know what's going on and how it's happening."

Indeed, Atkins now has more confidence in the venue choices she makes because she has been shown how they handle recycling, composting and leftover food (preferably donated).

Local and seasonal sourcing for F&B, which recently has become more widespread, has been a staple of EDF's events for a decade or more. "One of our main goals is protecting our oceans and ecosystems," Atkins notes. "We take a critical eye to our seafood -- where it's sourced, whether it's farm-raised, the health of the fishery, the scientific information we have, how it's harvested, whether it is line-caught or brought in by trawling. We often ask the chef to talk to his supplier before we approve an item."

Finding caterers specializing in organic, sustainable dishes has gotten easier. "There's a ton of them now," says Atkins. "I can choose based on other criteria besides what is offered on the menu. Are they hard to work with? Are they pricey?"

For EDF's meetings, almost all distributed materials have been eliminated (they are offered as downloads for any feasible portable reading devices attendees might be using). Atkins is quick to point out what a savings that is for the organization, taking into account the cost of producing briefing books, distributing them and cleaning up all the paper attendees used to leave behind. This policy includes the news; EDF suspends newspaper delivery at hotels, because guests usually just pull the papers into their rooms and never read them.

The organization long ago eliminated most giveaways, only occasionally handing out items like pads and pens. Atkins says the proliferation of companies offering premiums made from recycled and repurposed materials alleviates some of EDF's concerns on that score. "The costs of these things have been reduced dramatically, as well," she says.

A rider to EDF's hotel contracts spells out all the details, such as recycling, meeting room temperatures, food sourcing and more. "If anything related to the property needs adjusting," says Atkins, "all those things go in our green rider."

Intel Lou Cozzo of Intel"Intel has a sustainable events program to improve the triple bottom line: environmental, social and economic," says Lou Cozzo, executive speech and event services manager in corporate events marketing for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based technology company, which ranked fifth on Newsweek's list of green companies.

One solid example: the Intel Developer Forum, held in China every spring for about 4,000 attendees and in San Francisco in the fall for almost 6,000 people. Green practices in place for these mammoth events have been codified for the rest of Intel's meeting and event planners in the "Blue Guide to Being Green."

Among other helpful tools for planners are an information hub for event sustainability that includes an Intel University-accredited training webcast and a downloadable self-help manual; a step-by-step planning process with supporting templates to help event owners integrate green practices in their plans; supply-chain tools such as a list of sustainability expectations for suppliers, request-for-proposal language and contract clauses; and measurement tools for tracking best practices, the use of resources and savings.

Planners also have access to Intel Event Express, a website on the company intranet filled with pictures of props, exhibit booths, signs and more that are available for reuse. Not only is this an environmentally friendly practice, it's also cost-effective: "If you're a group that doesn't have a big budget, you just order the item and have it shipped to the event without paying for additional props to be built," says Cozzo. "And we get years of use out of them." Intel Event Express has reduced waste and disposal costs by approximately 95 percent since 2003.

To get event participants in on the green game, Intel sprinkles information about its environmental practices through "walk-in" content. On screens in session halls and meeting rooms, attendees are urged to recycle and use hotels' linen-reuse programs, the messages supported by fun facts such as how linen reuse at IDF saves an estimated 240,000 liters of water every year.

For the 2010 IDF San Francisco, Intel purchased 220,000 kilowatt hours of wind energy in the form of renewable energy certificates. After the event, the Moscone Center provided a report of IDF's actual energy usage (372,000 kWh), allowing the company to purchase enough certificates to offset this year's forum, which took place last month.

For IDF China, Beijing's China National Convention Center is an ideal venue, as it was built to recycle rainwater and has a ventilation design that provides about 50 days of natural air-conditioning each year.

"Another big category the company is looking at is greenhouse gases and our carbon footprint," says Cozzo. "For years we have been consolidating the shipping of our thousands of pounds of equipment. We're very smart about how we schedule those pickups to have the minimum number of trucks on the road. There's one date, and everybody has to ship out on that date."

In fact, United Van Lines is among Intel's vendor partners that have embraced the company's environmental programs.

Among other ways Intel is being kind to the home planet:

By reducing the paper materials distributed and offering event details in an app, in 2008, 2009 and 2010 combined, Intel saved more than eight tons of paper at IDF San Francisco.

At 2010 IDF San Francisco, 3,100 pounds of perishable food was donated to Food Runners, a local food bank.

Since 2008, IDF has saved $200,000 by eliminating bottled water and reducing food waste.

Oracle Paul Salinger of OracleFor the event industry, the Green Meetings Industry Council offers all the information a planner needs to get started. Currently heading up the board of directors is Paul Salinger, vice president of marketing for Oracle, the hardware and software company headquartered in Redwood City, Calif. He also leads the charge to green all events at the technology firm.

Much of the push for meetings sustainability at Oracle has come from trying to soften the environmental impact of its largest meeting, Oracle OpenWorld, which takes place at the Moscone Center in San Francisco this month.

"In 2007, we realized we needed to make changes, considering the impact a 40,000-person conference has," says Salinger. The company did, and last year took some of the best practices from OpenWorld and began applying them to the more than 8,000 events Oracle produces each year, with the help of a designated global green team. The team promotes a list of 16 minimum guidelines for dealing with venues, vendors and attendees, including the use of local staff and suppliers, the elimination of bottled water and polystyrene products, and the collection of badges for reuse.

"We also now have a simple dashboard for reporting, with drop-down choices on how much the planners were able to do for each of the practices," says Salinger, who adds that Oracle has set a goal of reporting green results for half of its meetings this year. (The dashboard, a jumping-off point for evaluating events of various sizes, can be viewed at bit.ly/nuYvPG.) "We're trying to aggregate data and get a baseline that we can report against year-after-year, so we can see how much we are saving or spending."

Another resource recently made available to the company's planners is a wiki of tips on how to plan green events, engage stakeholders, and deal with venues and vendors. The procurement department is integral to the process, working with preferred suppliers and applying the 16 minimum guidelines to help understand which hotels are doing the type of reporting Oracle wants to see, so the company can start driving its events to greener properties. "Eventually, we will require 'green reporting' from all of our meeting and event vendors," predicts Salinger.

For Oracle's gold standard, OpenWorld is measured against more than 100 points, including destination, accommodation, F&B at Moscone and for ancillary events, transportation, A/V practices, exhibit hall practices and on-site operations.

"It's all a collaboration," says Salinger. "Part of the way we've been able to get to this point is to get stakeholder engagement. Moscone and the city of San Francisco help us look for opportunities to reduce an area, like signage, cutting down on F&B to reduce waste, looking at the waste diversion. If you can cut that down, you can reduce the cost of carting it away. Planners need to look for suppliers who are trying to create price points for sustainability."

Salinger notes that when Oracle started examining OpenWorld's environmental footprint four years ago, just 20 percent of the hotels the company used in San Francisco had any ability to report on eco-savings; now 77 percent have a sustainable policy in place and are using it to good advantage.

Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations The Unitarian Universalist creed lays out seven principles by which its members are asked to live. Eight years ago, the seventh principle, respect for the interconnectedness of all things on the earth, became the foundation for the greening of the organization's meetings.

Janiece Sneegas"At our meeting in 2003, members of the Seventh Principle Project asked me to green the General Assembly," recalls Janiece Sneegas, director of the General Assembly and conference services for the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. "I thought, 'We're not going to be able to do this to anybody's satisfaction.' "

She was wrong. In fact, over the years, the UUA convention has become one of the most environmentally friendly gatherings around. While Sneegas uses green protocols in her selection processes, and the group prefers cities that have a sustainability track record, "we also recognize that part of our work is helping other cities to take the next step on their own paths," she says. Accordingly, the 2013 General Assembly will be held in Louisville, Ky., where such practices aren't as ingrained. "They speak commitment, but we'll see when the rubber hits the road how willing they are to partner with us," Sneegas adds.

A food-donation requirement was added to the 4,000-person meeting in 2006 in St. Louis, and fully green contracting was added for the convention in Portland, Ore., in 2007. Earlier this year, when the group went to Charlotte, N.C., the UUA asked that 5 to 15 percent of the power supplied by the convention center and hotels come from a renewable source. "The other thing we were able to do in Charlotte was maximize the front-of-the-house composting by setting up composting stations in the food court," says Sneegas. "Also very cool was that they agreed to have their vendors switch to compostable serviceware for us."

Going green has never hurt the UUA's bottom line, Sneegas reports. The only area for which the group has paid extra is in food and beverage -- specifically, to use more organic and local foods. In this case, the UUA's "ethical eating statement of conscience," which was passed last year, trumps the budget. Sneegas explains, "Our contracts require 20 percent of the foods to be organic and local at no extra cost, but if the vendor can do more, we'll pay for the difference."

Sneegas is happy that she no longer gets the amount of resistance that she once had to fight against, though some suppliers still drag their feet a bit at providing green services. "We're not interested in hearing suppliers tell us what they plan to do," she says. "We're interested in hearing what they're doing."