Surely you’ve attended the Conference from Eco-Hell.

Eco-hell, or just plain hell?

Photo: iStockphoto/Elerium Studios.

You know the one. It begins with an endless paper trail of direct-mail advertisements. It’s held in some remote suburban locale, accessible only by car. At registration, you are issued a conference bag filled with promotional papers and doodads you’ll never look at or use (most of which you’ll conveniently “forget” in your hotel room). Meals appear unappetizingly on disposable plastic dishes, and single-serve bottles of water and soda are everywhere you look. Then there’s that inch-thick pile of wasted paper known as the conference program.

And when it’s all over, as people load up into planes, trains, and automobiles for their trek home, piles of post-conference detritus get unceremoniously tossed into trash cans and dumpsters — an ecologically unfortunate meeting of bottles, dishes, surplus promotional “literature,” and more.

You’ve probably asked, “Isn’t there a better way?” Amy Spatrisano has asked that very question, and has concluded that there is.

Spatrisano, principal and cofounder of Meeting Strategies Worldwide, is at the forefront of a growing movement toward greener events, from small get-togethers to mega-conferences. Not long ago, such thinking was relatively rare, and limited primarily to conferences and events produced by environmental activist groups or government agencies. But what started years ago as a handful of small and largely symbolic practices — printing on recycled paper and recycling name badges, for example — has taken a far more substantive turn. People like Spatrisano are examining every aspect of event organization and operation to find ways to reduce the environmental footprint of these happenings.

Why the new consciousness? A variety of things has helped, including new technology, improved products and services, and greater availability of alternatives. But mostly, it has to do with a better business case for abandoning conventional thinking.

Conventional Wisdom

The business case for green meetings depends in part on who you are. It is different for event organizers, suppliers (such as caterers), and facilities (such as hotels). For organizers — companies, nonprofits, government agencies, and the like — greener meetings and conferences can provide a variety of payoffs, says Spatrisano, including reduced costs, improved efficiency, and a higher-quality event.

Such benefits fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which suggests that environmentally responsible events cost more, are less convenient, and provide a lower-quality experience for attendees. But that’s no longer the case. And it’s easy to see why, when you consider the rate of consumption of any sizeable event. For example, according to MSW, during a typical five-day conference, 2,500 attendees will use 62,500 plates, 87,500 napkins, 75,000 cups or glasses, and 90,000 cans or bottles.

Tag, you’re it.

Photo: iStockphoto.

That gluttonous consumption offers ample opportunities for savings. Consider an analysis MSW did a few years ago for one large conference. It found that using online registration eliminated paper, printing, and postage, saving $3,900. Not providing conference bags saved $11,700. Avoiding presentation handouts — 15 pages each for 1,300 attendees — saved $1,950 in printing and paper. Providing water in pitchers instead of plastic bottles saved $12,187. And so on: serving condiments in bulk rather than individual packets, recycling name badges, eliminating the need for buses by choosing hotels close to the convention center — all told, more than $60,000 in savings. That could buy a lot of doodads.

Even if you’re not entertaining 1,300 of your closest friends — say, merely holding a small team meeting off-site — there are still savings to be found. Either way, a lot of companies are catching on: Rite Aid’s Health and Beauty Expo at Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center managed to recycle 2,500 pounds of cardboard, saving on disposal costs. Aveda Corp. has a “green meeting team” of in-house staff whose goal is to make every company event a green one. And MSW’s clients include outfits as diverse as the Association for Computing Machinery and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Register Your Concerns

Who should you talk to? Most organizations either have a meeting planner or hire an outside firm. In smaller companies, an administrative assistant probably handles the arrangements. In all cases, it helps to have a policy, ideally one that sets specific goals or standards.

One good place to start is the Convention Industry Council Green Meetings Report produced by a coalition of the U.S. EPA, environmental groups, and meeting planners. It provides a full range of best practices, and could form the basis of a company’s green-meetings policy. The guidelines are divided into two main sections, one for suppliers — such as venues, transportation companies, and food and beverage companies — the other for organizers. You can send the first part to vendors to show them what you want, and use the second part yourself. The guidelines cover the selection of destination, accommodation, venue, transportation, and meals; exhibition production, communications, and marketing; and general office procedures.

Another useful resource is the National Recycling Coalition’s Green Meeting Policy. Originally created for the coalition’s own national conference, the 22-page document offers a comprehensive list of ideas and opportunities, from arranging for composting to encouraging speakers to deliver handouts electronically.

Don’t be surprised if you get pushback from meeting planners, hotels, caterers, or others. “The fundamental challenge is the resistance to change,” says Spatrisano. “They’ve done it one way forever, and even if you can show them they’ll save money, and even if you can make it easy, it doesn’t mean they’ll do it.”

But resistance is decreasing as more venues, caterers, and others find that accommodating green-meeting requests is good for business. The post-9/11 downturn in the hospitality industry helped hotels and others become open to new options that could attract business.

Like most other green initiatives, the key is to understand your options and educate everyone involved. No small matter, to be sure, but a growing number of companies is demonstrating that it can be done. Of course, once you manage to produce meetings that are less stressful for the planet, you might consider making them less stressful for the people who attend them.

Attendez!

Here are three more places to turn for advice: BlueGreen Meetings offers resources for hosts and meeting suppliers, including brief success stories. Environment Canada provides a downloadable Greening Meetings Manual as well as checklists and other resources. It’s Easy Being Green!, put out by the U.S. EPA, provides an easy-to-follow checklist for integrating conservation into event planning.