Netroots Nation Schwag BagFive pounds of stuff.

That’s what greeted me at this year’s Netroots Nation ’08 conference in Austin, Texas. As is the case with most conventions, registration came with a schwag bag loaded with magazines, pamphlets, and assorted trinkets from sponsors.

I took the bag back to my hotel room and unpacked it one piece at a time, spreading the contents on my bed. (I actually had to stand on a chair to get a wide enough view to get all the schwag in one shot.) While most liberal and green conventions these days make at least token efforts to ease impacts — an organic cotton bag, green trinkets — the NN08 schwag bag didn’t do anything to distinguish itself.

Organizers of NN08 went out of their way to include the best and brightest voices of the environmental movement, not just as panelists but as keynote speakers. They’ve also pledged to green the event next year, holding it at Pittsburgh’s convention center, a green building certified to LEED’s gold level.

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But the schwag bag was only the first sign that NN08 would miss some key opportunities to cut the event’s environmental footprint and direct dollars to green businesses.

The bag had a t-shirt from the One campaign. Not only was it was printed in Honduras by Gildan, a company repeatedly accused of abandoning its North American workers in favor of sweatshop labor, but they made no effort to give you a correctly-sized shirt at the registration booth. You were supposed to go to the One booth in the exhibit hall to trade in your shirt for the proper size. How many people do you think just threw their shirts in the trash? At least there was one stand selling organic cotton stuff — Clothing of the American Mind.

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As I sorted through the rest of the bag’s contents (props to YES! Magazine for being printed on recycled paper) I was left with a pile of paper. There was no paper recycling to be found — not in my room at the downtown Hilton, in the hotel’s public spaces, or in the convention center. I had to ask at the Hilton’s front desk, where they accepted it and said they’d recycle it.

After a couple of years of green blogging, I’ve trained myself to notice a lot of the little things I didn’t before. My eco-senses were tingling like crazy at NN08. Paper and plastic cups everywhere. Organic options, and compost containers nowhere, with bottle recycling bins only in the main exhibit hall, not in panel rooms or common areas. And shockingly, only bottled water coolers available in the convention center — no water fountains anywhere. Not only does the water need to be trucked to the site, but bottled water coolers can use more energy than a large refrigerator.

I’m certainly not blaming the organizers of NN08 for not renovating the plumbing system at the convention center. And they deserve credit for holding the event in a hotel across the street from the convention center in the middle of downtown, eliminating the need for rental cars and shuttle buses. I also noticed Ecotainers at Sunday’s keynote brunch.

But there was a clear disconnect between the clarion calls for action issued by Al Gore and Van Jones and the same old bad habits on display at the event. It was terribly disappointing to hear that NN08 would not even address its footprint with carbon offsets or renewable energy credits. You can debate the value of those all you want, but they at least send a message that NN08 is willing to put its money where its mouth is.

Not everyone has to go as crazy into detail as this year’s Democratic National Convention. But change is not going to come unless we demand it — not just with our voices but with our wallets. Conventions like NN08 offer a rare opportunity to combine purchasing power to say yes to green products and no to wasteful practices.

It’s great to hear NN09 will be going green, but I’m not sure why environmentalists had to be the NN08 equivalent of Brooklyn Dodgers fans — telling ourselves to wait till next year.