Sunday, 30 October 2011

Trick or Treat?

It's a minefield of "tricks and treats" out there for meeting professionals trying to integrate sustainability into their business. I'll admit I've been tricked more than once, although gratefully the treats largely outnumber the tricks. And even those times I've been tricked rarely do I feel it's been out of deliberate efforts to mislead. Often times people are merely sharing what they've been told by third parties, trusting that sustainability claims are accurate.

Still, in honour of Halloween, I thought a blog post on some tricky things I've recently encountered might show it is still very much a 'buyer beware' world out there when it comes to some sustainable event products and services. So maintain an optimistic outlook that we're all doing things as best we know how, but always have a healthy amount of skepticism in your back pocket to know when to ask questions if things seem too good to be true.

Name badges: The first sign something was awry with our badge holders was the note from the sales rep that they were recyclable, compostable and biodegradable. Big. Red. Flag. Unfortunately in my experience some sales reps are not educated in how these processes are different and - from a technical perspective - are mutually exclusive. Compostable material can contaminate recycling streams. Likewise, you don't want to compost a recyclable or biodegradable badge. Truth is there are badge holders on the market that are recyclable, or compostable, or biodegradable. But I've yet to find an option that achieves the holy trinity all in one. Important points to clarify are if they are recyclable at the event site, and meet certified standards for compostability or biodegradability, which will let you know if you can compost or should landfill them. To make sure you're making the right choice ask for proof of testing against technical standards such as ASTM or BPI. Also ask if samples can be sent to your venue so they can confirm if badges can be recycled or composted. Any reputable name badge provider will be more than happy to accommodate these requests.

Signs: One of the more frustrating tricks out there is when a 'green' claim is not technically wrong, but it's so difficult it might as well be. I was researching a signage material recently. The substrate I was looking at was marketed as "100% recyclable" on the manufacturer's website and beside it there was one of these:

Now you tell me - is a #6 plastic recyclable where you live? It's not where I live. And it's not recyclable in most cities I hold events in, either. In fairness, the manufacturer is able to produce a list of sites where the substrate can be recycled. And is willing to recycle it on customer's behalf if it's sent back to their headquarters. At my cost, mind you. But let's be honest - what event professional really has time to go that far? Most would see 100% recyclable and take it at face value, not realising the limitations to this claim. A little tricky, in my opinion, so always ask about the fine print.

Waste diversion: About a year ago I posted a story about a venue who was marketing a tricky recycling diversion rate. To balance that post I had a great experience in Minneapolis where the meeting venue not only gave me a baseline diversion rate, they gave me two: one anticipating my methodology might include incineration and the second accepting it might not. The potential difference in terms of actual diversion of waste from landfill? A good 30%. Needless to say: trust established immediately. If you're disclosing a diversion rate from landfill or claiming a 'zero waste' event it's critical to be clear about how you're approaching the calculation, especially given there is no standard methodology for calculating waste. Transparency helps reduce the likelihood people may feel tricked by your numbers.

Seafood: Last week I came across an investigation into fish mis-labeling by the Boston Globe. Holy eye-opening, Batman. So much for hoping Nancy Zavada's Chilean Sea Bass story was an isolated incident! Clearly asking what fish is being served and cross-referencing it with your safe seafood guide is not enough sometimes. But are we expected to resort to genetic testing now? Geez, I hope not. So yes, ask what fish is on the menu. Check if it's approved or a good alternative. But also ask where it's caught and by whom. Your Chef or supplier at a minimum should be willing to find out for you. If they're at a loss you might want to check out and recommend This Fish, an innovative program to improve the traceability of fish from water to plate.

Accessibility: Working with UUA on their General Assembly my eyes have been opened to the realities those with physical limitations might face when attending an event. It's been educational to learn from Patricia Cameron as she walks hotel managers through how many barriers the design of their facilities and conduct of their staff can present for this group. The lesson I've taken away is that I can't rely on ADA Law to guarantee this box is checked. I've learned from Patricia that often it's not adhered to, and we need to advocate for those with accessibility needs if we don't want them to feel tricked out of their event experience. Am looking forward to seeing how tools like Rick Hansen's Global Accessibility Map help make access for event facilities more equal and less tricky.

What about you? Any event sustainability tricks you've successfully avoided? Or learned from? Treats you've found through the greenwashing clutter?

And Happy Halloween!

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