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!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

We are the 99%

Not the 99% occupying Wall Street, or sitting on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery this morning. But the 99% of sustainable event organizers that realizes 1% of sustainable events have it a lot different than the rest.

First let me define what I mean by "The 1%" and "The 99%". The 1% are mega-events: large-scale, city-wide and often globally significant events. The Olympic Games, FIFA's World Cup. The kinds of events that cities trip over themselves trying to win. The 99% are those events that event, meeting and marketing staff stage countless times a month, in ballrooms and small spaces at hotels. Half-day to all-day gatherings of 50-1000 people. The kind of events few CVBs will arm wrestle over, but none-the-less benefit from where these become permanent fixtures in their meeting landscape due to proximity to corporate or association headquarters. Some might say the bread to the mega-event butter.

We tout the cool achievements of mega-events. And so we should - they are able to do some pretty innovative and high profile things like create human-powered pedestrian malls. How awesome is that?

But we have to accept it's a bit different for the 99%.

Most different perhaps is the lack of sponsorship, budget and staffing to devote to sustainability. Mega-events can do great things. And they do it through the financial support of high-profile sponsors and boards that mandate money be spent and staff be hired to manage sustainability. And props to them for doing so. I can name many an event marketing department among the 99% that would love to have funds to hire a sustainability specialist for their department. And remember too, with increased capacity comes increased responsibility, so it's not all a bed of roses just because someone might be footing the bill. The expectations increase. You have to work harder. Do more. There are fewer excuses. You're held more accountable.

Acknowledging this difference, is it fair to expect the 99% will meet the expectations of things like the ISO 20121 standard? And the APEX-ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Event Standard? Or report against GRI Event Sector Supplement Guidelines? Things which seem more within the means and perhaps better suited to the 1%?

It is arguably more difficult for the 99% to fulfill the expectations of these standards. Difficult, but not impossible. Before setting the 99% up for failure I think we all need to acknowledge this; entertain the possibility. Because if the 99% moves down the path of trying to meet standards with unreasonable expectations and encounter consistent failure we could all potentially lose.

So with that in mind, some practical ideas on how to ease this process for the 99%, and why it's so important to do so:

Engage the procurement department.
It's a typical pattern for event sustainability initiatives to start from the event up. But when your buying power is limited to a 100 person event space, your event is next week and your plate is full, adding sustainability to the mix can be a non-starter for the 99%. The power to affect change across small meetings and field marketing activities often lies outside planning departments. Procurement departments typically have more power to leverage sustainability across the event supply chain, and need to be engaged in developing systematic requests and reporting about event sustainability in a centralized way.

Harnessing in-house corporate responsibility expertise. Many organizations already have policies and procedures for integrating sustainability into operations. Some are also going green with their events. So why is it that with only a few exceptions sustainable event work is non-existent in corporate reporting? The reality is, if you make widgets CSR tends to be more concerned with how you manufacture and distribute those widgets. Not necessarily how you hold meetings and stage events to allow manufacture and distribution of widgets to happen. Building an early bridge between CSR departments, procurement and event marketing ensures that there is alignment across the organization about what the material issues, common goals and metrics are.

Tapping agencies. In some situations the 99% rely on local agencies to execute events. It's therefore critical to bring hired agencies onside so they are contributing to sustainability. Cue procurement to assist in this process with RFP, contracting and supplier evaluation mechanisms that include sustainable event requirements.

Acknowledging global differences. When the 99% are planning events in Boston, Barcelona and Beijing one of the first things you realise is one sustainable event approach does not suit all. Each city is unique. The capacity of venues varies. The infrastructure and laws governing everything from recycling to smoking could be vastly different. Cultural acceptance of certain things diverges. In 2 months the 99% may be planning a road show across an entire continent, relying on different agencies to assist. This diversity adds a different kind of complexity not necessarily experienced by a 1-city mega-event: how to navigate different local issues while working toward universal best practices in a small event context? Preparing agencies and staff for this inevitability so they have agile tools to weigh sustainability tradeoffs on a daily basis is important.

Rethinking legacy. This is where the true power of the 99% emerges. For the 1% legacy may be measured in terms of sporting facilities built. Number of people educated about sustainability. Permanent changes in transit use in a host destination. All great stuff, but for the 99% these kinds of legacy metrics are impractical. They also fall short of the potential the 99% has to fundamentally change the way meetings are held to create what in my opinion could be the most exciting legacies of all:
  • Expanded supply chain analysis by organizations that plan events. Just this week Microsoft announced it will be requiring annual sustainability reporting by vendors. It remains to be seen if meeting vendors will be included, but this kind of expectation, which is also being put forward by Oracle, is significant for those who service corporate meetings and travel. It sends a message that the 99% expect sustainability to be integrated into events of all sizes, not just the showcase ones. And not just at the front end, but through back-end reporting as well.
  • Permanent changes in the way suppliers do business. So often requests of the 1% benefit the 1%, and then once the event is over, it's back to business as usual. Businesses make special allowances for high-profile events, then fall back to old behaviors. Standard business practice is more likely to change when the preferences and behavior of the 99% change.  As testament to this major hotel chains have created proprietary tools in recent years to make it easier to respond to the daily requests of the 99% for information about sustainable practices and performance.
  • Better industry-wide reporting. The uptake of tools such as Green Hotels Global provide proof that the industry is data-hungry. Would these tools be sustainable on the efforts of the 1%? Unlikely. Their use is being driven by groups like StarCite and American Express who are responsible for many of the meetings planned among the 99%.
So while we spend a lot of time building consensus around standards that will no doubt help frame sustainable event programs for all, it's important to remember that we should not always keep the 1% examples in mind. For much like sustainability is about enabling a shift in the behavior of the mainstream consumer, the needs, demands and actions of the 99% of small meeting planners are equally important for us to attend to, and arguably harbour the greatest potential for change.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Short Film Friday: Richard Feynman, On Beauty

Seek, explore, question, doubt.
Don't be afraid of not knowing.
Be open: find and relish beauty.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Oracle OpenWorld: Event Sustainability Photo Essay

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so rather than talk about event sustainability how about show and tell? Since 2007 Oracle has been working hard to improve event sustainability at OpenWorld. A lot has been accomplished and there are still many opportunities to improve. This past week I had the fortune to travel to the event and snapped a few images that paint a picture of some ways the event is working to reduce its footprint and contribute positively to the host destination: San Francisco.

For more information on Oracle's Event Sustainability program check out their event web site. Watch for outcomes from the 2011 event sustainability program later this year.


A "Show Your Badge" program helps get attendee money circulating in the local economy. Sometimes for purchasing local organic wines, even!


Depending on their registration package, OpenWorld and JavaOne attendees may be provided with materials at registration: a bag, notebook, pen and/or t-shirt. Most of these are taken by attendees but if not, registration staff are prepared to receive and divert extra materials to local charities, such as RAFT.


The event operates a 3-stream front of house waste management program for recyclables, trash and compost. Waste and donations are measured across 9 different venues in San Francisco. Between 2008 and 2010 OpenWorld has diverted enough material from landfill to fill 21 garbage trucks.


Compostable cups featuring sponsor logos are sourced by event organizers to ensure they are acceptable by local waste management facilities. Plus, check out that organic coffee!


Fully compostable boxed lunches are provided at all venues. As above, all packaging materials must be sourced to be compliant with local waste hauler requirements. Compostables need special green labels to differentiate from clear recyclable plastic.


Event branding takes advantage of existing infrastructure, such as digital displays, where possible, including here at the Marriott, one of 7 primary hotel meeting venues.


Since 2008 Oracle OpenWorld has made steady reductions in paper use: from 112 tons of paper printed in 2007 to 31 tons in 2010. Efforts first began by reducing the number of pages in printed guides and dailies. Then by increasing grades of post-consumer recycled content paper used. Following this printed programs were eliminated entirely. Exhibit guides and a small show daily are still printed, but - as seen above - take sustainability considerations into account. Paper use is expected to have dropped an additional 20% or more this year. Left over quantities of print materials are tracked to enable future reductions as mobile technology becomes more commonly used.


Special paper and badge bins are made available at key exit points. While paper is recycled, only certain parts of the current name badge system can be reused, such as the holder and lanyard. This year thousands of lanyards were reused thanks to the fact last year's sponsor was retained. Lanyards will be kept and reused if possible next year, and donated to RAFT as a fall-back position if sponsors change.


One of the biggest sustainability challenges for OpenWorld is creating a distinctive look and feel while reducing footprint. Banner signage is designed for re-use, eliminating dates and event locations. Event brands typically have a three-year life cycle and are carried over into global events held in Latin America and Asia, so many banners will be seen again at other events, not just San Francisco. Kiosks bear generic Oracle logos so they can be reused event to event. This year 150 sintra panels bore dated information and are being re-purposed as art canvas by an event subcontractor.


All informational signage - including easel, aisle and railroad signs - are made of cardboard. Not that you'd notice! 2011 is the first year OpenWorld has completely eliminated foamcore and duraplast in favour of informational signage that is made from renewable and fully recyclable materials.


Live plants are used throughout the event site: in the exhibit hall, temporary venues and pre-function areas. For special function spaces LED lighting is employed to create distinctive looks.


You're doing it RIGHT! A bin of beautiful, uncontaminated compost at Moscone West.


With 30% of attendees coming from international destinations, it is critically important to clearly communicate recycling procedures. Internationally understood images, colours and shapes help foreign delegates learn about how to recycle properly when Green Angels may not be on-hand.


With 40,000 participants it can be tough just to find a place to relax at OpenWorld for a few minutes. Oracle provides sponsored bean-bag seating which is donated to RAFT post-event.


Shuttle miles have dropped by about 13,000 miles since 2008. This has been possible by expanding walking route designated hotels and introducing two routes that shuttle attendees to transit nodes from remote hotels rather than taking attendees all the way into downtown San Francisco. 100% of shuttles are sourced within 2 hours of the city and priority is given to newer, lower emitting, fuel efficient technology. Fuel use dropped by 6,300 gallons between 2009 and 2010.


All host hotels (such as the Intercontinental San Francisco) are required to comply with and report against sustainable practices every second year in order to measure adoption of things like recycling, linen reuse and environmental purchasing.


Water stations come in different shapes and sizes at OpenWorld. Bottled water was eliminated in 2008, helping to save both water and money. Compostable cups are offered.


Salesforce Foundation's exhibit booth engaged attendees in preparing support kits for local charities, such as World Vision.


More signage, white and red and cardboard all over!


The OpenWorld Keynote hall features LED lighting, efficient projectors and paper-light rehearsals that take advantage of iPads. LED lighting is estimated to reduce power use by 150,000 kWh over the duration of the event. Screens are in their fourth year of re-use.


Oracle's CSROpenWorld. Oracle is a significant financial supporter of National Geographic's ocean conservation programs, including this large Pacific Ocean map that is used for interpretive school programs throughout North America.


Tesla's fully electric, zero-emissions Roadster, on display in Retail Row.


Paul Salinger leads 45 event professionals through an orientation to the event's sustainability strategy during a special tour for members of the Green Meeting Industry Council.


Savor Chef Jeff Hall talks to GMIC tour participants about how his team integrates local, seasonal ingredients into menus. The event acquires approximately 65% of ingredients within 250 miles of San Francisco.


Moscone Recycling Manager Hector Quiles talks to GMIC tour attendees about how the convention center sorts, donates and recycles large piece of debris, such as carpet, wood and signage.


Yet another great example of using San Francisco tap water to refresh attendees. New reusable Global Tap stations were installed at the Mason Street Cafe, one of the event's temporary venues.


Transportation information for attendees gives detailed, simple instructions for local transit. Transit use was promoted through a pre-purchased BART pass program.



Green Angels are on-hand during meal and break times to help attendees to properly sort waste. Event diversion has held steady at approximately 61%. Stay tuned for updates on the 2011 diversion rate!


Yet another cool tap-water station!


Pedicabs line up to shuttle attendees to nearby Caltrain transit nodes near the end of another busy day at OpenWorld.


Event sustainability at OpenWorld is made possible by a committed group of Oracle staff and vendors, including Hartmann Studios, Moscone Center, InVision Communications, Savor, Freeman, San Francisco Travel and local host hotels.