Sunday, 29 January 2012

GRI EOSS: Is it for me?

Any event professionals out there open the GRI Event Organiser's Sector Supplement (GRI EOSS) this week? If you did hands up if you thought something along the lines of: "Hey, this doesn't look so hard. I could totally do this."

The importance of GRI to events? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
Odds are the first thing that came to mind was the exact opposite.

The GRI EOSS is the result of a great deal of thoughtful work by many volunteers who are genuinely trying to improve the sustainability of the event industry. It is a needed and important tool to improve transparency about the economic, environmental and social impact of event practices. The sustainability team at MCI has published some great posts recently about the value of reporting and the launch of the supplement. The lesson to be learnt? The imperative to report honestly and openly about business practices--including events--has never been more evident or possible.

But short of diving into the deep end of the pool (and by deep end I mean the 251 page supplement and eight Indicator Protocols) how do you--an event professional--really start to access and digest the Supplement?

The first question: Should I consider GRI reporting for my event?

If you're someone who is not used to sustainability reporting and plan different kinds of events (particularly mid- to smaller-sized ones on an on-going basis for an event marketing or association team) you may want to ask yourself a few questions before you get started:
  1. Do you have the resources? Reporting against GRI takes work. It is not something that I would describe as easy. It requires research, thought and application. You can spend time to do it yourself or pay someone to do it for you, so it's essential to consider if resources exist to support reporting.
  2. Is there a precedent? Certain kinds of events--UN gatherings and major sporting events--have started reporting using the GRI EOSS. Many organisations that plan events are also already reporting using general GRI guidelines. If you're in either situation it may be prudent to consider how the EOSS applies to you and your work.
  3. Are there any stakeholder risk factors to consider? Is your event high profile or prone to critique? Have stakeholders been critical of organising methods or onsite activities from a sustainability perspective? Are your association members evaluating your event poorly when it comes to sustainable practices? If so, reporting against GRI might be a good way to improve stakeholder relations.
  4. Does your event have significant ongoing environmental or social impacts? Events have environmental impacts, particularly if they are large and involve travel by air. In addition, events procure many products and services--hotel guestrooms, food, promotional products, electronics--that have social considerations. If your event has notable or ongoing impacts on the planet or people, reporting could be important.
  5. Do you have mechanisms in place to get necessary information? Reporting against the GRI EOSS requires getting information that isn't typically collected and communicated for most events. Sometimes it may take an event cycle or two before you're prepared to collect data, after which you may be in a better position to report.
  6. Are you able to share commitments and actions? Good reports include not only talk about commitments, but specific objectives and measurable actions against targets. If you're not ready to do all three you may want to wait until you are.
  7. Are you prepared to initiate a conversation about sustainability? A common misconception about reporting is that it is a one-way process; that an event report should merely talk about 'the good stuff we're doing'. In fact, reporting opens a window into your operations that has the potential to start conversation, and possible controversy. Are you prepared to manage the feedback--positive and negative--that may come from reporting? If you're willing to use a report as a tool to meaningfully improve your event you may be ready to tackle the GRI EOSS.
  8. What's the value and why are you reporting? Is your intention to build trust? Improve stakeholder relations? Start conversations about how to improve the event experience, sustainably? If so, GRI EOSS reporting might be for you. If reporting is more a short-term PR exercise with no long-term commitment to continue to improve you may want to consider a different tool than GRI reporting.
Event sustainability reporting of any type, including GRI EOSS, is important and a major undertaking. The first step is being clear about why you're starting the journey and if you're ready. Coming up in future posts tips for event professionals in how to get started.

    Friday, 20 January 2012

    Short Film Friday: Buzzzzzzz

    A recent tweet by @SteenJakobsen about beekeeping at Copenhagen's Bella Center got me thinking....

    We should have a honey tasting at this year's Green Meeting Industry Council Conference to determine exactly where Spring tastes better!

    Event destinations boasting venues with bees on the payroll (see below and welcome additions!) are welcome to enter.

    Long live the urban bee! And thanks to these event venues for their efforts to conserve them.

    Monday, 16 January 2012

    Field Notes: Phoenix Recycling Plant Tour

    One thing I love about Janiece Sneegas, General Assembly and Conference Services Director for the Unitarian Universalist Association, is she geeks out about visiting recycling plants as much as I do. In fact I reckon if Jan used Foursquare I would have ousted her as the Mayor of Recycling Plants USA ages ago. She's toured ones in Boston, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Minneapolis and most recently Jan, myself and Brett Lyon of MeetGreen ventured to the Phoenix recycling center on a site visit to plan for UUA's waste management program for General Assembly 2012.

    We learnt a lot of interesting stuff about recycling in Phoenix, including:
    • The city of Phoenix sends approximately one million tons of solid waste to landfills each year. That’s over a half ton of garbage per person per year in Phoenix. 
    Residential recycling is offloaded into the plant.
    • Currently, 120,000 tons of residential solid waste are processed for recycling each year in Phoenix through a co-mingled program, meaning all recycled materials are put in one bin: paper, plastic, glass. Pretty much everything except polystyrene is accepted. Plastic bags cannot be put in residential bins, but the City does partner with local retailers to provide Bag Central recycling drop off locations.
    Plastic bag recycling drop off
    • While city residents and Phoenix's Convention Centre benefit from City of Phoenix managed recycling programs, the City of Phoenix does not offer recycling to commercial businesses, such as hotels, who must contract with private providers to recycle regularly.
    Recycling bins, Phoenix Convention Center
    • The City offers tours to learn what happens to recyclables in Phoenix. If you live or are meeting in Phoenix and want to know more I'd encourage you to connect with them to set up a tour as Jan, Brett and I did.
    We also learnt a lot of surprising things most people may not know about recycling generally. Things like:
    • Recycling is a dangerous job. While watching residential recycling arrive at the plant we watched in a panic as workers quickly retrieved two propane tanks off the belt. Had they not caught them the tanks would have wound up in mechanical sort apparatuses, something that could have severely injured workers, not to mention damage expensive machinery. So please: never ever put gas canisters or other dangerous materials in the recycling! There are people working in there!
    Workers sort out large non-recyclables from residential offloads
    • Recyclables are not waste - they're a commodity. Recycling is all about material recovery for sale to markets. It's done because people make money. Goods we place in our recycling bins may be redistributed globally. Glass to Mexico. Plastics to China. Paper products to the northeast. A bale of compressed soda cans can fetch $2000. In the hour we toured the plant we watched 3 bales come off the sort line. Not bad for a few hours work!
    Aluminum bales being bundled for sale to markets
    • People put a lot of stuff in their recycling bin that can't be recycled. In addition to gas canisters, plastic bags and shrinkwrap we saw a disturbing amount of plastic snowmen and Santas pass by us on the sort line while in Phoenix. All of which couldn't be recycled. Why so much of Frosty and Saint Nick? Turns out people not only try to recycle a lot of things they can't, but they do it in high volumes around the holidays. So do your recycling plant (and your neighbour) a favour: before you buy that next tacky plastic holiday lawn ornament ask if you really need it, because it can't be recycled if you come to your senses it later!
    Non-recyclable debris is sifted off the recycling line, including carpet, vinyl and film plastic
    • Women and men have different recycling skills. When it comes to assigning workers to different sort lines in a recycling plant, it appears that if you want to sort specific kinds of plastic accurately you may want to ask a woman. Men, it turns out, are often better at efficiently sorting mixed recycled waste, while women excel at plastics identification. Who knew!
    MOUSETRAP! Oh no, it's just mechanical recycling at work
    • Not everything is recyclable. But these things aren't problems - they're opportunities! Apparently a lot of people also toss out mini-lights around the holidays (at least in Phoenix they do - about 6 strings were pulled from the sort line during our time there). They must be like me and hate getting sore fingers trying to find out exactly which little bulb is out. Why fix an old string when you can just buy a new one and toss the old string in the recycling bin? I mean that copper is recyclable, right? Well, yes. Technically. But not practically. In order to recover the metals from holiday lights, wires have to be stripped, something that is impractical for a large-scale recycling plant to do. A problem, yes. But also an opportunity! Phoenix is responding to this unique waste problem by working with community groups to set discarded light strings aside during the holidays. The groups then pick them up, strip the metals and receive a share of the recycling revenue to support their activities. Good to know some creative solutions can emerge for the stuff we can't recycle!
    UUA site crew (2010) Patricia Cameron, Don Plante, Melissa Saggerer, Shawna McKinley & Jan Sneegas

      Thursday, 12 January 2012

      Field Notes: What I learned on my way to buy a sustainable conference bag....

      Yes, I know, I know. There are steps to take before getting to this point; the point of admitting you need a conference bag. You don't necessarily want it, but, well, eliminating it entirely is not an option. And although it might be cool to experiment with an innovative BYOB program, for some events and attendees bag reuse programs are just not feasible. So, it falls to the planner to source the most sustainable option possible!

      Myself and the event team for Canada Media Marketplace recently found ourselves in this situation. Here are some things we've learned on our way to buy a new (more sustainable) bag:

      MM2011 Reusable organic cotton bags
      A recycled bag claim by any other name would be just as...unreliable. Greenwashing is alive and well in the recycled conference bag market, so it's tough to be certain if your bag, in fact, used to be a pop bottle. Always look deep into manufacturer claims: ask what kind of recycled material the bag was made from (such as PET or polypropylene plastic), what percent of recycled content your bag includes and if it is pre- or post-consumer material. Alert the media if the distributor has a quick response as I found most do not have the information available at their fingertips. If they do, hey...score one for them for researching their supply chain! If they don't hopefully they can easily find out for you.

      Recyclable? Really? Some conference bags claim to be recyclable. But unlike soda or water bottles, they rarely have that number in a triangle sewn into the bottom to let you know if the bag can be recycled in your city. Many recycled bags are made of #5 plastic, which may or may not be recyclable in some locations. This means that in reality bags are recyclable only where facilities exist that can take them. Even if facilities exist, wear and tear on the recycled plastic fibres in the bag may limit your ability to keep it out of landfill years later if the material is poor quality. So before buying a recycled content bag ask what kind of plastic it is made from so you can tell attendees how to recycle it at the end of its life (if it even can be recycled). Better yet, see if it has a label that reminds them. Manufacturers may also have a take-back program that allows you to return bags at the end of their life cycle for recycling. Try to avoid mixed material bags that have clasps, strings and metal grommets that might prevent recycling, or at least make sure these can be easily removed.

      Lead? Not in my recycled bag, sistah. Concern has emerged recently over the presence of lead in reusable bags. Who knew! Ask your conference bag manufacturer what kind of safeguards they have in place to make sure the bags you're sourcing are safe and healthy for attendees. Specific questions to ask your supplier could include if they are aware of any standards that regulate the presence of lead or other toxic materials in their products. ASTM does have standards for lead content in manufactured products such as toys. Some states also have regulations governing the use of hazardous substances that may be cited. It is also important to ask if bag companies can provide documentation to confirm their products are tested to comply with these standards as awareness of standards does not automatically assume they are followed!

      For all the bags in China! Many of the recycled content bags marketed to event planners in North America are manufactured in China. That may concern those who seek to support businesses close to their home. However consider this: some distributors take the initiative to work with manufacturers globally to ensure sound labour practises are used. To ensure you're working with a reputable company anywhere in the world ask if they inspect plants or work with ethical sourcing organisations to use factories that align with your desire to ensure fair and safe working conditions for the people who make your conference bag. Fairware has a good list of specific ethical sourcing organisations to look for to help with your purchase decision, worldwide.

      Toot for jute. While some bags might use conventional or organic cotton, linen, flax or hemp, jute is arguably a more sustainable option for fabric bags. Why? According to Nexus Collections jute is a natural fibre that biodegrades, uses less water to grow and fewer chemical processes to manufacture into a textile. It also produces a usable wood by-product that can be used for other purposes. And when you consider 6.9 million pounds of chemicals are dusted on conventional cotton crops in California every year, that is something to toot about. Organic fibres can be a good option to address pesticide use, but can hide the use of excessive water and chemicals in other areas of processing.

      One bag to rule them all! It's a bit of a grey area and obviously a complex issue to consider, but TreeHugger has ventured an educated guess into which reusable bags are the best They reckon that it's a toss up between polypropylene and polyester, both of which can be sourced with recycled content from some manufacturers. But obviously the difference narrows the more you reuse any non-disposable bag. So you know what that means:.+1 to reuse, +1 to planet karma!

      Oh and on a side, note...

      "You have enough sense to wash your underwear, right?" Okay all you hypochondriacs! You know those conference bags you may have avoided using for your groceries because they might harbour (eek!) bacteria? Well, in my research I came across Chico Bag's take on the belief reusing bags may kill you. The short lesson: L2wash'em!

      Will keep you posted on other useful info we acquire on the journey and welcome your insights! Happy (sustainable) conference bag shopping!

      EventCamp Vancouver bags were reused from another event and made from reclaimed materials