What Does it Mean to be Green?
For many religious groups, concern for the environment has become an issue of “creation care,” an ethic that has led some to take a new approach to their meetings.
By Sarah Kohl
Carbon neutral. Zero waste. Sustainability. The meetings industry is abuzz with new terms and ideas to make events more environmentally friendly than ever—a trend no doubt fueled by recent reports and depictions of the dire consequences of global climate change.
“I think Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth has had a huge impact,” says Amy Spatrisano, CMP, principal at the Portland, Oregon–based green meetings consulting firm Meeting Strategies Worldwide. “There’s an awareness now that wasn’t there before.”
Environmental initiatives for the meetings industry have actually been evolving for more than a decade. In 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency released a guide for planning environmentally conscious events. In 2003, the Convention Industry Council appointed a Green Meetings Task Force, including Spatrisano, to create best practices for sustainable events. That same year, the Green Meeting Industry Council was formed.
“Green meetings don’t happen overnight, but they are becoming more important in our industry. People want to do the right thing,” says Deborah Sexton, president and CEO of Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association. PCMA was the first industry association to launch a “zero waste” event—its annual meeting in 2007, which was held in Toronto and drew more than 3,000 attendees.
But what does this trend mean specifically for faith-based events? Interest in environmentally friendly conferences appears to be growing among planners in the religious market, peaked in no small way by a growing number of religious groups that have come forward in recent years to embrace environmentalism as a moral and theological imperative.
At a Vatican conference on global warming in April, for instance, hundreds of scientists and religious leaders heard calls to “protect creation and this garden planet” by acting to curb climate change. Earlier this year, evangelical Protestant churches launched the Evangelical Climate Initiative, joining the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign, and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, among others.
One church at the forefront of bringing environmentalism to its meetings is the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Jan Sneegas, UUA’s director of the general assembly and conference services, explains that the UUA adheres to seven guiding principles and purposes. “The seventh principle is respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are all a part,” she says. “Interest in environmental sustainability is really at the root of the principles we adhere to.”
Taking a Leap of Faith
The UUA has been hosting green meetings since 2005, with Meeting Strategies Worldwide’s Spatrisano providing consulting services. “When Amy and I first talked, I told her I was really concerned that we were going to stick our necks out and fail, because there was so much to do,” Sneegas admits. “She was right on when she said every step makes a difference, and that you need to hang on to the feeling that no matter what small step you take, it’s a step in the right direction.”
Spatrisano and Sneegas agree that it’s important to benchmark successes and to keep adding new green practices. But “going green” means more than just making adjustments; it’s also about adapting a new philosophy.
“One thing UUA learned when they took on this process is that this is really a journey,” says Spatrisano. “It’s different than just the details. I think it’s important to know where you are coming from and where you are going. [But] it’s an evolution—always changing, always growing.”
The best way to get started is to find the “low-hanging fruit,” she says. “Look at the things that you can accomplish that are realistic and take those on.”
One deterrent to starting the journey toward environmentally friendly meetings is the widespread perception that green practices are expensive to sustain. But are they? PCMA’s Sexton says that the huge costs attributed to green meetings as recently as five years ago are becoming less of a factor as more people in the industry become more prepared to accommodate green requests.
“Every little inch of the way, when someone requested something, there was a huge cost connected to it because they had to figure out how to do it,” Sexton says. “There are some expenses connected to it. But they aren’t the dramatic expenses that people were led to believe they might be.”
Many green practices can be cost-saving or cost-neutral for both the supplier and the planner, Spatrisano says. Examples of economical environmental practices include using china service rather than disposable plate ware at meals, requesting that hotels change linens every other day, and moving registration online to drastically reduce the cost of postage and paper.
However, Rev. H. David Melton, a meeting professional with the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, says that taking the green route has not always been the most economical option for his meetings—especially when it comes to ordering more environmentally friendly products. “Some [green] meeting supplies are more expensive because of the limited number of vendors offering or specializing in those supplies, thus there is not much competition,” he says.
But he has leapt on board one environmental practice that has made his wallet much lighter: replacing bottled water with refillable water jugs made of recycled plastics, with “watering stations” throughout the venue. Not only is this more environmentally sustainable, but it also cuts down on the cost of shipping thousands of individually packaged bottles to the meeting site.
Melton is chair of the design team for the 2008 UMC Christian Educators Fellowship Conference in Albuquerque. Motivated by the organization’s 40th anniversary and the Native American traditions in the area, Melton is implementing green strategies into this event. But he is wary of labeling the conference green if it’s not 100 percent so.
“We are trying to be as green as we can. We’re going to do the best we can with the things that we can,” he says. “It has not been announced as a green meeting, although it is our hope and our intent.”
Working with Suppliers
When it comes to paying for the more costly environmentally sensitive services, Sneegas has found that the supplier is often willing to help out. “You’ve got a product and they want you to be there—we bring millions of dollars to their cities. So, they’re willing to work with us and share the cost,” she says.
Many suppliers are not only willing to accommodate green requests, but also are often leading the way. Marriott International, for example, runs a company-wide program, Environmentally Conscious Hospitality Operations (ECHO), which provides water and energy conservation, wildlife preservation, waste management, and other environmental guidance to its properties. Major chains Starwood, InterContinental, and Fairmont are also constructing new green properties and retrofitting existing ones.
But despite signs of encouragement from many suppliers, Sneegas says she is still concerned that some are unable to make the change.
“What has been most challenging, and most disheartening, is that people really are resistant to making changes that really are in their best interest and in the best interest of the earth,” Sneegas says. She says that some suppliers, citing extra expenses or inability to change venue policy, have been resistant to the ideas of recycling, donating food to local shelters, or changing out linens every few days.
The simple solution, it seems, would be to walk away and choose another supplier or vendor, which UUA has done in the past. But for venues that have already been contracted and booked, Sneegas and Spatrisano found an even more far-reaching solution: go the extra mile to make a permanent change.
In 2005, UUA was holding its first green meeting, a General Assembly (GA) in Fort Worth, Texas. But their plans hit a snag before they even got off the ground—the convention center had no recycling program in place. The organization and its planners took it upon themselves to make sure a recycling program was enacted for the GA’s trade show.
“Amy did some research and was able to locate [a waste hauler] who was interested because he wanted to get his foot in the convention center,” Sneegas says. “It was the first time the convention center ever did a show that had an actual hauler come in and take product away [to be recycled].”
UUA’s actions didn’t cost anything (the vendor was willing to absorb the cost in order to establish a relationship with the center), and they paved the way for future events to implement recycling programs at the center.
“The meetings industry has huge influence. We’re a large buying power,” Spatrisano stresses. “When and if you have that buying power, use it to influence change in a long-term legacy.”
Long-term change also relies on the structure and support of the organization. For some, the challenge may lie in convincing the organizational hierarchy that green practices are worth striving for in their events. But even with organizations that are on board with the green meeting concept, the inner structure or bylaws may not necessarily give planners the freedom they need to pursue a green event.
Melton’s efforts to turn his upcoming event into a green one were complicated, simply due to the system already in place. As with all the church’s events, a board selected the site for the Christian Educators Fellowship event and contracted the venues before turning over the event to a conference design team, chaired by Melton, which then made the decision to make the event greener.
“What we’re having to do is live up to the contract, but do it in a way that we feel is environmentally conscious and theologically in line with our organization,” he says. Melton is optimistic that the necessary bylaws will be put into place in the near future to alter they site-selection process, making green meetings even more viable for UMC.
Keeping the higher-ups in the organization informed of the green meetings process, and getting their buy-in, goes a long way in influencing internal change. UUA, for one, has influenced long-term change within its own organization by constantly refining their internal contracting and RFP processes—and by keeping everyone in the loop every step of the way.
“It has certainly focused people’s attention on it more, and inspired other kinds of offshoots. That has moved the entire association a step forward,” says Sneegas.
Several industry groups are taking the lead when it comes to promoting green meetings. PCMA is offering grants to groups who want to create more environmentally friendly meetings. Meeting and incentive travel leader IMEX, pairing with other green meeting industry leaders, has also increased industry awareness by awarding environmentally conscious groups with the Green Meetings Award since 2003. Meeting Strategies Worldwide, in addition to its project management and consultation services, offers free resources on its website as well as a MeetGreen certification tool. (For a list of websites offering resources, see box on opposite page.)
“I still think education is the key,” Spatrisano says. “Most people taking on green meetings for the first time view it as something else they’re going to have to do as a burden. It’s not asking to do something different than what you’re already doing. It’s just having the education and the knowledge to ask different questions [during the RFP process].”
And for an increasing number of religious groups, mitigating the environmental impact of their meetings will take on an even greater meaning: putting their faith into practice by being good stewards.
“We all wish to be good stewards,” says Melton. “If we really take seriously what we understand as our role as humans responsible for God’s creation, then there is a moral and theological obligation for people of faith to take care of what we have been given.”