Sustainability at the top of conversation

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Amy Spatrisano, founder and chairwoman of the Green Meeting Industry Council and principal of Meeting Strategies Worldwide tells Media Business that the last 18 months have seen an uptick of interest in sustainable practices for the events industry. “It's definitely the top of everybody's conversation,” she said, “and it's happening industrywide.” She chairs a Convention Industry Council group working with industry stakeholders and ASTM International to develop voluntary green standards for the industry. Media Business: Why are we seeing interest in sustainability grow in the events industry? Amy Spatrisano: It's a combination of things, a perfect storm. There are weather issues, the cost of energy. It certainly didn't hurt to have Al Gore hit the general public about global warming in a way that affected people on a personal level. People started looking at that not just in their personal but their business lives. It's coming from different sectors. Attendees are driving it and asking why there are no recycling bins. It is being board-driven, and the planners are asking for it. I talk to suppliers now and many of them are seeing questions about sustainability in the RFP. They're all affected. The large hotels are making statements about their corporate environmental practices. If a large corporation that just said they are taking on a corporate social responsibility or environmental platform then holds a meeting that's incredibly wasteful, that doesn't reflect what they just said they are standing for. MB: What should we expect to come out of the standard-making process CIC is starting? Spatrisano: The disconnect is, what is a green meeting? What do I have to do as an organizer for my meeting really to be green? Right now, you can have recycling—even if it is not very successful—at your event and call it green. There are no standards. For people to be on the same page, for the suppliers to be delivering a consistent environmental policy and practice, there have to be standards put in place, because right now it is everywhere. As we get into developing these, things may shift. The goal is that we would have a series [of standards] ready to be accepted by late spring of 2009. We're really recommending that the first wave be at a basic level. To get too technical or too complicated, it will take too long for the process to happen. People really want these standards yesterday. [It] will start as a voluntary process but I think competition will be what leads it. If you're not doing these standards, you're not going to be able to compete in the market. These guidelines will affect both sides—producers and suppliers. MB: Do you see a lot of people misrepresenting the sustainability of their event? Spatrisano: It's getting worse and worse. With no standards, it's easy to “greenwash.” If you're an organization that has not changed one iota but you wrote a fat check to offset attendee travel, you can call your meeting green. [But] if you've changed no behavior, are you truly making a difference? MB: The Environmental Protection Agency will play a role in the development of the standards. What will be the effect of its participation? Spatrisano: The American government has more buying power than any other single entity when it comes to meetings and services. The General Services Administration is looking for leadership. Once the EPA makes this policy for their group, so will the GSA. From the supplier side, many organizations rely to some degree on federal money. That's helped drive this happening in our industry. MB: What are the benefits of getting a head start on greening events before standards have been set? Spatrisano: Those people who adopt it will just have a leg up on the others. It's not if you're going to do it, it's when. It makes business sense. The things that we recommend most of the time save money. I still hear that it costs money, and I think that is old knowledge. It's not that some things don't. If you are going to get 100% organic food, that is going to cost you more. But the water bottle is a huge example of savings. Serving things in bulk rather than individual packets saves money. Recycling can save you money in certain parts of the country. People focus on the organics. I keep trying to say, look at your entire budget. People aren't looking at it as a whole; they're pulling out specific line items.
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