Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.
There are big ways and small ways to make your meeting more sustainable. Here’s how a few associations are planning meetings to be more environmentally friendly, along with some small steps any organization can take.
Do you know the carbon footprint of your last meeting?
Think about the distance attendees flew, the hotel rooms they used, and the food they ate. Also consider your association’s choices in planning the event: the venue, vendors, and products you picked.
All of these decisions and actions result in an environmental impact, for better or worse—and many associations are trying to move the needle toward “better.” They’re choosing greener options not only to protect the planet, but also to inspire and engage attendees as stewards of Mother Nature.
Whether you undertake a big initiative to reduce attendee travel or a take small step toward limiting food waste, the effort could result in a more sustainable meeting strategy for the future.
Air travel is the Bigfoot of carbon footprints. According to Forbes, air travel is now considered responsible for 3 percent of global carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association predicts that the number of people flying will increase by 3.5 percent per year over the next two decades.
Concern over air travel’s contribution to climate change has even led to so-called flight-shaming in Europe, where a growing movement of environmentally conscious travelers are swearing off flying and committing to travel by train.
While that trend has yet to gain a foothold in the U.S., some associations are examining ways to reduce the environmental impact of travel to their conferences. Leor Hackel, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, who is leading a climate-impact task force at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, has analyzed SPSP’s attendee travel data to help the organization make better decisions about where meetings take place.
“Analyzing travel patterns will help us understand how we can reduce the distance people travel, which also means fewer carbon emissions,” he says.
Hackel says there are four ways associations can reduce attendees’ travel:
1. Create virtual meetings for remote participation.
2. Co-locate similar conferences in one city or meet less frequently.
3. Encourage attendees to use bus or train transportation or carpool instead of flying.
4. Reduce the distance people fly.
That last option “offers some low- hanging fruit for associations,” he says. “You can look at the origin of attendees and geo-code their distances to decide if a certain location would help minimize carbon emissions.”
For SPSP, the hypothetical ideal meeting point, sustainability-wise, for this year’s meeting was near Chicago. Locating the meeting there would have resulted in a 30 percent reduction in the distance traveled by attendees, who instead traveled to Portland, Oregon.
Since meeting contracts are signed years in advance, Hackel’s algorithm hasn’t been used for site selection yet, but he says it could be implemented soon pending the board’s approval.
“Since there are more than 4,000 members, [location] can be a pretty significant difference,” Hackel says. “There are obviously going to be other factors that play into site location, but the point is, by analyzing travel data, we get a sense for the overall environmental impact that travel has.”
Picking a meeting location based on Hackel’s algorithm also means less travel time for attendees and a chance at cost savings.
“Our estimate is that this move [to Chicago] would have saved approximately $250,000 collectively in airfare, reducing overall travel by about 2.5 million miles,” he says. “Altogether, that comes to about $60 per person, which may seem insignificant, but it adds up, especially for student members or people who don’t have funding to attend.”
Hackel developed an easy-to-use app that can help other associations select meeting sites based on travel distance and greenhouse gas emissions. (Visit lhackel.shinyapps.io/travel_footprint.)
“Let’s say you’re trying to evaluate five cities. The tool would allow you to quickly run a query and see the cumulative distances and effects,” he says. “What we want to do is get people thinking about the impacts of travel and be part of the broader cultural movement to address climate change head-on.”
What attendees put on their plate also factors into their carbon footprint. With enough planning and some careful menu decisions, meeting planners can create meals that are locally sourced, accommodate a variety of dietary requirements, and curtail food waste. “Most convention centers and hotels have sustainability practices already in place for food and beverage,” says Kara Ferguson, a meeting planner with the American Society of Anesthesiologists. “But it’s my job to make it a truly sustainable menu.”
Ordering food in bulk and in tandem with other conferences that come either directly before or after your meeting may be one of the greatest bargaining chips planners have to support food sustainability.
“Associations and groups should absolutely team up and work together to source food that has a low carbon footprint,” Ferguson says. “Plant-based food options are an excellent way to do that. Of course, you’ll always have a few meat eaters, but you can limit items like beef or pork [whose production processes are high greenhouse gas emitters] and do something more environmentally friendly like chicken or turkey.”
Beef and pork usually cost more and might not fit with many attendees’ dietary preferences either, which is why menus featuring vegetables, fish, and lean meats could serve you better.
“You want to give people options and make them feel like they have healthy eating habits,” Ferguson says. So it’s wise to create menus “that can meet anyone’s diet—whether that’s vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian, or meat eaters.”
And don’t forget to think about food waste, another area where many convention centers and hotels have bargaining power. “Get it in writing that you want to donate leftover food,” she says. “We have about 15,000 attendees at our meeting, and implementing a food rescue program has been an excellent way to make sure nothing goes to waste.”
A sustainable meeting strategy seems a natural fit for a renewable energy trade group like the American Wind Energy Association, which, not surprisingly, is committed to a 100 percent wind-powered conference. Since it’s impossible to separate energy generated by wind from energy generated from other sources, AWEA offsets energy consumption at the conference by purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECs), which are essentially green energy credits.
And at next year’s WINDPOWER 2020 Conference and Exhibition in Denver, AWEA will divert at least 60 percent of all meeting waste, reducing consumption of items that usually end up in a landfill.
“A lot of [our strategy] now focuses on our attendees’ footprints and looking at different ways to minimize their impacts during a meeting,” says Elesha Peterson Carr, AWEA’s senior director of conference planning and event logistics.
The association also engages host-city partners, like hotels and ground transportation providers, to participate. Last year in Chicago, more than half of AWEA’s hotel partners purchased RECs to offset attendees’ in-room energy use, and its shuttle provider agreed to fully offset shuttle transportation. “We also supplement some of that by not providing shuttling service during the day, so attendees stay at the conference or use alternative forms of transportation,” Carr says.
She encourages other associations to consider RECs as a way to offset attendees’ footprints. In fact, some attendees might be willing to pay more to offset their own carbon emissions.
“We have an option where attendees register online and pay a bit more to offset whatever they emit,” Carr says. “We see it as just one more way to engage them on sustainability. Because the more we can do together, the more we can reduce our impact overall.”