Minimizing the Impact of Your Conference Materials

If you do any conferences or meetings, you have materials. We use binders and the environmental effect is palpable. We use binders that are shipped to us, paper that has been shipped to us, and conventional ink. If that wasn’t enough of a carbon footprint, we print our materials in-house, so the binders (which are now full of all that paper) are shipped yet again–this time to the conference destination.

Now, before you shake any fingers at me, know that we are not alone. Our practices are not unusual. That, after all, is why I am writing this in the first place. To provide resources for those, like me, looking to green (even if only in baby steps).

So how can we all reduce our impact?

Good: Buy Better Materials and Minimize Transport

First things first. Use recycled and earth-friendly products. Recycled paper is really a no-brainer. Make sure it is 100% recycled and that it uses a high percentage of post-consumer wastepaper. Staples offers a 100% recycled, 100% post-consumer waste option. If you can find a local offering (thereby cutting down on transport), that’s even better.

This goes for the binders, too. Items you hand out to your attendees should not smell like chemicals (admit it–those binders have a questionable scent). If you must use a binder, make it recycled. Sustainable Group offers recycled binders. Their custom printing for binders looks great.

For extra credit, consider a vegetable oil-based ink.

Better: Go Digital
I don’t keep conference materials. I don’t even keep the CD–I upload it and never look back. If I go to a conference and don’t receive a digital version of the materials, it is highly unlikely that I will ever look at the materials again (in fact, I have started refusing them at such events). I don’t even scan them because they will not be easily searchable. Those valuable materials are now useless.

I admit, this is generational. Many of our attendees, typically from older generations, crave that binder. One way to deal with the divide might be to have each attendee select digital or physical materials when signing up.

But the future is digital, so you might as well ramp up to meet those needs and help the environment at the same time.

Ideally, you go digital by offering your materials online, passcode protected, to your attendees. If your website is already set up to sell products (like your conferences or other events), this should not be hard.

If you feel an unrelenting urge to give your attendees something they can take home, consider the USB jump drive. Small and compact, this can also be reused by the attendees. Make sure you have your company name on one side and consider “renting out” the other side to a sponsor. I am still working on finding a good company that will upload all your materials to the jump drives as a service. Kinko’s, a company that I would think has a lot to gain by digitizing (and a lot to lose by not), actually told me they would only be able to upload materials to the jump drives one by one at a rate of $90/hour. Clearly, this is not the cost-effective choice. When I find it, I will post it. In the meantime, I did find USB duplicators, which can copy the materials on as many as 40 jump drives at once. Storage Heaven sells a variety.

Please don’t use CDs. Every month, 100,000 pounds of CDs become “outdated, useless or unwanted.” They will become trash the second your attendees upload the materials to their PCs or networks. Don’t give your attendees another thing to toss.

Added bonus: Going digital will actually reduce your costs. That can help offset some of the other price hikes you might see on the path to environment-friendly events, or it might even result in a little cash in your pocket.

Don’t "Greenwash" Your Event

One thing that has come up as we consider greening our conferences is that we don’t want our efforts to be perceived as “greenwashing.”

With “green” being as chic as it is, it seems just about anyone will slap a kelly green sticker on their product and send it out into the world. I wouldn’t be surprised to see massive SUVs roll off the assembly line with a sticker that proudly states, “25% of the console of this vehicle was made with partially-recycled materials. Just one more step to a greener world.”

It would seem that green sells, so if you’re going green, you should mention it. But beware–as in all marketing, you should not promise something that you don’t intend to deliver. Take away the ethical issues–it just doesn’t make business sense. If someone actually chooses your event over another option because it is green and it turns out all you did was use recycled paper, you have almost certainly lost that customer for life.

We have to deliver everything we promise in the way of green. If our first greening attempt is simply to switch to recycled brochures, then the appropriate way to note that is with a simple, small recycling symbol in one corner of the brochure. I certainly don’t think you call it a “green conference” at that point. But remember, the event world, as a whole, is still at Green 1.0. We’ve got some learning and growing to do and it’s better to start small than not at all.

Some of these already green conferences have been criticized as “not green enough,” and if you go green, your event will likely receive some criticism, as well. Even the 2007 Academy Awards Ceremony, which was honoring “An Inconvenient Truth” and most certainly had the top green people (and the cash flow) around to “green” the event, was criticized in its first effort.

It’s easy to criticize green efforts as “not enough.” Almost a year ago, I came across the No Impact Man blog, talking about a man and his family’s attempts to seriously limit their impact on the environment. People actually criticized the man (who was not even using toilet paper) because of the amount of energy expended by his computer to write the blog and for others to read it.

I’m not saying to ignore the criticism–some of it could actually give you new ideas for the next event. But don’t let it stop you. Just make sure you are always honest and forthright about your green efforts and you can’t go wrong.

There Is No Going Back

Yesterday afternoon, I came across this list of top 10 trends. The first item on the list is GREEN. This list came at an interesting time. I work for a conference company and for the last several weeks, myself and two colleagues had been brainstorming the greening of our conferences. We unveiled our ideas and requested more at a team meeting yesterday. When I came back to my office, I found this list, confirming what we already knew: we need to go green or die. OK–so maybe we wouldn’t die this year or even in the next couple of years. But we would eventually die. And why not be ahead of the curve? I have this image of us running to catch up with our competitors, but we can’t because we’re all trying to drag Xerox boxes full of course books printed on non-recycled paper behind us.

Over the last few weeks, I did a lot of research and uncovered an interesting fact: it is kind of hard to learn about greening conferences and events. Not that there isn’t any information out there. It’s there, but you really have to look for it . There’s nobody (who I could find) who is out there doing all the work for you. I’m hoping to funnel all green ideas through this site. I don’t claim to be a green meeting expert, but I am working on green initiatives for our conference company and I fancy myself a pretty good researcher. It could just be a good match.