Meetings Law: Spelling Out 'Green' in Black and White

I can still remember some years ago when I stayed at a hotel and saw for the first time the little signs in the bathroom announcing that, in an effort to help the environment by cutting down on unnecessary laundry soap and hot water usage, the hotel encouraged guests to reuse their towels. My wife read the sign and remarked: "Wow, isn't it nice that hotels are now trying to do their part to help the environment?" As a jaded and cynical lawyer, I read the sign and thought: "Wow, what a clever way for hotels to reduce their services and cut their costs while still charging me the same high price for the room."

The hospitality industry's effort to save the environment has now gained a firm foothold in the meeting and convention world, where conducting "green meetings" has become all the rage. In addition to the many logistical and practical considerations of conducting green meetings, there are also legal issues that you may not have considered.

Greening Your Contracts

Once you have decided upon a location for your green meeting and the recycling initiatives you intend to incorporate, one step that many organizations forget is to carefully set forth the details of environment-saving techniques in contracts with the hotel and other vendors. If the hotel has promised to recycle paper waste, make them spell that out in a written contract that is enforceable and not just give an oral promise. If a supplier has promised to buy items in bulk to reduce unnecessary packaging, put that promise in the written contract as well, and make the supplier prove that such purchases occurred. Never rely on promises in a vendor's proposal unless they are signed by both parties.

In addition, there are some environmentally friendly techniques that clearly save the hotel money, and you should consider asking the hotel to share some of that cost savings with your group. For example, as noted in the beginning of this article, many hotels will not change your towels and sheets each day if you ask them not to do so. That can be a huge savings in soap, hot water, and labor costs for the hotel. One problem is that some people reuse towels, while others want fresh ones daily, so the key to getting a hotel to share its cost savings with you is to enforce uniformity among all of your attendees. If you have a three-day meeting that comprises 1,000 total room-nights, and if every one of your attendees were willing to pledge in advance that they would not have their towels or sheets replaced during that conference, the hotel should be able to identify those rooms for its housekeeping staff and calculate a cost savings that it could at least partially pass back to you through lower room rates or other concessions. I have not seen a group try such a proposal as yet, in part because most groups cannot be sure that all of their meeting attendees would agree to reuse their towels and sheets throughout the conference. But that's where good organizational leadership comes in.

Green meetings can involve a wide range of techniques to lessen the impact of a conference on the environment, including recycling of conference nametags and paper waste, using pitchers of tap drinking water for meeting attendees instead of individual plastic bottles of water, buying conference supplies in bulk to reduce packaging, and giving out tote bags made of jute instead of man-made materials. While these techniques may be well-intentioned, some would argue that the environmental savings of recycling nametags and foregoing plastic water bottles is a drop in the bucket.

If your organization is really serious about green meetings, then you must do more than take token steps like recycling nametags. You must instead convince your conference attendees to "walk the walk" and not just "talk the talk" when it comes to saving the environment. Those willing to think outside the box and bargain with the hotel to share any cost savings that they obtain from their group's frugality can both save the environment and save money on their meetings.

Ben Tesdahl, Esq., is an attorney concentrating in nonprofit, corporate, tax and contract law, including meeting and convention law. He is with the law firm of Powers, Pyles, Sutter & Verville, P.C. in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at 1-202-466-6550 or at [email protected]

Originally published Sept. 1, 2008

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