Walking the Green Talk

On April 2, Nielsen Research (parent company of MeetingNews) released a report revealing that online buzz surrounding sustainability increased 50 percent over the course of 2007. That's a big number. But it wasn't all about the great work industries have undertaken in the name of the environment. Much of the online chatter, according to Nielsen's "Sustainability through the Eyes and Megaphones of the Blogosphere" report, was devoted to revealing the underside of ecoawareness: Industries and companies that don't live up to their ecofriendly claims. Or, in the lingo of the environmentally aware, the practice of "greenwashing."

"More CEOs are publicly saying, 'We are going to reduce our carbon footprint by "x" percent in the next five years.' So organizations have to measure the impact of everything, including their meetings and travel," said Amy Spatrisano, principal of Portland, OR-based Meeting Strategies Worldwide, a founder of the Green Meetings Industry Council, and co-author of Simple Steps to Green Meetings and Events.

In addition to what is often their own interest in conservation, savvy planners have identified green initiatives as one way to get involved in their organizations' strategic missions and become recognized for the unique value they bring to the table (April 7 MN, p. 16). But in their zeal to create events that are environmentally sound, planners better make sure to check their work—and the work of their supplier partners—or risk being exposed in the critical

"We see so many statements being made right now from both the planner and the supplier side about how green they are.But when you scratch the surface a bit, it's clear they are only accounting for a few aspects of what they do in their business—and rarely in a detailed way," said Spatrisano.

The new report from Nielsen indicates bloggers are moving beyond exposing outright false statements and identifying conflicting practices within organizations. For example, 25 percent of online greenwashing discussions addressed organizations taking actions that were contradictory to their environmental claims.

Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist for Washington, DC-based meetings consultancy Eisenstodt Associates, offers a common scenario in the meetings industry: "It would make for very bad press if a company that touts its environmental commitment met in a destination or a facility that was doing little in the way of conservation," she said.

Planners, organizations, and suppliers that fail to "walk their talk" risk damaging their reputations in a way that won't soon go away, noted Mark Glickman, director of resort marketing and sales for Mauna Lani Resort in Hawaii. "Properties that overstate green claims definitely leave themselves exposed to a public backlash," he said. "Between today's 24/7 news cycle and the world of social media, any property that misstates or exaggerates what it's doing won't get away with it for long. Word gets around."

So how can planners avoid the backlash to their own reputations and their organizations? Education, research, and constraint seem to be the consensus among meetings industry experts. "Most planners are still learning what it takes to be green and are not as informed as they need to be," said Eisenstodt. But according to Michelle White, director of environmental affairs for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, planners are taking steps in the right direction. She notes that many RFPs now include questions about how hotels are working to minimize their carbon footprints, and group customers are looking for measurable items.

"If a facility says it's going to cost me more because it costs them to collect that data, that's a red flag that [measuring their eco-practices] is not part of its normal process," offers Spatrisano.

But it's not just about checking out the suppliers, Spatrisano is quick to note. "Think about whether the in-person meeting truly needs to take place, and then reduce, reuse, and recycle all the materials you can on site. Buying carbon offsets afterward makes sense. Just make sure you buy them from suppliers who have truly useful programs."

In the highly critical environment of eco-friendly events, practicing constraint in environmental claims can go a long way toward protecting an organization's reputation—and the planner's reputation within the company, too.

"Is greenwashing going on? Absolutely," said Spatrisano. "But it is unintentional as often as it is intentional."

Originally published April 21, 2008