I’ve seen countless presentations and updates on the recently released APEX/ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Meeting Standards in the five years since they began taking shape. But until two weeks ago, I’d only heard them sliced and diced according to the nine meetings industry sectors we all know so well: accommodations, audiovisual, communications and marketing, destinations, exhibits, food and beverage, venues, on-site office, and transportation.

That changed earlier this month, at the International Special Events Society’s Sustainability Summit in New York City, when Jill Drury of Drury Design Dynamics and Johanna Walsh of Twirl Management suggested what struck me as a smarter, more methodical way of using the standards to shift the industry’s performance.

During a wider session on applying the standards, they touched on the germ of a great idea: Build a coordinated strategy around one of the standards’ eight “impact areas”—energy, air quality, water, staff management and environmental policy, communications, waste, procurement, or community partners—then apply it across all aspects of a meeting. Shifting our thinking from sectors to impact, struck me as a great way to move beyond small, incremental changes and drive much deeper reductions in an event’s environmental and community footprint.

It would also help to answer a question that is becoming more common, and more worrisome, across the industry: Just as the standards begin rolling out, more and more meeting and event colleagues are asking whether the industry has done all it can to make operations more sustainable. My presentation at ISES NYC was titled “Are We Done With Sustainable Events?” because so many people think (or hope) that we might be.

Here’s where I see the difference in the two strategies. With a sector-by-sector approach you have the advantage of comfortable familiarity. Any planner knows the role accommodations, audiovisual, or food and beverage, for example, will play is his or her next event, and it should be (somewhat) simple to add a few more expectations to the checklist. But those tactics are almost sure to be incremental, with no overall sense of what success looks like. Before long, people will decide they’ve done all they can, or maybe that they’ve done their bit, and the initiative may wind down far too soon.

If we really dig into an impact area, we’ll have a better chance of setting a big, audacious, necessary objective—maybe zero-waste for an entire event, or an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions. At that point we can coordinate efforts across all nine sectors. We’ll be looking at the same list of in-house functions but with a clear view of the end goal before we start.

Turning our attention from specific functions to broad results could be one of those small twists in perspective that make a big difference for moving toward a sustainable meetings industry. While I’m on site this week at GMIC’s 2012 Sustainable Meetings Conference in Montréal, I’m listening closely for this and any other new approaches that will help bring the standards to life.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content, and founding chair of the GMIC Sustainable Meetings Foundation. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.