Even in an economic crisis, green practices and long-term sustainability goals should not take a backseat to the bottom line. That's Guy Bigwood's mantra. The group sustainability director at Geneva, Switzerland-based MCI Group, author of the green-meetings blog “Less Conversation More Action,” and one of the newly named Corporate Meetings & Incentives Green Leaders, Bigwood believes the notion that sustainability is at odds with affordability is short-sighted. “Those companies that have started implementing [green practices] into their businesses and are truly committed to these initiatives are still looking for green options in this economy.”

In fact, many planners find that incorporating green and CSR (corporate social responsibility) practices into meetings can be beneficial — not only to establish their companies as good corporate citizens, but to actually save money.

Take Dahlton Bennington, CMP, CMM. As director of business meeting services for Spherion Corp., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based recruitment and staffing company, she sees the current economy as “a great tool for leveraging green efforts” that save her company money or are cost-neutral. “It's definitely a planner's market right now, and most suppliers are being very supportive of all endeavors — including green,” she says. “Suppliers are looking at CSR and green practices as a means of differentiating themselves from the competition and are much more willing to get creative and come up with new ideas for green meetings.”

Case in point: At the last 10 meetings Spherion has held, not a single centerpiece was thrown in the trash. At an incentive meeting in Coronado, Calif., last March, Bennington found a supplier who helped her donate floral arrangements from the event to local nursing homes and hospitals via an organization called Blooms From the Heart. “I thought, ‘Why aren't more people doing this?’” she says. She has since asked her suppliers to donate the floral arrangements from all her events and “so far everyone has been receptive to it.” The best part: It hasn't cost the company a dime.

“There is this notion that green meetings are more expensive than non-green meetings,” says Nancy Wilson, CMP, principal of Portland, Ore.-based MeetGreen (formerly Meeting Strategies Worldwide) and another CMI Green Leader. “It baffles me. We always tell our clients, ‘If it makes good business sense, do it.’ This is sustainability — and that means your company has to survive as well. If you come across a green practice that costs you money, then don't do it. But 99.9 percent of the time you will save money.”

A Matter of Priorities

Industry research shows that attention to green meetings is on the rise. In Meeting Professionals International's 2009 FutureWatch study, planners were asked what trends would influence their meetings for 2009. “More green meetings” was ranked in the No. 4 spot — up from No. 5 in the 2008 study. And in a CWT Travel Management Institute report released in January, 18 percent of 178 travel managers said managing an environmentally friendly program would be a high priority in 2009.

Certainly, some efforts are slowing — namely those that require an additional investment. “Companies are not offsetting their carbon emissions as much these days,” notes Bigwood. But even there, he finds a silver lining: If corporate funds aren't available to purchase offsets, companies may find ways to reduce their carbon footprints on the front end — ultimately a much more effective green measure than offsetting.

In addition, “those companies that were ‘greenwashing’ to look good” — or just going through the motions — are not doing so in this economy, says Bigwood. “The concept of sustainability has grown up, and companies are now looking for business results from these efforts — the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.”

Gone too are the days of hotels and venues selling sustainability at a premium price. “That is not going to happen anymore,” Bigwood says. “Green is becoming a part of doing business and if you don't have it, it is going to be a negative.” He has also seen the economy drive down costs on green and sustainable products such as conference bags, recycled paper products, and sustainable giveaways. “These items can't be more expensive now. [The economy] has forced businesses to look at the cost of their products. If option A and option B are the same price, but option B is greener, that is the one that will win out.”

Rely on Your Suppliers

The onus is on both the supplier and the planner to find green solutions, says Brad Langley, president and COO of the Creative Group, Appleton, Wis. “It's amazing how creative our hotel partners have become in this area.” For example, his company has worked with executive chefs to come up with menu items that use locally grown foods, reducing the cost and carbon emissions associated with shipping ingredients from other locations.

Nancy Wilson notes that summer is a great time to source local and organic foods because they are more readily available in the warmer months. “For all our clients, we ask the hotel to provide us with the first 30 percent of our local or organic F&B at the same cost as nonorganic. The venue is usually responsive to that.” But you want to get buy-in directly from the chef, in case you meet resistance from your salesperson, she says. “The chefs are creative and want to get involved in developing new menus, so they usually get very excited to work with us on this.”

Another cost-effective green measure: going vegetarian. Serving a vegetarian option will reduce the carbon footprint of a meal, says Wilson. And we're not talking about steamed veggies and rice. Hearty meals like pasta and vegetarian lasagna are great options because they are more economical than meat dishes and are often a welcome change both for the chef and the attendees. “We serve one or two vegetarian meals at conferences and the attendees never notice there is no meat.”

Often the hotel staff will come up with other creative ideas. For example, Michelle Gilman Jasen, regional director of sales and marketing for the Fairmont San Francisco, recently set up a farmer's market at an event for a technology company. The attendees received reusable grocery bags to fill with fruits and vegetables to bring home with them as gifts. It was a concept Fairmont came up with and one that Jasen says has gotten a lot of interest from green-minded planners.

Finding out what the hotel is doing behind the scenes can be eye-opening for eco-conscious planners, says Michael Scherbert, account director for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Waikiki. “Planners often ask about the basics, like recycling and linen-reuse policies, but for a hotel that is operating 24 hours a day, seven days week, being green is much more than that. A lot goes on in the back of the house that planners may not be privy to.” And it doesn't cost a thing to ask for detailed information on a hotel's water and energy efficiency, waste-diversion rates, composting programs, and sustainable menu options.

Brooke Sommers, CMP, CMM, manager of events, sales operations, at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems, has felt the pull of the economy on some of her green efforts. “We like to use recyclable signs for our meetings but this year it was cost-prohibitive.” Instead, she found a local vendor to do all the printing for her meeting in order to save on carbon emissions from shipping signs to the venue.

Some of her other green practices, however, are still going strong. “We don't print binders anymore,” she says. “All program information is put onto a memory stick and posted at our Web site following the event.”

She’s also finding ways to include elements of CSR in her meetings. At a recent sales meeting in Las Vegas, the company gave the attendees reusable grocery bags and donated all leftover bags to the local Boys and Girls Club of Las Vegas. “We try to add a charitable aspect to every meeting that we do,” says Sommers.

She’s not alone. At Spherion, Bennington has also been focused on CSR components for the meetings she executes. At a meeting last April in Charleston, S.C., for 125 franchise owners and staff, the company decided to forgo traditional attendee gifts in favor of adopting animals in each attendee’s name at the South Carolina Aquarium, where they held an evening event. Not only was the gift tax-deductible, the contribution benefited the local community. Unlike a traditional gift, it was completely carbon neutral. And it didn’t cost any more than a typical attendee gift.

That's the perfect approach, says Wilson. “[Green and socially responsible meetings] are a journey, and no one is going at it 100 percent anytime soon.” Incorporating one thing at a time, benchmarking your efforts, and showing your success can make a huge difference.

Prove the Green in Green

The next step is measuring your efforts, tracking savings, and communicating the benefits to attendees and upper management. That's something that Tracey Wilt, manager of global travel and meetings management for Xerox Corp., Webster, N.Y., has started to do for the meetings her department manages. The company uses an outsourced model for meeting management, and one of the areas on which Xerox evaluates suppliers is their ability to incorporate green initiatives into meetings. Metrics include reusing name badges, distributing handouts electronically, recycling during the conference, and creating awareness around virtual meetings as a means of reducing carbon emissions from travel.

While her team is not currently tracking the environmental impact of each effort, it is something Wilt hopes to incorporate into meetings in the future. “Right now we are tracking the amount of times we are able to convince the internal meeting coordinator to use green practices during a meeting and identify the associated cost savings from these efforts.”

While most companies are not as far along as Xerox, MCI's Bigwood expects to see green initiatives becoming increasingly important to companies in the future. “We are going to see more laws go into effect that require us to measure and trade our carbon emissions and this is going to impact large companies and even some smaller companies,” he says.

For now, capturing savings and communicating efforts to attendees and suppliers can go a long way toward environmental and economic sustainability.

“Everyone who is holding a meeting right now is looking for cost savings, and those strategies can overlap with green efforts,” says Wilson. “The great thing about being a meeting planner is that, with the choices you make, you have the ability to affect thousands.”