What a difference a year makes.

It was about this time in 2008 that APEX, the Accepted Practices Exchange initiative of the Convention Industry Council, formed a committee known as the Green Meetings and Events Practice Panel. The task for GMEPP: to create voluntary standards that allow empirical measurement of whether a meeting or event reaches agreed-upon thresholds for environmental responsibility.

Made up of a cross section of volunteers—meeting professionals, industry suppliers, and government officials—the panel met throughout the year and released draft standards around three topic areas in March, inviting stakeholders from across the globe to comment on its work. Within the GMEPP are nine subcommittees that address the critical elements for greening meetings: transportation, accommodations, meeting venues, exhibits, food and beverage, communications, on-site offices, destination, and audiovisual production. In live discussion groups in more than a dozen cities and in Web-based forums, industry stakeholders put forth their opinions on the standards, which will ultimately include a scoring system. Based on feedback, the initial standards are being vetted.

The focus of GMEPP is to release the standards for all nine areas for public comment in September, with the intent to launch the standards by the end of this year. The meetings and events industry will then have a detailed road map and checklist for measuring minimum compliance with environmental standards that fellow industry members have vetted and approved.

That, at least, is the goal. “I expect that the standards may be modified or revised within a year or two of the launch because processes, products, and services with environmental impact are moving forward so quickly,” says Amy Spatrisano, CMP, principal, MeetGreen, Portland, Ore., and chairwoman of GMEPP. “But we have to stop at some point, take a snapshot of the landscape, and base standards around that for the time being. Progress can’t happen until this is out there for people to use.”

The most important thing, Spatrisano notes, is that “for the first time, we are going to compare apples to apples throughout the industry, and greatly reduce ‘greenwashing’ by people who take advantage of vague or differing standards and thresholds. There is just so much confusion out there about which actions serve to make meetings benign to the environment. This initiative seeks to end that confusion.”

A Coordination Challenge

Few in the industry know just how difficult it was for GMEPP committee members to move the initiative this far along in 12 months. Committee members are spread across nine time zones, making live group interaction difficult. But because APEX is a program of the CIC, an umbrella group representing meetings-related organizations both within and outside North America, the standards needed to have international sensibilities.

Another important contributor to the effort is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; in fact, there’s one EPA representative on each of the nine committees. The agency’s interest in green meetings goes back to at least 2004, when it worked with CIC and the nonprofit Green Meeting Industry Council to create 14 site-selection questions for planners to consider. The topic became so prominent that a bill on green meetings was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007. The EPA wants the standards to be used by people who plan government meetings to save money and be environmentally conscious, “but also to increase environmental awareness in the private sector,” says Spatrisano. “So they’ve brought to the table their expertise in environmental science, and they want to match the performance indicators to the science.”

What the EPA also brings is strict rules related to the process of creating standards. For instance, the federal government must use a “voluntary consensus” process in order to participate in creating standards in any industry. This means that the public gets 30 days to respond to proposals, and that feedback is incorporated into the next incarnation of the proposals. And while APEX uses a voluntary consensus process in all its initiatives—not just green meetings—“the EPA required that the voluntary consensus process in this case must be affiliated with an organization certified by the American National Standards Institute,” Spatrisano explains. In light of this, APEX teamed up with ASTM International, a standards-setting organization that has done such work in more than 100 industries.

The coordination between APEX and these partner organizations has been challenging, since the protocol for the voluntary consensus process is different for APEX and ASTM.

How Scoring Will Work

Spatrisano explains the scoring methodology this way: Look at each of the nine areas as one slice of a nine-piece pie. If any one slice of pie does not meet its minimum standard—for instance, if the percentage of recycled material from a meeting falls short of the APEX-established minimum—then the slice is rotten, which spoils the rest of the pie as well. In short, a meeting will not be able to call itself “green” by APEX standards if it contains even one bad slice. (If an area is not relevant to a particular meeting, such as exhibits, it can be excluded from the pie.) What’s more, the calculations for each meeting will produce a score for both the host organization and the supplier segment. The score within each pie slice will have a base minimum with a tiered approach to a score. For example, if the planner and supplier scored 75 out of 100 possible points and the levels were established as 65 being “light green” (the minimum), then 75 might be considered a “medium green” score. Spatrisano notes that the scoring methodology and levels are still a work in progress and may differ slightly in the end product.

Yet the scoring in each area is what sets the APEX initiative apart from other green meeting processes already in existence, such as BS 8901, developed in Great Britain and launched in 2007. In the simplest terms with BS 8901, “the host organization sets its own sustainable objectives, engages stakeholders to achieve them, tracks progress, and establishes policies,” Spatrisano says. “After the event, they report on whether the meeting achieved those objectives. If they fell short in some areas, the organization documents their plan to remedy the shortfall for future meetings.

“But what we’re doing is crafting a specific set of criteria you must meet in order to designate your meeting or venue as green,” she continues. “So I’d describe our initiative as dovetailing with BS 8901, not competing with it. They can and should be used in tandem.”

There is one issue yet to be resolved: Who is going to train, certify, and compensate the independent officials who will work with planners and suppliers to score their meetings, thus bringing credibility to the system?

“At some point later this year, the training and certification process for the standards will be made public through CIC because we want that process to be industry-endorsed and industry-supported as well,” Spatrisano says. “We recognize that training and eventually certification are essential for these voluntary standards to be implemented and successful. This is not a quick and easy process.”

But that doesn’t mean planners and suppliers have to wait for that process to ramp up. As soon as the standards are released, organizations can use them to self-score their events as a way to learn which areas of their meetings pass or fail. Then, once the organization adapts its meetings to pass in each of the nine areas, certification may be a consideration to ensure they have been verified by a third party. Many planners will see the value in using the scoring to prove compliance with their organizations’ corporate social responsibility initiatives, while suppliers likely will use their scoring as a competitive advantage.

“Once we get these standards out, it will allow all of us to have some tangible indication of our environmental impact,” Spatrisano says. “It’s going to get people thinking differently and, in turn, open up whole new ways of doing business. I think this is the start of a pivotal time in our industry.”

Get Involved! The APEX green standards development effort is open to all. Join city discussion groups in your area, or virtual discussions here.