If you think that greed has won out over green in corporate America, talk to Coleen Isom, director of events at Interface Inc., the world's largest carpet company, which is headquartered in Atlanta. In the mid-1990s, off-site meetings at Interface ended the way most companies' still do: with big piles of trash on the corner of the floor waiting to be thrown away. "Today, we try not to throw anything away," says Isom. This means boxing up centerpieces to ship back to the home office to store for the next meeting, removing paperwork from binders and reusing the shells, even unfolding and rebuilding cardboard shipping boxes.
For Interface,are an integral part of an overall corporate mandate that the company calls its "Journey to Sustainability," for which it has been widely recognized. Its goal is to become the first truly sustainable corporation in the world--and after that, the first restorative company (returning more to the environment than it takes).
Interface Gives Back How can a meeting give back more to the environment than it takes? Consider Interface's 1997 World Meeting at the Grand Wailea on Maui, which won a Global Paragon Award from Meeting Professionals International. The company did an eco-audit of the property beforehand and required that the hotel put in place practices ranging from using dispensers for soap and shampoo in bathrooms to the optional laundering of towels; many of these practices are still in use. "The resort now has a dedicated green staff to enforce environmental initiatives and publishes a green newsletter," says Isom.
The meeting also changed the way Interface evaluates sites: The planners use a green questionnaire during the site selection process that asks what environmental programs hotels have in place. "Based on their feedback, I become proactive," says Isom, who organizes between 25 and 30 conferences, all over the world, each year.
If a recycling program doesn't exist, for example, she will set one up for the meeting, with the hope that "if the hotel saves money, the program will stay with them." Isom also gives attendees large green cards that have instructions in different languages. The cards ask hotel staff not to change the sheets and towels every day. These cards are left in guest rooms for the duration of the meeting.
"The most important thing we look for from the hotels is cooperation," she notes. "We realize that the hospitality industry is about service, and we're asking the hotels to take some of that service away."
The company evaluates each aspect of its meetings for its environmental impact, from leisure activities to pillow gifts. For example, instead of playing golf every free afternoon, attendees might plant a butterfly garden. Rather than buying the usual T-shirts or golf caps as gifts, Interface might give out fleece jackets made from recycled plastic bottles. For meal functions, Isom chooses menus to minimize waste and tries not to do buffets. Even getting there is a consideration. "I try to choose a location that is convenient to get to without using a lot of fuel," she says. She plans to conduct a post-conference eco-audit for every meeting beginning later this year.
"My job has become much more meaningful than bargaining with suppliers," Isom adds. "Now I bring something to the table when I'm negotiating that tells them we're not just talking about having a meeting, but about making an environmental impact."
Hotels Lead the Way Interface is not an anomaly, but a model of what is to come in the hospitality industry, according to Tedd Saunders, president of Boston-based EcoLogical Solutions Inc. "There has been a dramatic change in the hotel industry during the past five years, with a lot of voluntary initiatives to become more environmentally responsible. Every hotel company today has some properties that focus on environmental issues. In the next five to 10 years, we'll see this happening companywide, and the hotel that has not undertaken a substantial environmental program will be the exception."
Saunders has worked for the past 10 years with The Lenox and Copley Square hotels in Boston to "shift the paradigm about luxury and comfort not having to mean excess and waste." In other words, incorporating practices such as using elegant amenity dispensers for soaps and shampoos instead of thousands of disposable plastic bottles. He talks about how far this single practice has come: Back in 1992, there was one dispenser on the market; now, there are at least six dispenser companies and a dozen all-natural products from which to choose.
However, much of the progress toward environmentally responsible meetings is being made by suppliers, not customers. Prior to compiling its recently published green meetings report, the Meeting Professionals International Green Meetings Task Force surveyed a small sample of MPI members about green practices. Only 25 percent of the respondents said they enforced policies for producing environmentally responsible meetings. Subsequently, MPI did not adapt the report as policy, but posted it on its Web site as a guide.
"My research indicates that most of the environmental initiatives are being generated by suppliers, not by meeting organizers," confirms Helena Miele, a New Milford, N.J.-based consultant who just received her CITE designation from the Society of Incentive Travel Executives for her work on the greening of incentive travel. Results from a questionnaire that Miele distributed to members of SITE's corporate advisory council and to attendees at The Incentive Travel & Meetings Executives Show (IT&ME) last year found that while 55 percent of the respondents "asked about the hotel's environmental policies during site visits," only 27 percent "would place environmentally friendly qualities of a hotel or venue above cost savings." A mere 18 percent "actively looked for green destinations."
She has found that most meetings include at least a component of a green meeting, and thus founded a company, Earth Mother, that specializes in environmentally friendly merchandise for meetings and incentives. "Even if a program doesn't say it is green, they might use items like locally crafted pillow gifts that help sustain the local economy. This is different from what it was even five years ago."
Questions to Ask The first question to ask any supplier, says Tedd Saunders, is, "Do you have an environmental program? If so, what does that program entail?" Beyond that, meeting organizers can ask many specific questions of hotels to help identify environmentally aware properties. The following queries were adapted from The Green Hotels Association's Meeting Planner's Questionnaire for Green Lodging Establishments and Interface Inc.'s Green Hotel Questionnaire:
* Recycling--Do you regularly purchase recycled products, or products that can be recycled? Is there an in-house recycling program and/or a recycling program that allows guests to participate? If yes, what specific materials are included? Will you provide recycling bins and commit to seeing that all of the items collected are actually recycled?
* Guest rooms--Can guests choose not to have towels or sheets changed daily? Are there waste containers for recyclable materials? Do bathrooms have low-flow shower heads and amenity dispensers with 100 percent natural soap and shampoo?
* Food and Beverage--Can we avoid using disposables such as Styrofoam, plastic, and individual creamer and sugar packets for F&B events? Do you purchase and serve beverages in returnable, refillable containers? Do you donate leftover food to a local nonprofit organization?
* Back-of-House Operations--Do you employ solid waste minimization and/or energy reduction programs? Have you upgraded to energy-efficient lighting? Do you generate any energy from alternative sources? Are you doing anything to conserve water or to reduce dry cleaning and laundry chemicals? How do you minimize chemical treatments and energy use in swimming pools and water features?
* Landscaping--Do you use pest management practices to minimize chemical use and/or water management practices to minimize irrigation? Do you use native plant species in landscaping? Have you designed landscaping features as a habitat for local animal or insect species? Do you compost plant trimmings?
* Conference Services--Will you distribute leftover meeting materials and sample products to a local charity? Do you offer double-sided copying for a lesser rate than two single sheets?
* Local Culture--Do you have programs to support and/or improve the local community or culture? Do you have programs for guests about the area's cultural heritage, ecosystems, or native plant and animal species? Are there any programs to help attendees leave a positive legacy of their stay in the local community?
For More Info * EcoLogical Solutions Inc.--EcoLogical Solutions offers a series of talks and facilitated workshops on going green and a checklist for meeting organizers on how to plan environmentally sound meetings. (617) 425-0900; firstname.lastname@example.org
* Eco Services Division of HVS International--Eco Services' ECOTEL certification program identifies hotels that meet high environmental standards of commitment in such areas as solid waste management, energy efficiency, and water conservation. The Web site includes a database of environmentally friendly vendors. (516) 248-8828; email@example.com; www.hvsinternational.com
* The EIBTM Directory of Natural Meetings & Incentives--This free green directory published by the European Incentive & Business Travel & Meetings Exhibition lists green associations, organizations, airlines, car rental companies, convention centers, convention and visitor bureaus, cruise lines, destination management companies, hotels, and national and regional tourist organizations. 44-127-373-5253; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
* The Green Hotels Association--The Green Hotels Association provides a free 36-question Meeting Planners Questionnaire for Green Lodging Establishments, a list of member hotels, and a catalog of Environmental Products. (713)789-8889; email@example.com; www.greenhotels.com
* Green Globe 21--Green Globe's certification program identifies suppliers and destinations that have achieved environmental standards in such areas as waste reduction, energy efficiency, and environmentally sensitive purchasing. Fax 44-207-730-5515; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.greenglobe.org
* The International Hotels Environment Initiative (IHEI)--A sub-group of the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum, IHEI is an international network of top hotel executives. It publishes The Green Hotelier magazine, and also offers hotel-specific environmental training materials, as well as a directory of global environmental resources. Fax 44-171-467-3629; email@example.com.
* The IT&ME Green Directory--The Incentive Travel & Meetings Executives Show publishes this free directory of environmentally responsible hotels, venues, conference centers, destination management companies,transportation companies, etc. (630) 434-7779; Fax (630) 434-1216.
* MPI Green Meetings Guide--This comprehensive report offers many practical suggestions about how to hold environmentally conscious meetings. www.mpiweb.org/GreenMeetings/summary.htm
Sometimes the companies hardest hit by public scrutiny have the greatest sense of environmental responsibility. Such is the case with Philip Morris Co. Inc., which tries to implement a food rescue program for every corporate meeting, says Kathy Nekola, CMP, director of corporatewide programs. For example, at its Florida golf Invitational this spring, a large merchandise display introduced new food products from Kraft, Miller, and other Philip Morris companies. Part of the display was a "supermarket" of refrigerated goods.
"Our goal was to keep the integrity of the products and then donate them to local charitable organizations," says Nekola.
The obstacle was moving the food from the hotel to the organizations without it spoiling in the hot Florida sun. So Nekola used refrigerated trucks to deliver 6,345 pounds of lunch meat, cream cheese, hot dogs, and other food that would have been trashed to seven different agencies that feed hungry people.