Concerned consumers are increasingly opting for earth-friendly products, new government programs now offer businesses strong incentives to reduce their carbon footprints, and more and more organizations are figuring out that the energy savings from “going green” can help to strengthen the bottom line and provide a competitive advantage.

This growing eco-consciousness means that meeting planners are frequently finding themselves tasked to select environmentally friendly meeting locations. Sounds simple enough, but everyone has different standards for eco-friendliness. Is it enough that a facility offers recycling for waste products, or do they need to grow their own produce in an on-site organic garden? How green is green?

You can start the evaluation process by looking at how a venue operates in the following four areas.

Energy Consumption

To minimize energy consumption, look into what type of lighting the conference center uses. This includes what types of bulbs are purchased and if lighting time is managed efficiently. Is the facility prepared to activate an energy reduction plan during heavy energy usage periods? Energy-efficient power sources should be in place, and room temperatures should be constantly monitored to prevent unnecessary use.

Recycling Practices

Does the meeting facility follow the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? Ask about the protocol for disposal of batteries, print cartridges, printer toner, and solvents. If these types of technology-enhancing products are not disposed of properly, the toxins can be extremely harmful to the environment. Determine whether the facility has established policies regarding the management of hazardous substances.

In addition to the proper handling and disposal of hazardous materials, check to see if the facility recycles paper, glass, and aluminum. Key indicators of recycling efforts are recycling bins throughout the premises. Be sure to inquire as to where recycling bins are located and what the procedure is for emptying them.

In addition to considering the recycling of waste products, you may want to select a conference facility that purchases products, including copy paper and dining utensils, that are made from recycled materials. Some facilities will go the extra mile in this area by purchasing products from suppliers that procure 100 percent of their manufacturing electricity from emission-free renewable energy sources.

Food and Drink

For starters, bottled water is a big green no-no because of the amount of waste it generates. Many eco-friendly conference centers will provide recycling efforts to counteract this waste, and some will even provide alternatives to water bottles such as a water purification system that allows guests to enjoy purified water with post-consumer recycled cups or reusable glassware.

If you're looking for a facility that takes its green practices to the next level, ask where they get their produce. Select conference facilities have opted to grow organic herbs and vegetables in their own on-site gardens to ensure quality and freshness. For facilities that do not maintain on-site gardens, the produce should ideally be organic and locally grown.

Bathrooms and Cleaning

The bathroom is the easiest place to overlook earth-friendly practices. Everything from the hand dryer to the toilet paper adds up to a big environmental impact. High-efficiency hand dryers can help to reduce paper waste products. Where tissues and toilet paper are provided, ideally these items should be biodegradable and made from recycled materials. Water consumption can also be reduced if the facility provides low-flow features in the sinks, toilets, and showers.

If you want an easy-to-evaluate standard of quality, look for facilities that use the Green Seal. A mark of environmental responsibility, a Green Seal product will comply with all environmentally conscious rules, including conservation of resources, minimization of ozone depletion, use of resources, and human well-being. Green Seal products also ensure the safety of your employees from harmful toxins and allergens.

Best to Take a Tour

You may find that it is rather difficult to evaluate how “green” a center actually is without seeing it in person. Although there may be great photos on the Web site, these may be stock photos or outdated images, and many Web sites may have limited or no information at all regarding eco-friendly practices. Many conference centers do offer to bring in prospective clients free of charge to assess the condition of the facility and determine whether it's the right fit their needs. Take advantage of this type of opportunity.

If your organization cares about the environment and wants to ensure that its next event complies with its green standards, it might be beneficial for you to do a “green site inspection” before you decide to book your conference.

Deborah C. Ryan, CMP, is senior manager of business development for Q Center, St. Charles, Ill., the largest conference center in the United States. Ryan's experience includes eight years as a meeting and event manager for a large international corporation and five years as a conference manager at Q Center.