The Convention Industry Council didn’t refer to cost savings or economic impact when it recently announced that eight of the nine APEX/ASTM green meetings standards had finally been adopted.

But once meeting and event professionals begin implementing the standards, they’ll likely find that the financial returns from their sustainability programs are every bit as important as the environmental gains. Maybe more so, from the point of view of making sustainability itself sustainable at the organizations that need to practice it.

We’ll know the green meetings standards have really taken hold and earned their keep when the industry shifts its attitude on sustainability from spin and compliance to opportunity.

This is not to understate the educational value of a set of standards that finally draws a line in the sand, delineating what it means to organize a “sustainable meeting.” Sustainability is often tough to define in practice and, in the absence of a clear signpost, interpretations proliferate and “greenwashing” can take root.

Thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers—we’re talking about four years and thousands of volunteer hours from an estimated 300 sustainable-meeting specialists—the North American industry finally has a common benchmark for assessing an organization’s green pedigree. Buyers can hold vendors accountable and, just as important, vendors can check their own performance against a rigorous, exhaustively vetted standard.

But the biggest, most lasting sustainability gains are the ones that make economic sense. The organizations with the most robust sustainability programs will be the ones that build them into their business plans—not because the PR office foresees a nice series of press releases, but because the CFO is expecting cost savings or revenue even better than last year's.

  • If a linen-reuse program is really working, the hotel should be able to track reductions in hot water demand and corresponding energy savings. If the facility has the data, it should be a no-brainer to share it with meeting clients.
  • If an organization opts for digital or reusable signage, the savings should show up the following year in lower production costs.
  • If an expo cuts down on the massive volume of trash typically left behind on the show floor, the facility should save on labor and tippage fees. Some of that saving can and should come back to the meeting.

The APEX/ASTM standards enable those conversations, and dozens of others, but they won’t actually improve the industry’s environmental footprint until meeting professionals pull them off the page and put them to use in the real world. Now it’s up to each of us to bring the standards to life.

This column wouldn’t be complete without a special shout-out to Amy Spatrisano—principal of MeetGreen, chairwoman of the APEX Green Meetings and Events Panel, co-founder of the Green Meeting Industry Council, and (full disclosure) my colleague on the GMIC Foundation. Amy is the industry hero whose knowledge, determination, and sheer stubbornness made the standards a reality. I expect she’ll be the first to insist that this achievement was the result of a huge team effort. Everyone else on that team would be just as emphatic that the standards wouldn’t have been approved if she hadn’t pushed and prodded them across the finish line. The last standard in the series, on accommodations, still needs some prodding. But Amy and the rest of the APEX team have given the industry something truly monumental to celebrate.

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