RCMA member Jan Sneegas has seen the future of meetings. She wants you to know that the future is green.

Sneegas, director of general assembly and conference services for the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, is a pioneer of green-meetings efforts in the United States. She is the sole religious meeting planner serving on the board of the Green Meeting Industry Council, and she is committed to changing the environmental practices of her meetings and the practices of meetings-industry suppliers.

“The time is now for religious groups to be involved in the greening of meetings,” she says. “It's so in line with the values that most religious groups espouse. It's the right thing to do.”

The green meetings movement — trying to make meetings more environmentally responsible — is young.

The UUA began “greening” its meetings in 2003. A group within the church body challenged the leaders to take steps to cut the environmental impact of its meetings, because doing so lined up with the UUA's guiding principles.

“We were challenged to walk the talk,” Sneegas says.

The UUA's leadership accepted the challenge and today is dedicated to doing whatever is possible. That effort begins with site selection — finding cities and hotels that will work with the organization to help it achieve its environmental goals.

The Reigning Champion of Green Meetings

The UUA's 2007 general assembly was held in Portland, Ore., and Sneegas believes Portland right now is the best at providing green meetings. Some cities are green for specific meetings. Portland is green every day.

“You can't beat Portland. We were really bowled over,” she says.

Portland stands out, because it doesn't have to be prodded into making changes for the sake of green meetings; green practices are standard for suppliers and facilities.

Sneegas cites Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, and St. Louis as other cities that rank high on her list for green meetings. In her experience, Doubletree and Hilton are hotels that are committed to improving environmental performance.

Sneegas feels obliged to change the way suppliers view green meetings. It isn't an easy task. “The biggest challenge to green meetings is resistance from suppliers. They believe it will cost more money. In fact, it saves money.”

She's heard a litany of excuses from suppliers for why they can't meet her expectations. Here's a sampling:

  • A hotel sales rep said it wouldn't offer a program for reducing resources usage through a volunteer towel-and-sheet program “because that's not what people want.” (Sneegas vigorously disagrees.)

  • Sneegas asks that facilities not use Styrofoam, which cannot be recycled easily. A hotel told her they wouldn't meet that request, because it actually was the hotel's policy to use Styrofoam.

  • Help Along the Way

    When Sneegas asked about donating excess food from the meeting to local food-shelf programs, a convention center told her it was against the law — when it actually wasn't.

In those cases, the hotels and the city lost potential business: Sneegas took her annual general assembly of more than 5,000 attendees elsewhere.

Even if a supplier agrees to a request and a green requirement has been written into a contract, that does not guarantee that the requirement will be followed. That is why Sneegas brings an enforcer to her meetings.

When the UUA jumped into greening its meetings, Sneegas was afraid that “we wouldn't be able to do it well enough.”

Then they found a fearless sheriff on the green-meetings frontier. Her name is Amy Spatrisano, a founder of the Green Meeting Industry Council and the owner of a Portland company that helps organizations to move forward with green initiatives.

Amy is the UUA's green enforcer, the one who packs plastic gloves.

Spatrisano assured Sneegas that any steps the UUA took would matter. Beginning in 2004, the UUA contracted with Spatrisano to help it achieve its green goals.

Before meetings, Spatrisano provides support with contract and site negotiations. During meetings, her on-site management makes sure that the suppliers are doing what they promised to do.

This is when the plastic gloves are used: “She goes through the garbage bins to make sure they're doing what was contracted,” Sneegas says. During meetings, Spatrisano also can be found teaching host facilities what can be done to minimize environmental impacts.

After the meeting, she produces an audit that gives a detailed analysis of what was accomplished.

Sneegas encourages newcomers to bring in outside help, like Spatrisano. “It's their job to stay on top of these things as they change. I don't have the time to do it. But if you choose not to hire someone, there's a lot of information available.”

(The Green Meeting Industry Council is a good place to start: www.greenmeetings.info.)

Spatrisano's services cost the UUA between $10,000 and $20,000 a year, but Sneegas says that money is recouped through savings that Spatrisano achieves in contract negotiations. “She's worth every cent that we pay her.”

Sneegas says that the reaction of her meeting attendees to the environmental changes that the organization has made has been “nothing but positive.”

In its registration materials, the UUA offers attendees the opportunity to counter the carbon they use in attending a meeting by donating to an organization that purchases carbon offsets.

In 2007, more than a third of its assembly attendees made the suggested $6 donation — an increase of about 10 percent from 2006. It's an improvement, but as with the meetings, there's room for growth.

Sneegas would like to see the day when all suppliers make green practices standard operating procedure.

“Suppliers are willing to do green things for us as a customer, but we want them to continue to do it when we're gone,” she says. “We're not there yet, but that day is coming.”

How much of an impact can you make? At the Unitarian Universalist Association's first, modest attempt at being environmentally sensitive, and with minimal planning, the following quantities were recycled (from a five-day meeting with more than 4,000 attendees):

  • Plastic: 150 lbs.
  • Cardboard: 300 lbs.
  • Aluminum cans: 50 lbs.
  • Landfill waste: 13,746 lbs.