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Are You Being Greenwashed?

Three things to consider when partnering to achieve environmentally friendly meetings.

The event industry is awash in sustainability issues, and everyone seems to have a “solution” to the fact that meetings and events are hard on the planet. Many of these solutions are well-intentioned, but not all are as effective as they claim or as people believe.

Greenwashing refers to deliberately misleading sustainability claims. However, sometimes it’s a case of unintended “green wishing,” where meeting pros are overly optimistic when looking for fast, simple solutions.

Like get-rich-quick and lose-weight-fast claims, be careful about solutions that are too easy. Reducing the environmental footprint of our events is not complicated, but this is a newer area of expertise for event professionals and we can be sold flashy promises that don’t deliver.

So how can you determine if the product or service you’re considering is an effective way to combat the climate emergency? Here are three things to look for and consider:

1. Ask about data and/or certification
Companies that offer low- or zero-carbon emission solutions must do the math to make this claim—and you should ask to see it. If they do not have it, they may have had an independent third party do the calculations for certification. But if they have no data and no certification, that’s a red flag. There are a lot of certification bodies out there for different aspects of events, and we’ll do a future article specifically on certification, but you can start by looking for certifications that are approved by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. or the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification.

2. Downstream versus upstream efforts
Downstream efforts to reduce an event’s environmental footprint, such as recycling, composting, offsets, and reuse of materials, address the negative impacts created by the event. These are good efforts, but unless they are paired with upstream solutions, they don’t make much of a dent in the overwhelming backlog of emissions that our modern meetings produce.

Upstream solutions tackle a problem at its source. For meeting professionals this might include changing to low-emission protein sources (fish or poultry versus beef), using reusable service items (china and glass rather than disposable items), and engaging with energy- and water-smart programs, which focus on energy efficiency like LEED buildings or target water usage to save precious resources. (To learn about water conservation options, check out Alliance for Water Efficiency.) 

With upstream solutions, the bottom line is that you’re avoiding the problem rather than solving it. It is usually cheaper and easier in the long run.

3. Over-reliance on offsets
Offsets are a great option if they are used after you have taken steps to reduce waste and lower emissions. Offsets are projects that a person or organization can invest in that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to compensate for emissions made elsewhere (for example, air travel to a meeting). Offset investments might include a green-energy project or planting of trees.

The math around offsets can get a bit complicated, and we’ll cover that topic in a future article. For now, understand that offsets are not a complete solution for a low-carbon event.

I hope this helps you find good solutions to lower the emissions from your next meeting or convention. In the next article, I’ll cover some principles of sustainability that are clear and easy to follow.

Natalie Lowe, CMM, CRL, is a sustainable meeting professional with 30 years of experience. She oversees The Sustainable Events Forum and can be reached at [email protected]. 

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