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Green Meetings Are a Team Effort: Sign Up the Supply Chain

Meetings and conferences look easy to make green, when you consider the challenges of outdoor events like sports competitions, concerts and festivals. The venues are created for the events, and often dismantled afterward. For planners of "ordinary" business gatherings, here are some lessons from the organizers of golf tournaments, tennis championships, and the Olympic Games.

At the 8th World Conference on Sport and the Environment last week, the theme was "Innovation and Inspiration - Harnessing the Power of Sport for Change." What does that have to do with business meetings?

Green Meetings
  • Consider the impact of your supply chain. They're probably a major source of your event's carbon footprint.
  • Push suppliers to be innovative. Use your purchasing power, and recruit partners and customers to join forces with you.
  • Build credibility through suppliers and sponsors. Choose suppliers and sponsors whose green credibility will help yours. When your event has enough green credibility of its own, suppliers and sponsors will choose you for the same reason.
  • Avoid the perception of greenwashing. Select trusted partners whose green claims are verifiable.
  • Hold suppliers responsible for verification. You're not in the green certification business, so tell suppliers and sponsors it's their responsibility to obtain verification and certification.

Also listen to the May, 2009 "Building Priorities Briefing" - Green Events: Setting the Standards and Looking Ahead - for new perspectives on green meetings.

The conference focused on the power of large-scale events (in this case, sports) to demonstrate innovative solutions to environmental challenges, and to inspire people to pursue a more sustainable world. Substitute the gathering of your choice -- make it "harnessing the power of conventions and sales kick-offs for change" -- and the theme remains just as appealing.

Consider the impact of your supply chain

As a meeting planner, you can eliminate a sizeable chunk of your event's carbon footprint by choosing an energy-efficient venue and providing environmentally friendly transit options. In events where the venue is temporary -- or is nature itself -- much of the focus shifts to the goods and materials that are brought on site.

Two sessions at the World Conference focused on this aspect of large events. "Green to the Core: Innovations in Operations and Supply Chains" brought together the organizers of three major outdoor events. "Peak Performance: The Role of Sponsors and Suppliers in Accelerating Sustainability" was a panel made up primarily of prominent suppliers to the Olympic Games.

Push suppliers to be innovative

In "Green to the Core: Innovations in Operations and Supply Chains" the panel talked about harnessing the power of the supply chain to promote environmental performance using a systems approach.

"We can use the spotlight of the games, whether we have 75 million hits on our web site, or three billion viewers on television, to showcase and profile how environmental challenges can turn into innovative solutions," said Ann Duffy, Corporate Sustainability Officer for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"We can use the spotlight of the games, whether we have 75 million hits on our web site, or three billion viewers on television, to showcase and profile how environmental challenges can turn into innovative solutions"
--Ann Duffy, Corporate Sustainability Officer for the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee uses the purchasing power of the Olympics to help generate sustainable benefits. Duffy explained the source of that power: VANOC's careful procurement and sourcing of enormous quantities of supplies and services. She and her team continuously look at their shopping list and identify opportunities to make a difference.

British Columbia's 2010 Commerce Centre is the front line for businesses that want to be suppliers to the Winter Games. The Centre offers workshops and tools to help businesses understand how to be added to a database of sustainable suppliers. Once a vendor is selected -- especially for merchandise that bears the Olympic rings --VANOC audits factories and does annual spot inspections to ensure compliance with its code of conduct.

"This is probably one of the most rewarding stages that we're in now," Duffy said, "to work so hard to come up with creative solutions for how to deliver great games that create a fantastic experience for the athletes and spectators, but also generate legacies so that the community, the marketplace, and really the world can benefit long after the games."

"We know we can use the power of the games to inspire change," said David Stubbs, head of sustainability for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. "We try to do things that have not been thought of before, to look for interdependencies that allow us to make a difference."

Stubbs stressed the importance of a systems approach used by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games. LOCOG's approach integrates planning, responsible procurement, and promoting results through communications.

8th World Conference on Sport and the Environment: more...
"World Conference on Sport and the Environment 2009 Convenes in Canada"
"Innovative Event Planners Compile Best Ideas into a Sustainable Event Toolkit"
"Green Meetings Are a Team Effort: Sign Up the Supply Chain"

"Golf's event impact is small," said Benjamin Warren of Scotland's Golf Environment Organisation, "but its reach is powerful to spread ideas and impact people." He said golf tournaments are well ahead when it comes to sustainability, in part because championship golf has several strong associations, a sustainability toolkit for match organizers, and even a green golf conference.

Build credibility through suppliers and sponsors

It certainly helps an event's green credibility to have suppliers and sponsors that are credibly green themselves. At some point your event might become so reputable that sponsors want to associate their names with it to enhance their green reputations.

Many of the suppliers to the Olympics are also sponsors. In "Peak Performance: The Role of Sponsors and Suppliers in Accelerating Sustainability" the panelists, representing major suppliers and sponsors of the 2010 Winter Olympics, discussed how to capitalize on the relationship between sustainable events and business.

"Sustainability needs to be linked to a business strategy that is sustainable and goes from Olympics to Olympics and beyond."
--Nicola Kettlitz, General Manager, Vancouver 2010 Olympic Project Team for Coca-Cola Ltd.

"There's a strong connection between the Olympics and our company that goes back more than 80 years," said Nicola Kettlitz, a General Manager for Coca-Cola. "We aspire to live by the same values that the Olympic movement lives by." Coca-Cola has sponsored the Olympics since 1928. Kettlitz was in charge of the company's Torino 2006 Olympic project team, and is now running the Vancouver 2010 Olympic project team for Coca-Cola.

"There wouldn't be a lot of value for us in doing things just for two weeks," Kettlitz added. "Sustainability needs to be linked to a business strategy that is sustainable and goes from Olympics to Olympics and beyond."

"Being synonymous with quality is essential to our business," said Henry Stoch, who manages corporate responsibility and sustainability efforts in Canada for Deloitte & Touche, a Games sponsor. "Our objective is to align ourselves with an event like the Games, and an organization like VANOC," both of which he said pride themselves on quality and express that through sustainability.

As you develop your event's green reputation, sponsors can use their involvement to bring sustainability to the forefront for their employees and promote a green culture within their companies.

"It's different if you're a Teck or a Coca-Cola, versus if you're a consulting firm," Stoch said. "For many professional services firms, the key to sustainability has been philanthropy." He said Deloitte & Touch is creating an opportunity for many of its employees to volunteer during the Winter Olympics.

"Sponsorship gives our people an opportunity to get out and do something for the community," Stoch explained. "Business that do not provide value to society will ultimately become obsolete. These games are giving life-changing experiences to the athletes and the citizens of Canada, and that's of tremendous value to society. If we can help, then we've certainly played our part. It's also given us an opportunity to bring this to the forefront of our people's minds."

Avoid the perception of greenwashing

How can organizers avoid greenwashing -- the perception and the practice of overstating green qualities -- where so many suppliers and sponsors are involved? I asked several people at this conference about using certification systems to avoid greenwashing. None offered a definitive answer, but this panel agreed that trust and verification are essential ingredients.

""Business that do not provide value to society will ultimately become obsolete."
--Henry Stoch, Senior Manager, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Deloitte & Touche LLP Canada.

"Leading companies are often reluctant to tell their stories because of the fear of being accused of greenwashing," said Tony Pigott, CEO of ad agency JWT Canada. "If people believe the companies and believe their intentions are genuine, and what they're doing is real, there's permission there, and ready acceptance."

Those trustworthy companies are few and far between, in the current atmosphere of public skepticism about green claims. For the rest, there's third-party verification and certification.

"The question on measurement is key, because that's what stops greenwashing in its tracks," said Deloitte's Stoch. "If there is intelligent questioning around the goals, and putting numbers to them -- asking who's verifying them, how is it being checked -- these are the kinds of questions that have to be asked to prevent greenwashing."

Hold suppliers responsible for verification

If event organizers take it upon themselves to set the rules and verify compliance, as VANOC is doing, they assume a very labor-intensive responsibility.

Existing certification systems, such as the USGBC's and CaGBC's LEED and the U.S. EPA's and NRCan's Energy Star, tend to be very specific to certain areas of sustainability, such as construction or energy use. Other systems focus on specific industries, such as electronics or transportation. Event organizers would need to understand a portfolio of dozens of such certification systems, to verify every supplier's green claims.

Stoch of Deloitte & Touch offered this advice: "If you're a sponsor or supplier, and haven't got your ducks in a row in terms of what you're disclosing and how you're disclosing it, then you're certainly at risk."

Suppliers and sponsors must know that, if a discrepancy is uncovered, the company's credibility takes a fall and jeopardizes the entire event's sustainability record.