A Darker Shade of Green: Greening the 2011 AIChE IfS Pacific Northwest Conference on Sustainability

The Puget Sound local section of AIChE held its second annual regional conference on sustainability for the Pacific Northwest from April 29 - May 1, 2011. Aside from offering technical programming on sustainability and environmental stewardship-related topics, conference organizers implemented sustainable event planning measures and ensured registrants acknowledged a "green pledge" to conduct the conference with minimal environmental impact. Conference organizers also offset a total of 17.4 metric tons of CO2 associated with the event's carbon footprint, as calculated by the conference carbon footprint lead volunteer, Javier Rivera. The carbon offsets were purchased through Native Energy, a certified offset provider, to support the Indiana Community Wind Project.

The conference program fostered discussion of sustainable event practices and sustainability metrics, specifically during a designated session on the second day of the conference, as led by conference volunteers and organizers Alessandra Carreon, Angela Kora, Javier Rivera and Sarah Widder. The roundtable discussion led to insightful conversation on what constituted a truly "sustainable" conference and what barriers existed to promoting sustainability at all conferences or large events. As part of the conference objectives, the roundtable facilitators have compiled the discussion conclusions to share with a wider audience. Below, find the results of the Pacific Northwest Conference on Sustainability's conversation on green event planning, and check out a few resources to help you green your own event!

Green Measures at the Conference: Action Taken to "Green" and Roundtable Feedback

  1. Conference organizers implemented a Green Pledge that all attendees, speakers and conference partners, such as caterers, reviewed and agreed to as part of their conference participation. This commitment to sustainability ensured baseline awareness for all conference participants to promote greening the event at all levels - on-site and for proper planning purposes.
  2. The sole reliance on local and organic food for conference catering was highly commended and led to the suggestion of introducing technical program on sustainable agricultural or food growing practices for future conferences.
  3. Although recycle and compost bins were available in high-traffic areas, roundtable discussion participants encouraged the presence of these bins in breakout rooms as well to motivate all attendees towards green waste management during workshops - and not simply during meals. The conference was held on a total of three floors, including a large atrium for meals and coffee breaks, a floor for auditorium-based key note presentations and sessions and a floor dedicated to workshop rooms.
  4. Carpooling and issuing day passes for transit were suggested to promote greener transport.
  5. Prior contact through forums or blogs to help plan carpools was recommended, such as through Google groups, which could also lead to finding ways of sharing hotel rooms and minimizing travel costs.
  6. Lower cost considerations to allow for increased participation were proposed, as were webcast or web-based sessions to minimize travel footprints.
  7. Marketing the event to other organizations or sustainability-based groups was suggested.

Issues Limiting Participation in Sustainability Events

  1. Like many events, convenience, time and cost were mentioned as limiting factors to conference participation. The question of whether these barriers conflicted with sustainability concepts was emphasized.
  2. The novelty and lack of information surrounding sustainability principles was cited.
  3. Lack or potential lack of support for attending events without professional backing could prevent interested attendees from participating. Regional, social and organizational differences in perceptions of sustainability could keep those "on the fence" about sustainability-focused events from participating; however, top-down support could encourage those who question the value of sustainability events to attend.
  4. Social justice issues are frequently not explored at sustainability conferences; however, these issues are an important element to the sustainability framework, or conversation. Equal access to natural resources should be explored further.
  5. Engaging all levels and people within an organization to support sustainability, along with associated regulatory drivers towards sustainability, was cited as the single most important barrier to implementing or supporting sustainability measures. In weighing sustainability options or choices, corporate, industrial and government support must first be won in order to pursue sustainability problems further.

Sharing Information: A Necessary Step in Promoting Sustainability

  1. Spreading the word on sustainability requires a positive message be embedded in the information shared. Everyone should have equal access to information on how to move forward more "sustainably."
  2. Follow through must be executed beyond simply planning or establishing sustainability plans in writing.
  3. Question and consider the source of information evaluating sustainability principles or issues. All levels should be involved in the discussion and less polarization in conference interests should be emphasized.
  4. Demonstrating benefits of sustainability initiatives by sharing information on incentives (renewable energy use incentives, responsible transit incentives) also promotes sustainability event involvement.
  5. Marketing and publicizing the success of efforts is equally important as announcing the occurrence of efforts in the first place! This post is a first step in documenting the conference and sharing the collective efforts of organizers and participants in engendering sustainability efforts as an integral part of sustainability-themed events.

We encourage further discussion and input on these conclusions to continue the dialogue on minimizing the environmental impact of conferences and to hear what your organizations have done to conduct green events. By sharing these results and measures with AIChE, the conference planners are excited to bring green event planning to other AIChE events as well!

The conference organizers consulted BlueGreen Meetings for resources on event greening and planned the sustainability conference with support and assistance from the University of Washington's Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability.