Is the Greenest CES the One That Doesn't Take Place?

Is the Greenest CES the One That Doesn't Take Place?

CES, the massive trade show for the consumer electronics industry, kicks off tomorrow in Las Vegas. This year's event continues a trend we've highlighted for the past three years -- here, here and here -- of an ever-more-prominent focus on sustainability and green IT.

Although CES is unlikely to ever be known primarily as a green technology conference, the Consumer Electronics Association (the trade group that puts on CES every year) has made strides in greening both the materials on offer and the event itself. There's an extensive list of the ways CES is reducing its environmental impacts on the CES website, including cutting paper printing by 50 percent, recycling nearly two-thirds of the waste from the show and choosing venues that have worked to cut water and energy use.

But by its very nature, the trade show is still going to have a huge carbon footprint, and be responsible for thousands of tons of waste. ON24, a vendor of virtual meeting solutions, has estimated the impacts of this year's CES based on Conservation International's Carbon Calculator, and come up with a carbon footprint of 179,000 tons of CO2 emissions for the four-day event.

ON24 of course has a vested interest in promoting virtual meetings instead of or in addition to physical gatherings, and CES, with a reliance on hands-on experiences with the latest in technology, would be perhaps the least likely candidate for an all-virtual gathering. (As a wide digression, perhaps the most likely candidate would be the annual Adult Entertainment Expo sideshow at CES, but that's another story entirely.)

But in an interview yesterday, ON24's Chief Marketing Officer, Denise Persson, said that even events that rely on in-person experiences can benefit from what she called a "hybrid event" -- part physical, and part virtual.

"The green benefits of virtual events are becoming more and more relevant to our customers," Persson said, "and hybrid events let companies reach an even larger audience than they can in a physical event."

She added that there are a number of reasons why people are cutting back on their business travel: "For environmental, safety reasons, cost reasons, for personal productivity reasons -- people don't want to travel as much as they wanted to before. If they can gain the same knowledge and insights without traveling, then so much the better."

The growth of virtual meetings ( has hosted a number of online-only webinars) has been driven by a confluence of factors; originally it was simple the evolution of technology that made online meetings possible -- both through high-end systems like Cisco's TelePresence, but also through cheap or free technologies like HP's SkyRoom or Skype.

These technologies gained some traction as part of corporate efforts to reduce their carbon footprints, a "nice to have" technology. But when the economy crashed at the end of 2008, businesses began slashing travel budgets, and virtual meetings became the only option.

Now, Persson said, virtual meetings have proven their worth from a financial standpoint as well as from an environmental standpoint.

"The great thing we see now is that more and more companies we're talking to are adding virtual events to their environmental management plans," Persson said. "It's becoming key on their agenda again, and we're finally back to where we were two years ago."

Although Persson stressed that even an event like CES could -- and should -- have a virtual component, Walter Alcorn, the head of sustainability at the Consumer Electronics Association, emphasized that the very nature of CES makes it a green event.

Not only are sustainable technologies infiltrating far outside the green technology zone at CES, with big representation for electric vehicles, for instance, Alcorn said that having tens of thousands of attendees fly to Las Vegas from all over the world can actually reduce net emissions.

"If you're a manufacturer, you come to CES and you'll be able to meet with 15 to 25 potential business partners here," Alcorn said, "whereas if you tried to do that outside of CES, you'd have to make all those trips otherwise. So you can see it as a trip reducer in terms of its overall environmental impact."

While it's unlikely in the extreme that CES will make a full shift to virtual events anytime soon, it will be interesting to watch how the event's organizers embrace virtual-meeting technologies -- which, after all, probably made their debuts on the show floor at CESes of years past.