Red State or Blue, Green Conventions are on the Way

Red State or Blue, Green Conventions are on the Way

Democrats and Republicans have recently learned that planning the greenest national convention "ever" can be somewhat risky, bringing on consequences that include media scrutiny and a degree of public ridicule.

But the media attention that comes with trying to host the greenest national convention is, ironically, one of its benefits, environmentalists say.

Democrats have been recently regaled for a carbon offset challenge that reportedly drew an underwhelming response from most states' delegates, and a food color program some called silly for requiring each locally produced plate of food served to delegates this week in Denver have five specific colors, including red, white, blue and purple.

In their quest to have the greenest national convention ever, Democrats and Republicans have both gone further than those in the past. Both vow to leave behind a legacy for future convention planners of how to do it better and greener.

Despite the light that's been made of some of the greening efforts, both conventions are going to affect future meetings, according to Patty Griffin, president of the Houston-based Green Hotels Association.

"They're setting the pace for every state, county and city meeting," Griffin said. "(Delegates are) going to go back to Omaha and say: 'We've got to do these things too.' There's no line to draw. It's a path, it's a journey and it will not end."

Asked who they thought would do a better job of protecting the environment, 21 percent of respondents in a poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press chose Republicans. Sixty-five percent chose Democrats, giving Democrats a 44 percent lead on this issue.

Griffin acknowledges the Republicans have some catching up to do.

Melissa Subbotin, spokesperson for the Republican Convention, characterized the Republican initiatives as conscientious, realistic and environmentally friendly.

The convention will not take "an elitist and out of touch approach," Subbotin said. "We will, however, recycle and perform other practical measures."

Set to take place in Minneapolis-St. Paul on Sept. 1-4, the Republican convention will, among other things, use recycled furnishings and office supplies at its headquarters, energy efficient lighting, and provide bicycles for participants to ride from hotels to the convention site. Paper products are discouraged. Expansion of the Xcel Energy Center infrastructure has been done with modular structural systems made of recycled aluminum, which can be recycled again, GOP planners assert.

The Democrats have experienced some costly delays and embarrassing glitches in planning its green convention, which runs through Thursday.

Participating delegates will pay $12 each to offset their carbon dioxide emissions from travel. Contrary to what has been earlier reported, 57 percent -- 2,895 delegates and alternates in all -- rose to the challenge. "We think those are amazing results," said Damon Jones, spokesperson for the Democratic Convention.

Tips to Green Meetings of All Kinds

Put it in writing: Develop an environmental policy for your meeting and get buy-in from delegates, vendors, speakers and sponsors.

Use paperless technology: E-mail banquet orders, and review and set up room layouts online. Where necessary use post-consumer recycled paper and print on both sides.

Meet close: Select meeting destinations that reduce travel distance and select venues and accommodations within walking distance of each other to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Reduce giveaways and paper to delegates. Reuse items like conference bags or gifts by designing them to encourage reuse. Also consider this approach with signs by having removable/velcro items that can be changed out for different events. Recycle: Ensure that materials such as paper, plastic, metals and glass are recyclable, and make sure they are recycled.

Bulk up: Have the food and beverage supplier provide condiments in bulk wherever possible, and avoid disposable or individual packaging in favor of items that can be poured from jugs.

Lighten your stay: Select accommodations from providers who have environmental policies and practices such as linen and towel reuse, and use efficient lights and water-conserving plumbing fixtures.

Eat green: Ask for or ensure a minimum presence of local organics on the menu.

Buy green: Ensure vendors are aware of your environmental preferences and reward those that meet green requirements by doing business with them.

Save energy: Turn off lights and equipment when not in use. Look for Energy Star certified products.

Spread the word: Tell people of your green efforts, especially attendees. Your experience teaches others and provides great promotional benefits for your organization.

Source: Green Meeting Industry Council

Other Democrat greening goals include an 85 percent diversion from landfill at the Pepsi Center and Colorado Convention Center. Organizers said they chose contractors in part for their commitment to sustainable planning principles. Materials used will be measured and tracked, re-used or donated to community organizations and schools. Transportation for convention participants and media involves either hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles.

Regardless of what they say they're going to do, the only real way to measure the green-ness of a national convention is to measure what's left behind, Griffin said.

Namely, how many tons of waste are left from a meeting that go into a landfill?

With that in mind, Griffin urges green convention planners to reuse whatever is left behind by giving it to needy organizations. Eliminate waste by planning smaller meals, buying locally grown food and giving as much information as possible to the kitchen in advance. She advocates buffet-style meals using fewer plates.

"You don't need a plate for every piece of pie," Griffin said.

The Democratic Convention deflects criticism of carbon offsets and strict food requirements by saying they're proud of their track record, and will gladly hold it up to any other.

"If we're going to do this, we want our actions to meet our words,
Jones said. "We want to set an example."

But sustainability is just one of many considerations, "a delicate and complex balancing act," that go into planning an event that will draw 40,000 to 50,000 people, Jones said. It's about leaving a legacy in Denver that will attract future conventions and challenge them to model the Democratic Convention and even improve on it.

"We're not saying we're the best, or perfect. But we will do it better than we did before. We wanted to push the envelope…to look beyond the meeting itself to what happens afterwards," Jones said.

Tamara Kennedy-Hill, executive director of the Green Meeting Industry Council, is considering Denver as a potential conference site for the Council's 2010 convention.

Conducting legacy projects in conjunction with convention-planning is a trend that goes beyond basic recycling and carbon offsets, Kennedy-Hill asserts.

"Conventions tend to be three to six times more wasteful than normal day to day activity at home," she said. "The goal of leaving the place better off than when you came can be applied."

Incorporating environmental principles in convention planning, besides the benefit of engaging attendees, can save convention planners money and reduce the carbon footprint. It leaves a legacy for future generations and it's good for media and press coverage, Kennedy-Hill said.

Complications in planning green conventions can be most challenging at the cognitive level, though. Thinking through a green lens is a relatively new phenomenon for meeting planners, according to Kennedy-Hill. It has to be done at every stage of the planning process, including after the convention is over.

"Because not everyone automatically does this type of thinking, you need to have measurement and evaluation in place to benchmark and improve your performance, just as you would in financial or other evaluation," she said. "You may miss an element the first few times without careful planning, or even with it."

One example of the type of vigilance required, she said, is to make sure that a venue that promises to recycle after the event in a timely manner, actually fulfills that obligation.

National conventions are different from others in terms of planning, according to Kennedy-Hill.

"It would be hard to make a mistake without everyone noticing," she said. "We are not always so forgiving with political conventions."

Environmentalists Griffin and Kennedy-Hill agree that the environmental community, in general, is a sharing and forgiving where mistakes are allowed.

"Part of all this is learning and accepting mistakes to make improvements in the future," Kennedy-Hill said.

And the payoff?

"Huge," Griffin said, "even if you count the feel-good aspect."

Dana Sanchez is a journalist based in Sarasota County, Fla.