The Sustainable Brands Conference aims to create a zero-waste meeting — but what it leaves behind adds up to a whole lot.
While most environmentally conscious meetings work to lessen their impact on their host destinations, the Sustainable Brands Conference and Expo — a four-day event that brings together more than 2,000 brand representatives and sustainability professionals — is focused on leaving something significant behind. Sustainable Brands, which is dedicated to inspiring and equipping businesses to initiate a collective movement toward a sustainable future, deliberately seeks out venues for its meetings that do not currently make green initiatives a priority “We want to work with the venue to try to get a permanent system in place,” said Marianne Condrup, executive producer at Sustainable Brands.
Having wrapped its seventh annual “community gathering,” June 3-6 at Paradise Point Resort & Spa in San Diego, Sustainable Brands — for the fourth year in a row — achieved zero-waste status, meaning that it was able to recycle, reuse, divert, or compost all waste created at the event. That would be enough of an accomplishment for many meeting organizers, but Sustainable Brands hasn’t been solely focused on making its own conference zero waste. For the past two years, it has worked to make Paradise Point more sustainable in order for other conferences that follow to lessen their environmental footprint as well.
SEEING THE POTENTIAL
While sourcing a venue for the 2012 conference, organizers found two possible locations: one of which already had many sustainability efforts in place — including composting and locally sourced food options — and Paradise Point. That property “didn’t really have [green practices] set high on their agenda, but they had a lot of potential,” Condrup said. “That’s one of the things that excites us as an organization — to be able to help people to get better. Our short-term goal is to achieve zero waste for our events specifically, but it’s not exciting if it’s not something that can stay in place at the venue.”
Since hosting its first Sustainable Brands Conference last year, Paradise Point has replaced its water heaters, updated lighting systems, installed a smart irrigation system, and this year is starting work on waste-sorting and -diversion programs.
To ensure that an infrastructure for sustainability efforts remained in place after the conference, Sustainable Brands worked closely with San Diego’s waste hauler, Waste Management, to train Paradise Point staff. Waste Management even donated a dumpster to the venue temporarily, until it can afford its own compost compactor. “[Paradise Point] said now their last three [compost] ‘dumps’ have been perfectly clean and 100-percent approved,” Condrup said. “So they’re now doing this full time, and they’re very committed to it.”
On site, Sustainable Brands enlists the help of a volunteer-staffed sustainability team to help with the sorting of waste that will be recycled and composted. This year, the organization partnered with San Diego nonprofit The 1:1 Movement, which focuses on raising awareness of sustainability issues.
The 16-person sustainability team, which worked in two six-hour shifts per day, was made up of summer interns working for The 1:1 Movement. “We need people who can be there and help to sort the waste, and we also want to open up our conference to local students or organizations,” Condrup said. Full conference registration is $3,000 — a price tag that is almost certainly prohibitive for most students. Volunteers worked a shift a day, helping sort waste and educate attendees about Sustainable Brands’ efforts.
“They could work a shift and then go attend sessions and meet people.… They had time for both,” Condrup said. “They really thought it was fun to be a part of this, and especially because we achieved the zero waste — to see that that’s possible.”
IT'S ALL IN THE PLANNING
Planning a zero-waste event is not as expensive as you might think, according to Sustainable Brands’ Marianne Condrup. “I don’t think I can find a line item in my budget,” she said, “that has to do with our sustainability efforts.” Conference planners “have a big responsibility in requesting low-impact items,” like china coffee cups or silverware, she said, as opposed to plastic or paper. “There’s no reason to have disposables at an event that has a kitchen with dishwashing capabilities.”
Sustainable Brands also recruits sponsors for the meeting’s sustainability initiatives. “Get a coffee sponsor or a coffee-cup sponsor to donate the mugs,” Condrup advised, “and give away mugs as a part of your gift bags.”
She believes that it’s only a matter of time before meeting organizers will start hearing more complaints from attendees at events that do not offer reusable service ware. “People are going to be like, ‘Wait, why do I have to use a paper cup when I’m just standing here drinking my coffee?’"