Sustainable Sustainability

The Eden Project in Cornwall, England
The Eden Project in Cornwall, England

Many years ago I was with a friend of mine while she lambasted the owner of an upscale fresh market because he didn’t stock fair trade coffee. The owner looked at my friend like she was a little crazy. I too had my doubts.

As it turns out, of course, my friend was clearly prescient with her concerns. It is now expected by many consumers that suppliers should be responsible for how their products affect people and the planet throughout the supply chain. Demanding that is the only way to ensure the sustainability of our resources and the business that revolves around them.

“Revolutions have always started when purchasers started pushing around suppliers based on shifting criteria,” said CSR expert Tim Sanders at MPI’s World Education Congress in Vancouver last summer.

So when you buy coffee or a ribeye or a thousand other things at the grocery store, do you know what kind of damage was done to the earth to create it? And what it will do to dispose of it? Or if the people producing it are exploited? Because you have a choice with your purchasing decisions to shift those realities.

Now, say you’re planning a 4-day conference for 5,000 delegates—that’s a heckuva lot of coffee. And chicken and chocolate, etc. So as a planner, your purchasing input has a huge impact. And with it, a greater responsibility.

Today, there are many meeting professionals who won’t fly in 1,500 steaks halfway across the country so each filet looks exactly the same. They’ll check with the local convention center or DMO who should by now know a variety of regional vendors available for sourcing foodstuffs, even if it means combining two or more vendors.

On the supplier side, according to the many we’ve spoken to in 2010, they’re saying the only way they’re going to stay relevant in the meetings marketplace is by integrating sustainable best practices. It’s not just about doing the “right thing” anymore. It’s about staying in business.

“If you don’t have a sustainable policy, if you don’t have a sustainable team, and if you’re not able to talk to clients about their sustainable management processes, then you’ve lost your competitive advantage,” says Simon Gidman, business visits/events manager for MeetEngland.

Which is why Gidman suggests that it’s the suppliers and C-suite execs of the world who are leading the forward charge toward more sustainable meetings, and not necessarily the meeting professional.

So MPI is making it considerably easier for planners to engage in the discussion about creating greener groups. In Vancouver, our industry honchos unveiled the new online Sustainability Event Measurement Tool, developed with funding from InterContinental Hotels. The tool is designed to help meeting professionals collect data to calculate the impact of their meetings—including planners who are relatively new to the practice.

However, not everyone is joining the sustainability megatrend out of altruism or market dynamics.

Meet Brian Johansen, the young owner of BioM restaurant in Copenhagen. His establishment is a leading light in farm-to-fork cooking, where everything—and I mean everything—is low impact and local. His chairs are made out of recycled plastic bottles. He calls his place an “eco-eatery where life is experienced as a combination of interdependent relationships between plants and animals.” And his goal is to honor the “lambs who have drunk out of the nearby Halkær stream,” as well as his patrons by serving only local and organic fine-dining. The risotto with bacon and mushrooms will floor you.

“We’re so lucky that our guests have an opinion that they’re not just cattle,” says Johansen, proud that his patrons are taking a proactive role in deciding what kind of planet they want by lessening their carbon footprint.

So I asked him, why does he personally have such a militant preoccupation with sustainability?

“Because it’s fun,” he replied.

And that’s the future. That’s what’s really going to drive sustainability moving forward. It’s becoming a predominant pursuit for today’s Creative Class and the Millennial Generation born in the ’80s.

There’s an architect right now designing a beautiful, amorphous-looking next generation building in Abu Dhabi that creates its own energy. There’s a clean tech engineer in San Jose working on the Electranet. And there’s a young chef in Denmark changing the world with his risotto. The quest for sustainability is becoming this era’s Holy Grail of what’s cool, hip and modern.

Like Sanders says: “Sustainability is cool. But sustainable sustainability—now that’s entertainment.”

See you at the grocery store…