What Do C-Level Employees Take Home from a Conference like the State of Green Business Forum?

At last week’s State of Green Business Forum put on by Greener World Media, I reported live on some of the interesting developments in the world of green business presented at the conference.  As a small business specialist, this kind of conference is, admittedly, somewhat foreign to me.  The conferences I usually attend, such as Green America’s Green Business Conference, the Green Festival, and the like, are mostly tailored to and for small businesses, notwithstanding the occasional ‘big business in small business clothing’ such as Clif Bar and Organic Valley.

The conference included heavy hitters like Microsoft, SAP, Autodesk, UPS, and Best Buy.  C-level execs sat and listened to discussion panels and powerpoint presentations from a wide variety of speakers, such as Van Jones and Inc. Magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year 2009, Kevin Surace of Serious Materials.  It was eight hours of listening to some amazing information.

As a former employee of Saatchi & Saatchi S, a sustainability consulting firm whose core competency was employee engagement around sustainability, I have a baseline level of understanding about what people take home from trainings, conferences, and other employer-sponsored events.  If the mission of last week’s conference was to engage, empower, educate, and excite employees to go back to their companies and spread the gospel of sustainability, there were two key elements that, my experience says, could have been more effective for sending those disciples back into the world truly engaged and ready to fire up their troops.  The first, of course, is the eight hours of listening.  Now, to be fair, there were a couple of networking breaks (which Mr. Makower referred to humorously as “very close to ‘not-working'”), but more or less, it was a unidirectional flow of information.  Q&A at the end of each presentation gave people an opportunity to ask questions, but there were frequently many more questions than time permitted.

I did like the format of interview that Mr. Makower and his staff, notably Marc Gunther, used in probing executives to answer questions about their company’s sustainability initiatives (Yahoo!, notably, was grilled for arguing that buying carbon offsets wasn’t worth their management’s time).  However, this is the kind of thing that makes for a great webinar.  If I’ve paid $1,000 for my employee’s airfare, $400 for conference registration, $700 more for a hotel and meals, plus a day or two of their salary, I think I would want them to become more engaged and come back with more solutions.

Involving people and getting them active in the conference is one key we found at Saatchi S that got people really motivated and inspired enough to carry their momentum and enthusiasm forward, beyond the end of the conference, to when they return to their jobs.  There, they are no longer surrounded by like-minds. They have to be the sole sustainability catalyst, even though they may feel isolated and disconnected.  The Green America Green Business Conference did this ‘active involvement’ well with small business owners, setting up tables for breakout groups to get together and exchange best practices.  In almost every case where a small business owner would say, “my problem is x,” several other entrepreneurs at the table would answer, “I had x for a while.  Try y, it should help.”

The most important take-home for them is that sustainability is practical, fun, and achievable, in addition to helping the company save money and garner a better reputation.  As it is said, there’s the reason people tell you they do things, and then there’s the real reason.  The real reason Saatchi’s employee engagement programs for Walmart and others were so effective was that the employees enjoyed them, felt supported by others who also enjoyed them, and went home thinking, “This is fun AND easy.  I can do this!”

The second major misfire from the conference, and a missed opportunity to the Nth degree in my humble opinion, was the food.  Our lunch was catered by a local group that does not focus on sustainability.  They ran out of vegetarian fare, forcing some flexitarians to eat meat at a green business conference.  The lunch bag included a plastic shell, with a #6 container and a #7 lid.  The lid also said “compostable.”  The cutlery was not labeled as either.  The napkins were bleached white.  The coffee and the food was not organic (or at least not labeled as such).  All of which is fine, I suppose…after all, the conference was really focused on the “Big Picture,” but you should have seen all the people trying to figure out what to do with their trash once they were done.  The compost bins were full of plastic and cutlery, the recycle bins full of paper towels, cutlery, and nonrecyclable Sun Chips bags, and the trash was full of paper coffee cups.  The level of guilt I saw in people’s faces as they stood paralyzed in front of the blue, green, and black bins was understandable.  After all, they were at a green business conference.  They were representing their company as the ‘go-to’ sustainability guru, and here they were, unable to dispose of their lunch waste.

What message does that leave them with when they return to work?  That sustainability is difficult!  The real tragedy here, too, is that there are some terrific organic food caterers in San Francisco…small green businesses struggling to succeed in a tough economy.  Not only would they have had more sustainable food, they would have made the entire waste disposal problem disappear, because it’s just what they do.

I see food as the unifying element that brings us all together, and a communal catered lunch that makes sustainability fun and easy is something all those execs would have gone back to their companies with and probably tried to implement.  Anyone who likes wildlife and sees organic, shade-grown coffee served at a conference might help instigate a similar change at their company.  You can envision employees beaming, “Since we switched after Bob returned from that sustainability conference, with every cup of coffee we drink, [insert name of company] preserves rainforest, creates green jobs, and supports organic agriculture!”

It might even have led to some fascinating discussions on the business case of a zero waste policy where all non-recyclable and non-compostable items are eliminated from the company’s procurement manual as executives beamed with pride over the fantastic lunch they shared with their counterpart at UPS, all of which was zero waste, as was the case at the Green America Green Business Conference.

Scott Cooney is co-founder of Green Business Village, an incubator for social entrepreneurship, author of Build a Green Small Business:  Profitable Ways To Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and former Project Manager at Saatchi & Saatchi S.

Scott Cooney, Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched GreenBusinessOwner.com, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.