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Behind-the-Scenes at Net Impact 2011

Ali Hart
Ali Hart | Monday November 7th, 2011 | 3 Comments

The following post is part of TriplePundit’s coverage of the 2011 Net Impact Conference in Portland, Oregon. To read the rest of our coverage, click here.

Last week at the 2011 Net Impact Conference, many attendees were questioning certain operational aspects of the conference. In an effort to better understand the decision-making behind the event, I asked Maggie Davies, Net Impact’s Deputy Director, to shed some light on these issues. Immersed in post-conference wrap-up, Davies made some time to answer me via email. Here’s what she had to say:

Many conference attendees were disappointed with the food provided at the conference. How were the menus decided? And why were products like Lays Classic Potato Chips and Pepsi brand sodas served considering they’re not exactly aligned with sustainability?

For the past 18 conferences, Net Impact had hosted our event on business school campuses. We have far outgrown the capacity of most business schools to be able to host everyone who would like to attend, and so this year was our first in a convention center.  We learned a lot of things this year about hosting a conference at a convention center, and one of those lessons was our old model for providing food for our attendees wasn’t applicable. For example, we can no longer bring in donated food or beverage items without a surcharge, and we didn’t have ability to select from a variety of caterers that compete on price.  As a result, we had to make some tradeoffs with our menu and it is one of our top priorities for improvement next year.

There was a lot of thought that went into how we could offer as sustainable a lunch as possible within our constraints. For example, there were no boxes for lunches to reduce food and packaging waste. Nearly every serving ware item was recyclable or compostable. We had a sustainability station where convention center staff ensured no item that could be recycled or composted ended up in a landfill. The tables were not dressed in linens to reduce the water and energy impact of our lunch. In addition, the caterer we selected uses local and organic ingredients wherever possible. For example, they chose local Tillamook cheddar and bacon from a local Willamette valley farm for the sandwiches. Finally, it’s important to consider the varying preferences of our 2,600 attendees, so in addition to sodas, attendees also had the choice of an assortment of juices, water, and Honest Teas.

 Why did you choose the Oregon Convention Center as the conference venue?

More than two years ago when we were selecting our 2011 conference venue, we carefully evaluated many potential locations that would accommodate the size of our event. Based on our research, we chose the Silver LEED Certified Oregon Convention Center because it is one of the most progressive meeting spaces in the country. They received the highest overall ranking on Meet Green’s list of Best Places to Meet Green. This ranking considers a whole range of things that aren’t always easy to see as a conference attendee. For example, energy and water efficiency of the building, green power purchasing efforts, cleaners and papers used, the percentage of guest rooms in the convention room block that have implemented sustainable practices, and convenient public transit to name just a few.

The Center has been working on improving their sustainability over the years, becoming one of the first convention centers to earn LEED certification for an existing building, and by 2008 received Silver level status. Since 2004, the Center has improved its recycling diversion rate from 28% to 67%, which they publish on their website.

Coca-Cola sponsored one of the cocktail parties and had ice sculptures of polar bears on display. Did Net Impact conference organizers know that these ice sculptures (an excessive use of water and energy) were part of the event? If so, did anyone speak with Coca-Cola representatives about potential negative reactions to these sculptures?

Yes, we worked with Coca-Cola to decorate the reception to support their effort to raise awareness and funds to protect Polar Bear habitats. Hosting an event is filled with decisions on how to create a great atmosphere, achieve your branding goals, and be as sustainable as possible.  The two ice sculptures were fairly modest décor elements compared to other possibilities for disposable “schwag” or additional signage all of which also use resources.

Many panelists were drinking bottled water. Why weren’t pitchers of water and glasses provided to panelists?

Unfortunately, we had a miscommunication with the convention center about the use of bottled water as refreshment for our speakers.  We eliminated this use of bottled water years ago in our event, and we corrected the error on Saturday so that all sessions had pitchers.  We also encouraged attendees to bring a reusable water bottle and requested the convention center provide more water coolers than other events they host of the same size. We also distributed reusable water bottles at two locations during the conference.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the operational sustainability of the conference?

It is one of our top priorities to host as sustainable an event as possible. One day, we’d like to be able to say we were able to produce a zero-impact event, but we’ve got a long way to go. That’s why we really appreciate our attendees continuing to bring these issues to the forefront and offering new, innovative sustainable event ideas!

Davies’ insights regarding working with the conference center are particularly interesting. When we talk about sustainability, shared value and collaboration are often key components to achieving success. If a sustainable venue doesn’t exercise these principles, are they actually decreasing value for conference hosts? I would argue that they are. Convention centers already ring of old school business and could be serious influencers in educating conference goers about sustainability. The least they can do is learn from conference hosts who might know more than they do about the subject.

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Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.


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  • http://www.marcgunther.com Marc Gunther

    Good dialogue, thanks for your questions and for Maggie’s answers. As a board member of Net Impact, I can promise you the staff works to continuously improve our events.

    One quibble–what’s wrong, in your view, with Lay’s Potato Chips? Frito Lay’s zero waste, low carbon facility in Arizona is one of the greenest manufacturing plants in America.

    As Triple Pundit reported just last month!

    http://www.triplepundit.com/2011/10/frito-lay-opens-net-plant-arizona/

    • Ali Hart

      Marc, thanks for your comments. I’ve actually favorably reported on SunChips, a Frito Lay company, for Triple Pundit in the past: http://www.triplepundit.com/2011/06/sun-chips-beat-noise/

      I agree that the company is making efforts to incorporate sustainability into its strategy but Lays, Coca Cola and Pepsi are emblematic of a less sustainable time and frankly available at any conference. I’d like to see NI support smaller companies rooted in sustainability. Just my two cents, though.

  • Patricia

    What I would like to know is why Net Impact is allowing a natural gas fracking company sponsor and judge this year’s Leeds Net Impact Business Case Competition? It’s disheartening to see that an organization built on promoting sustainable practices in young business leaders is advocating the abuse of both environment and people.