Reflecting back on 2007, one industry clearly stands out as having benefited big time from the growing interest in sustainability: the conference industry. It seems like every week has offered at least one, and often more, chances to attend a brand new sustainability, efficiency or environmental conference of some kind.
The obvious question is whether or not sustainability conferences are, themselves, sustainable. Do they justify the environmental cost of the event and travel? But as I was recently sitting on stage with vice presidents from four other Fortune 500 companies, looking out at an audience of less than 25, I had to ask myself if the personal and time costs were justified as well.
I believe these conferences have played two important roles in the last year. First, they helped raise awareness, or more importantly, an educated awareness of the situation and the challenges ahead. Second, they helped companies get started by discussing key points (economic benefits, organizational interest, example projects that worked, etc.).
Together, I believe these roles have helped pave the way for a surge in corporate environmental efforts in the U.S. (just read Environmental Leader every day for evidence of the surge).
But my recent on-stage experience, comments from others, and general progress lead me to believe that these roles aren’t enough to justify so many events in 2008. To stay relevant, I think two things need to happen.
First, we need more real-world experiences that others can learn from. For example, in which regions do solar projects make sense today? What are effective tools for employee engagement? How do we incent greener behavior in the purchasing department?
Second, we need less marketing. At conferences, companies tend to present in ways which put them in a good light, but tell me little about what to do at Sun. Believe me – I’ll think more highly of you and your company if you share a concrete idea, than if you waste a half hour of my life telling me how wonderful you are. I blame the speakers for this, but the conference folks also need to step up.
All this raises a bigger question: How many general purpose sustainability conferences do we really need? Is this really a long-term, stand-alone topic, or are the really important discussions going to happen at the finance conference and the supply chain conference and the investor conference and the IT conference?
Time will tell, but as sustainability moves deeper into the day-to-day activities of each company, this is where the real innovation has to happen.
Dave Douglas is Vice President of Eco Responsibility at Sun Microsystems