MeetGreen has been fortunate to partner with American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) on sustainable event projects over several years. Our Heroes, Stefanie Brown, Vice President of Education and Conferences, and Elesha Peterson Carr, Senior Director of Conference Planning & Event Logistics, have always impressed us as they humbly, quietly, and diligently work to make their events more sustainable.
They’ve recently taken steps to underpin their good efforts with an event sustainability policy and goals and objectives, which is a big step for any organization! As a result of the process, they have closed the loop by requesting that vendors help them further AWEA’s mission, and in some way, make wind energy part of the energy mix. Here’s what these two change agents had to say:
Has your industry changed dramatically in the past five years? What have you seen from inside your association?
Stefanie Brown: Many Americans don’t realize American wind power has seen its costs decline by more than half over the last five years. It’s resulted in a very exciting time of the U.S. wind energy industry. Over the last several years, we’ve seen low-cost, reliable wind power in the U.S. more than triple, now providing almost five percent of country’s electricity needs. As with any maturing industry, some companies have been able to solidify their positions in the market while others were not, and there was some consolidation among our members. From inside the association, we have seen shifts in both the number and type of members we support, leading to changes in our areas of focus and subsequently our membership services and products. The changes we’ve faced means there is always something new, even after 14 years!
What changes do you anticipate in the next five years? Are there any trends that concern you?
Stefanie Brown: American wind power is on track to become one of the leading sources of electricity in the U.S. by 2050. That starts with wind energy doubling from where it is today to supplying 10 percent of the U.S.’s electricity by 2020 and 20 percent by 2030. We have a more mature industry now, with thousands of existing wind turbines operating in over 40 states, so we’re seeing different needs arise within our membership. On the generational front, we’re taking a proactive role in trying to engage the next generation of wind energy industry leaders through an Emerging Leaders program we’ve been developing over the last six months which should engage a younger demographic in our association and events as they will be the decision makers in the future. Poll after poll shows an overwhelming majority of Americans support wind energy, that includes Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Our focus is translating that into progress on the policy front.
How important is CSR and sustainability in your world?
Elesha Peterson Carr: At AWEA wind energy is our inspiration and our passion. We are driven to make a positive change in our environment and our world through growing wind energy capacity. We’re also very aware that in order to have as small an impact as possible on our climate and natural resources, we must consider the sustainability of every detail in our event planning processes whenever possible.
CSR is also important to our team. Nothing builds camaraderie like working together to do good. For example by partnering with Clean the World this year in Orlando, we built over 4,000 hygiene kits onsite together with our attendees and funded more than 6,000 kits for local charities in the Orlando area. Not only is it important for AWEA to give back to the community that hosts us, but by doing it together we added value to our attendee experience.
Which stakeholders are the driving force in your CSR/sustainability initiatives?
Stefanie Brown: Definitely the staff have driven our progress to date. Elesha and I both are passionate about CSR and sustainability issues, and thankfully we have like-minded staff within our organization including an internal Green Team (which Elesha chairs) that makes it all happen. We certainly make the financial case for these issues, as well as its impact on staff engagement and attendee experience, but without passionate staff behind the efforts, it would be difficult to move these areas forward.
Tell us about an initiative you championed that was implemented?
Elesha Peterson Carr: Last year we adopted an AWEA Event Sustainability Policy. This policy guides us with both our short and long-term efforts to make events more sustainable. Every year we host over 10,000 participants at dozens of events throughout the country. This policy outlines how our event planning practices will promote action on issues that are important to AWEA members and staff — like making our events wind powered through direct purchase of wind energy by venues or by wind RECs to offset meeting space used. We reduce our impact whenever possible, partner with venues to increase diversion rates over their baseline and keep a keen eye on our water use at events in an effort to reduce consumption moving forward.
What have you learned from this process?
Stefanie Brown: It was an eye-opening experience working with MeetGreen on our Event Sustainability Policy. Elesha and I thought we knew quite a bit about sustainability issues, however there is a whole different level of detail that we had to tackle in order to craft the best realistic yet achievable objectives, strategies, criteria and practices. So I learned how nuanced and complicated these issues are and that it takes time and a thoughtful approach to do right. We also focused on AWEA’s core values and how the Event Sustainability Policy aligns with each one as way of further incorporating our sustainability policy into our culture.
What is the biggest obstacle still to be overcome?
Elesha Peterson Carr: We now require venues to purchase wind energy or offsets for the energy consumed in the meeting space during our events. Some venues are ahead of the curve and already have green power plans. Others are less receptive. It’s a learning curve and that means taking the time to walk our partners through it until they feel comfortable. Our long-term goal is to only consider venues that purchase wind power.
What personal attributes are essential for success?
Stefanie Brown: Passion and tenacity are critical to success, especially in the sustainability and CSR areas. There will always be other projects that require more focus at times, so it’s easy for sustainability and CSR to get pushed down the priority list. Ideally backing up those personal attributes by including these areas of responsibility into one or more job descriptions allows for the continued commitment of the organization beyond any particular staff members.
What do you wish you knew when you first started in this role?
Elesha Peterson Carr: I wish I had worked on the event manager side of a venue. Each venue handles waste differently and you have to know the right questions to ask to maximize diversion efforts.
Any other words of advice?
Stefanie Brown: Look for sustainability and CSR champions in all areas and at all levels within your organization. Our internal green team, which is a volunteer group here at AWEA, is made up of staff from all departments including IT, finance, policy, member relations and public affairs, and represent a wide variety of different experience levels. It’s more important to find the champions internally, and not get caught up in the silos that often happen in terms of which department should be responsible for sustainability issues. I view our Green Team as a great example of how cross-departmental teamwork with like-minded passionate individuals can truly bring positive change to an organization.
As a change agent and hero in your organization, what inspires you?
Elesha Peterson Carr: When people adopt the changes we are trying to make both at our event and in our office. This year, because we didn’t have a bag sponsor, we were able to eliminate our conference bags. We offered push notifications in our conference mobile app to promote other sponsors instead of the real estate they used to occupy on bags. We received positive feedback from our sponsors and attendees for something that we resisted doing for years because we were hand-cuffed to the revenue the bags bring in. We also now have composting in our office. Our staff dutifully uses it and it’s like my birthday every time it happens.
Stefanie Brown: Well, I wouldn’t classify what we do as falling into the hero category, but what inspires me is a desire to leave the world a little better than I found it. We all have aspects of our jobs that are stressful, difficult, and sometimes downright frustrating, but I’m inspired knowing that what I do here at AWEA has some influence on the health of our environment, and that we have the power to positively influence people in need, like through the Clean the World CSR project at our show a few weeks ago. It helps balance out the everyday silly stuff to have a broader view of what’s important in this world.
Thanks to thoughtful, caring individuals like Stefanie and Elesha who understand change doesn’t happen overnight, our industry and our world is a better place!