MeetGreen was honored by ImpactPDX for our 25 years of sustainable events this month. It was an evening of celebration, learning, and networking that included a Q & A session with Nancy Zavada, MeetGreen President, to talk about the past 25 years, sustainability, and events. Nancy shares her knowledge and expertise during the interview.

What is MeetGreen and what do you do?

MeetGreen is a sustainable conference management agency. From managing every single event sustainably, to helping organizations set their environmental policy, to driving the sustainable practices of a 60,000-person event, we meet our clients where they are and support their vision. We do what we do best, so they can make a difference in their respective fields.

Tell us about the beginning of this idea of green meetings? Where were you and what was the trigger event for MeetGreen?

With my first client when we took their 2,500-person event to a Midwest city. We always had a no Styrofoam policy, but this convention center said Styrofoam was the only available service ware, otherwise I would have to order my own. When I went back and did the math, this 5-day conference would use:

  • 37,500 Cups
  • 50,000 Plates
  • 25,000 Plastic forks

And I was just one meeting planner in one city for one week. Multiply that by the number of events happening worldwide every week….

I knew I had to spread the word in the events industry, so I went back and developed a compelling training course based on it being the right thing to do, then developed the business case which considered all the economic savings.

What sort of clients did you start with – was there a single anchor client that helped you get momentum?

We were known for logistically complex, scientific computing conferences, 2,500 and above. We would have 35 concurrent breakout sessions, poster sessions, workshops, etc. Turns out the demographics also loved to use their technology to make a difference. As an example, the international committee only met in person once and the rest of the event was planned virtually. It was a challenge to see if they could avoid flying. Another challenge was to see how paperless they could be: registration, website, conference programs, etc. Techies were the early adopters and continue to be very sustainable. They stood by my green meetings requests (before it was cool) and used their considerable buying power as well.

Obviously, you had to start locally, but what was your first client outside of Portland, outside of the Pacific Northwest?

I only started locally because this large conference came to Portland and hired me. After that, I convinced them it was easier to take their planner along than find a new one in every destination. We traveled around North America together. Being virtual, my clients have always met elsewhere, both in country and internationally, and sometimes we even plan meetings in Portland like last year’s Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council.

At what point did you develop a formal business plan and how does that initial vision compare to today’s version of MeetGreen?

Always planning meetings sustainably, our formal business plan was to become THE sustainable event expert. By 2004, we had achieved that. Today’s business plan is to create change by the work we do, to love the work we do with our clients and get paid fairly. We put these goals first and have a formal framework for professional/financial success with key performance indicators in our five-year business plan.

When you look back, what event or client are you most proud of and why?

I am proud of all our clients; this work takes passion and tenacity. Some past clients have given up the fight and slipped back. The big wins with the low hanging fruit in the beginning get tougher when the process matures. That is one of the reasons our work with Oracle comes to mind. They never give up, even when the wins aren’t as easy. They look to real data and keep pushing the envelope. Now they are digging deeper into the carbon footprint of the event.

MeetGreen is now developing a carbon calculator specifically for events.

Over the years you’ve been integral in shaping and maturing the sustainable events field. Can you give us a bit of the story behind the evolution and maturity of the field? GMIC – EIC – ISO – etc?

It was clear by 2004 that there was need for an education/networking resource for those interested in sustainable events. We went to the large meeting organizations with a plan to hand them and were turned down because it was a “fad”. With nowhere to turn and a huge need, we decided to start the Green Meetings Industry Council (GMIC). This organization grew to over 800 members in the next few years and provided resources, education and networking corporations and associations who could work together on driving change in convention cities.

Two years ago, GMIC was brought under the wing of the Events Industry Council, a group comprised of all 30 industry associations to provide a more distributed information and drive change. It is doing just that.

We were early adopters of the UN Global Compact and have been reporting annually since 2007. We are a certified ISO 20121 corporation which provides the environmental framework for how we operate our firm and work with our clients. We are recertified annually. Last year we became a certified woman owned business. For a small firm, we do a lot of reporting and are very transparent.

From your vantage point, you spend time with some of the leading sustainability organizations in the world and see, hear and work with many of the leaders in the field: What – historically – do you see as the most positive development/event/move in our field?

From our view, external forces have the most positive impact.

Do you remember the Time Magazine with the photo of the polar bear on the front? That was a huge moment in time. It was immediately followed in 2006 by Al Gore’s movie The Inconvenient Truth. It was a wakeup call to many.

Corporations began hiring sustainability experts and now have a seat at the table. Reporting and transparency took hold.

The change in administration in 2017 drove even more organizations to be good corporate citizens and thanks to the radical transparency of social media, events became window to a company’s soul.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have taken hold in the event’s industry and are furthering the discussion.

The climate movement by students, often called “The Greta Effect”, is challenging the status quo and flight shaming is making people uncomfortable.

With that 25 years view, what has been the sustainability field’s biggest challenge?

I think the first challenge is that others believe that sustainability professionals in their organizations have this taken care of. It’s not their job.

That’s why enrolling everyone is still an incredible challenge. And I am not talking about people recycling at home, not using straws, etc. I am talking about engaging people to be aware and accountable, hold corporations and government accountable. We are in this together.

You’ve seen a lot in those 25 years including some predictable patterns, what do you see on the sustainability field’s horizon?

We have a huge opportunity and challenge.
It is difficult to keep sustainability fresh, relevant, urgent in the face of changing external forces.

More than ever before, I believe there is traction with corporations and in the boardrooms. There is public awareness.

Let’s move from discussion to action. It is up to each of us on the front lines who have the influence of our positions and the buying power to affect our supply chains within our own organizations.