UUA celebrates 10 years of event sustainability progress

“Perhaps we should realize that our need is not to ‘find something to believe’—but rather to discover that our lives indicate what we believe right now. This is the place to start.” ~ Edith Hunter, Religious Educator

10 years ago the Unitarian Universalist Association took a first, tentative step to “green” their annual General Assembly. Janiece Sneegas, Director General Assembly and Conference Services, will tell you they were very tentative steps back then, her team sensing this “event sustainability” business had the potential to be a judgmental, expensive, pain in the butt. It’s not always been easy, but 10 years later Jan and the UUA are going stronger than ever with their event sustainability program, most recently helping to recruit green meeting champions in Louisville, Kentucky during their 2013 General Assembly.

(Click here to read the complete UUA GA 2013 Event Sustainability Report)

What I love about working with the UUA on their project is that in spite  of the idea I’m supposedly helping General Assembly destinations to “turn up the dial” in terms of social and environmental responsibility, it’s really I who have learned so much from Jan, the UUA team and numerous destinations we’ve worked with over the years. Lessons like:

It doesn’t matter as much what you do to start an event sustainability plan. Just start. Nothing happens overnight, and what works for one person may not work for you. So start from where you are, and work on what you care about. Especially if no one else seems to care as much as you about doing it! For the UUA this means paying attention to basic goals they share with many organisations (such as waste reduction), while also pioneering how emerging issues like fairness, ethical eating and gender identity are addressed in event planning.

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The sum of us is more powerful than one of us. Sustainability relies on lively stakeholders, engaged and collaborating to design solutions. It requires you ask for, accept and give help. For GA we rely on 15-20 volunteers to help us implement onsite waste management by donating almost 400 hours of labor to the event. This year they diverted 78% of waste and reduced landfill by 11%! We also look to our local vendors (shout out to all in Louisville!) to help us craft sustainability solutions that make sense for their location.

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Principles really matter. What you stand for matters. For UUA Seven Principles ground all event sustainability actions. These values-based filters transcend a checklist mentality that can cause you to settle into a static, business-as-usual approach, which can limit creative thinking and continuous improvement.

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Results take time. Nothing happens overnight. Consistent, comparable measurement for UUA has really only emerged within the last 5-6 event cycles. Measurable results allow UUA to educate event attendees about their carbon footprint, so they can make informed choices to attend Assemblies that result in less air travel and take responsibility for emissions that cannot be avoided. Since carbon footprint data and choices have been shared with attendees, carbon intensity has dropped by 18%. This while 54% of emissions have been voluntarily offset by participants. So be patient, good things come if you plan well, educate and wait.

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Don’t be afraid to take a stand. UUA has done some brave things over the years to assert their commitment to sustainability. Turned down convenient housing options when hotels would refuse to sign environmental addenda or honor collective bargaining agreements. They’ve also raised awareness about important social justice issues, such as immigration and environmental justice, through Witness events. This year’s Witness drew 2,000 participants to rally in support of clean energy on the banks of the Ohio River.

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Critique is essential. If there is one thing I can count on at GA, it’s that someone will always have a helpful suggestion of how I can do my job better (even if I don’t always see them as helpful at first!). In fact, we received over 160 comments about things we were doing right and wrong in the area of sustainability at the 2013 event. Statistically, 78%  of event attendees thought we did a pretty good job of reducing our footprint and doing social good. Meanwhile, an important 12% (5% more than in 2012) feel we still have work to do! We take this rating to heart, and read comments in detail each year to help push us forward to improve.

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Ethical food is hard! UUA has adopted a Statement on Ethical Eating which continues to prove challenging to put into practice at GA. While we’re successful at educating caterers about what UUA would like to see and asking pointed questions about certain products (like coffee, and tomatoes), comprehensive supply change analysis remains very difficult for most convention venue caterers. So if you’re listening: ask with UUA! And help expand transparency about ethical, sustainable convention food!
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Locally-crafted solutions leave legacy. Newsflash: what works in Portland to green an event does not work in Charlotte. Or Phoenix. Or Salt Lake City. While UUA has a consistent process for working with destinations, it does not necessarily prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions. It relies on research and understanding what assets are present in each community to support sustainability, and leveraging them forward. These kinds of local solutions empower destination stakeholders, and give them tools that they can use long after GA leaves town.
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Celebrate every inch of progress. It’s true: UUA GA is not a zero waste event, and more event discards were left after Assembly this year compared to last year. But darn it, 100 MT of carbon dioxide emissions have been avoided through virtual conferencing over the last two years. And over $110,000 was raised for important projects! REJOICE! Sure we can always do better, but it is progress! And it wouldn’t have occurred without each and every event stakeholder taking the time to make it happen.

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People don’t remember what you did, but they remember how it made them feel. Did your sustainability program make attendees and vendors feel inspired, engaged and successful? Or evaluated, judged and alone? My favorite part of GA is when we get to work directly with facility operations staff who often have little direct contact with event hosts. They teach us about their work, we get to know them, work side-by-side with them, haul trash with them, and show our gratitude appropriately. It is this strong sense of teamwork and collaboration inherent in UUA’s GA that stays with me, and makes me excited to take up the next adventure in the next city! Providence, Rhode Island: Here we come!

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