By Mitra Sorrells Posted February 3, 2012, 12:54 PM EST
Reusing signage from one year to the next, requesting locally sourced food and donating the leftovers, and encouraging attendees to walk or use pedi-cabs—those are a few of the actions Oracle has implemented at OpenWorld and JavaOne, two annual events the company hosts simultaneously in San Francisco for more than 46,000 attendees. Oracle is now in its fifth year of implementing and tracking sustainability practices at these events and recently released a comprehensive report, prepared by MeetGreen, on its strategies and results. The report is a blueprint of green initiatives and supports the company’s goal of helping others understand how to incorporate sustainability into events.
Paul Salinger, vice president of marketing at Oracle and president of the board of directors of the Green Meeting Industry Council, leads Oracle’s sustainability efforts. He spoke to us about what they have learned and where they are going next.
What is your advice to event professionals who are unsure of how to begin going green?
Sustainability has really started to bubble up to the top as one of the major trends going on in the event industry. What we always tell people is, “Just start.” Right now the event industry itself is the second largest generator of waste, at least in the United States, behind engineering and construction. So while we are doing well at helping to create some economic impact on the positive side, we are not doing so well in mitigating the risks and the effects of that. We started very basic—eliminating bottled water, starting to move toward less printing and more of a paperless process, starting to really engage with suppliers and venues on waste management and energy management. People who are just getting started should not make it overly complex. And then at least document the things [you do] so you can start to make continual improvements as time goes on.
Oracle established its sustainability program in 2007. What do you know now that you wished you had known then?
I wish I would have known how much easier it would have been in the first couple of years if we had sat down with all of our stakeholders from the very beginning and said, “Here’s an initiative that we would like to work on, but we’re going to need your help.” We sort of thought we could do it ourselves. We quickly discovered it was going to take a lot of help from a lot of other people, whether that be the venues themselves, key suppliers around operations and logistics, our own internal stakeholders, the city that we happened to be going to. Set a vision for what you want to do around sustainability and then get everybody to buy into that vision. If we had known that in the first year or two that we started, we probably could have made even faster progress.
What has been one of your biggest challenges in implementing sustainability strategies into OpenWorld and JavaOne?
In a lot of ways this is a cultural change, and [encouraging] behavioral change is always a difficult thing to do. Not everybody lives their lives looking at sustainability as something they do on a day-to-day basis. So whether it be [asking] attendees, “Could you take public transportation instead of taking a cab into the city? Could you think about doing a carbon offset for your travel? Could you accept that we are not going to give you a plastic bottle of water, but we want you to refill your bottle that we’re going to give you that’s reusable?” That kind of behavioral change can always be a bit of a barrier. But the more people understand that it’s going to contribute to their overall experience in terms of a healthier lifestyle, and it’s not going to negatively impact their overall event experience, the more they start to accept it as something that’s a good thing.
OpenWorld and JavaOne are very large events, held in 10 venues and attracting more than 46,000 people from around the world, so your sustainability initiatives can have large-scale impact. What do you say to event professionals working on smaller meetings and events? Is this still worthwhile?
You certainly won’t make the same difference as something like an Oracle OpenWorld or any of the large events that are being run around these types of ideas. But what I would say to small events and meeting planners is absolutely it is worth it. We have to start thinking about operating in a low carbon economy. The price of fuel is going to go up. We are living in an age where population is growing and resources are dwindling. Even small events, just the same as people taking individual actions at home, all of that does start to have an aggregate effect. And if small events and individual meeting planners can start doing some of these basics and start documenting it, then we can start to understand as an industry as a whole how we can contribute to a solution around all of this, instead of being a problem. When it comes to sustainability and when it comes to how to transform the industry, it’s going to be a set of individual and collective actions that really help overall.
Sustainability involves three components: the environmental, the economic, and the social. Most people get the environmental piece. Tell us more about the other two.
We cannot be sustainable if we are not profitable. There is still a lot of concern and mythology over the cost of doing a green meeting. There is a lot of information out there that can help to dispel that myth. If you look at our sustainability report, you can see that we have saved close to $1.5 million over the course of our journey on this. So the economic side is just about making sure you maintain your budgets and you maintain your profits for your company and for your event. On the social side there are lots of different things there that are involved in human rights and fair trade and diversity and social justice issues that lots of events are really starting to look at. You are starting to see a lot of events doing community outreach projects. There are also longer legacy projects, where you might go into a community and see what’s needed and partner with a local organization and be able to track it and measure it over a year-long time.
What are next steps for Oracle in regard to sustainability?
We have an ongoing green team that meets on a regular basis and looks at what we‘ve done in past years to set new challenges for the coming year. Oracle OpenWorld is a big event. It emits a lot of carbon. That’s been one of the areas we’ve struggled with in terms of that we have a lot of people traveling in. We’d like to figure out some ways to reduce that overall carbon. We continue to look at our food and beverage aspect of things. We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of moving towards a more local, organic environment and sourcing for our food and beverages, but we still have a ways to go. We’d like to get our overall food miles measured down to a more reasonable number per meal, and we’d like to see if we can [encourage] the local caterers we use to work with local farmers more, to do more organic and more local. There are always price-point challenges we have to look at. We are trying to feed a lot of people, and we have a budget we are trying to adhere to. And we want to continue working on attendee education and behavior change. We are trying to, as a part of a larger transformation of the event industry toward sustainability, do as many best practices as we can and then be transparent about that and share that with the community so people can learn from what we are doing and can hopefully pick it up.