15 Ways to Go Green—and What They Cost

Ideas and strategies to reduce the ecological impact of corporate events and meetings—some simple and cheap, some not so much.

By Martha C. White June 15, 2007, 10:41 AM EDT

Illustrations: Steve Olson

How many event hosts are really paying attention to the ecological effects of gatherings, especially ones that don’t have a green theme? Here's a look at some easy ways to be mindful of the environment, as well as more challenging options to go the extra (green) mile.

1. Use LEDs
Lighting is one of the most obvious ways an event consumes energy, and a growing number of technologies offer more earth-friendly solutions. While long-life fluorescent bulbs are replacing traditional incandescent lights in consumers' homes, this isn't a practical solution for most event planners.

LED lights, on the other hand, win raves from lighting and event specialists for their convenience and low energy usage. An LED fixture of comparable brightness uses up to 80 percent less energy than its conventional counterpart. “Obviously the big savings is electrically, but one of the other things about lighting is that out of all of the aspects to an event, it has the least amount of waste, because you're dealing with fixtures that are usually rented,” says Ira Levy of Levy Lighting in New York. Another perk of LED lights is that the lights themselves come in every color of the rainbow, so there's no need to set up huge (and labor-intensive) rigs with films if you want a multicolored look.

“LED lights are a lot brighter for a lot less wattage,” says Benjamin Jervey, author of The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City. “A five-watt LED bulb will simulate the light from a 75-watt LED light, and that same five-watt bulb will last a lot longer.”

Hassle Factor: LEDs are a no-brainer when it comes to green cred, and using them for an event is a simple request for most lighting companies.

Cost: “You can use LED lighting for almost anything, but the instruments are more expensive because it's the newest technology,” says Bill Whicher of Frost Lighting in New York. LEDs are more expensive to produce and not (yet) as widely used, so buying or renting them costs more. On the other hand, setup is much quicker and easier, so you can expect to recoup most or all of the rental cost. “The cost for the fixture is more, but there are other costs that actually come down,” Whicher says. “With a lot of conventional light fixtures, you have to get a lot of cabling and dimming systems. You might actually get a cost savings on the labor.”

2. Rethink Your Cars
While hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius are the best-known, there are a variety of alternative-fuel vehicles on the road, and a few forward-thinking car services are offering these vehicles. EcoLimo, a car service with branches in Los Angeles and San Francisco, offers customers a choice of Priuses, the workhorses of the fleet, as well as gas-electric hybrids, natural gas, and biodiesel vehicles. For large groups, the company offers 22-passenger hybrid diesel shuttles as an alternative to limos or traditional shuttles. EcoLimo handles transportation for major studios such as Paramount and DreamWorks, as well as Silicon Valley companies like Google and Hewlett-Packard, and the company also plans to open branches in New York and Washington, D.C.

Another option in the Bay Area is Planet Tran, a hybrid-car service that also has a Boston branch. New Yorkers can contact OZOcar, the preferred car service of Condé Nast and Goldman Sachs. OZOcar's vehicles are equipped with Wi-Fi and satellite radio, and many offer loaner Macintosh laptops so passengers can surf the Web or check email during their ride. “OZOcar's very cool in that way,” says Josh Dorfman, host of The Lazy Environmentalist on Sirius satellite radio. “They get it. Yeah, it's a hybrid, but they offer services that get people excited.”

Hassle Factor: Outside of major cities, green car service is tough to come by. In smaller markets, you might be better off renting a hybrid and hiring a driver if earth-friendly transportation is a priority. But for guests or execs who have their hearts set on a stretch Hummer or a similarly gas-guzzling ride, there might not be much you can do.

Cost: These services are generally within the same price range as other services that provide more typical town cars.

3. Table New Cloths
Now let's look at table linens—and the materials they're made of. As with food, you can go the organic route, using organic cotton and linen. While hemp has an earth-friendly image, environmental experts are on the fence as to its actual benefits as an eco-friendly event textile; proponents point out that it's much easier on the earth to grow hemp than to grow cotton or to produce synthetics like polyester. And don't forget to ask about the dye process—conventional dyeing methods use harsh chemicals.

Before placing an order, consider this: If you're not having linens custom-made, you'll probably be reusing existing linens, and reusing is always a green option. “Once it's been produced, you're going to be washing each one anyway, and it's going to be the same,” says Kevin White, director of production at Empire Force Events.

Hassle Factor: For an event that demands a green look, hemp might fit the bill, especially if it's not dyed. However, for events that don't have a particularly green slant, it's counterproductive—and more of a hassle—to order new tablecloths.

Cost: Event producers say commissioning the creation of hemp linens is comparable to having linens of any fabric custom-made. Danielle Venokur, owner of environmentally focused event production firm dvGreen, says she can get organic cotton for about 10 percent more than conventional. Of course, renting linens will probably be cheaper.

4. Go Organic
Thanks in part to the meteoric rise of Whole Foods, it's hard to find a person who isn't acquainted with the idea of chemical- and additive-free food, and a growing number of companies are turning to sustainable and organic catering for internal as well as promotional events. Corporations like Ralph Lauren, Coach, and Bloomingdale's have called on New York caterer Sage Events for organic lunches for staff. And New York's Lucid Food catered a 60-person holiday party for actress Marcia Gay Harden's production company.

Demand has risen to the point that it's generally simple to track down organic produce like salad greens year-round. Leslie Nilsson, owner of Sage Events, a caterer with a green focus, suggests letting caterers pick the produce, since they can get a better price on whatever is most plentiful. “We write our menus around the seasonality of the event,” she says. “I'll go down to the farmer's market and pick what looks good.” As with any kind of specialty service, it's a good idea to seek out caterers that specialize in organic menu-planning, since they have connections to sources as well as clout with vendors. And smaller caterers aren't the only ones going organic: Large New York caterer Great Performances bought its own organic farm upstate last year.

Hassle Factor:
Serving organic fare is easiest on the coasts, where there are caterers who not only offer organic menus but specialize in earth-friendly food. In the heartland, things get a bit trickier.

Organic food is more subject to the whims of nature than factory-farmed fare. Kristina Brindley, owner of Seedling Catering in Los Angeles, which did a launch for Aveda's new teen line, says recent weather conditions on the West Coast have driven up the price of organics there. “Organic produce is really seeing a rising cost out here because of some of the cold weather we've had in the valleys where a lot of our food is grown,” she says.

The entrée is where the difference between conventional and ecologically friendly really starts to increase. “Where you're going to see the money difference is meat and fish,” says Chef Rossi, owner of the Raging Skillet in New York, adding that while free-range chicken (that is, chickens that were able to spend time outside instead of in a pen) is only a dollar or two more per person than conventional chicken, organic chicken is a good deal more.

Wild salmon? “That just brought your budget up $10 a person,” Rossi says. For groups on a tight budget, she suggests duck. “Something most people don't realize is that duck is almost always by nature wild or organic.”

5. Skip the Styrofoam
Rental firms can rejoice—their business model is already eco-friendly. “The philosophy of renting plates, china, and flatware is very green,” says Danielle Venokur, owner of dvGreen in New York. But when it comes to disposables, plastic and plastic-foam dishes are so last century. The cutting edge of disposable tableware is plates, bowls, and even flatware made from plant-based materials: starches from corn, potatoes, or sugarcane, or fast-growing plants like bamboo. Check out bioplastics at NatureWorks, Eco-Products, and World Centric. New York caterer Lucid Foods offers boxed lunches in bioplastic containers; Kathy Findley, a meeting and event manager at Little Rock, Arkansas-based hunger relief organization Heifer International, used corn-based dishes and utensils for a lunch on World Food Day, and Darian Rodriguez Heyman, executive director of the Craigslist Foundation, used a combination of corn- and sugarcane-based products for meals during his group's Nonprofit Boot Camp last year. Bambu, a bamboo tableware manufacturer, has been the go-to provider for both Bill Clinton and Al Gore: The Clinton Global Initiative used the tableware for its 2006 conference, as did the Washington premiere of An Inconvenient Truth. The Bambu site carries a list of retailers.

“A lot of the corn or bioplastics are more economically reconcilable,” says Benjamin Jervey, author of The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City. The benefit is twofold: Conventional disposable tableware is made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource, which means you should avoid it. Meanwhile, plant-based tableware is biodegradable and can be composted. Jervey adds that even if the trash from an event is headed for a landfill, bioplastics are still more earth-friendly. “It won't happen as quickly and efficiently, but it will eventually biodegrade.”

Hassle Factor:
Even for large orders, these alterna-dishes are easy to order. Bambu's options look the most formal, with a clean, mod aesthetic.

Cost: Generally, there's a greater markup on plant-based utensils than plates compared with conventional plastics and plastic foam. Depending on the supplier and the size of the order, event specialists report paying anywhere from 20 percent more to double the price of conventional plasticware.

6. Reduce Garbage
Many green events have prominently displayed recycling containers next to regular trashcans, and a few have gone so far as to include composting containers. The Craigslist Foundation's annual Nonprofit Boot Camp has been deemed a zero-waste event partially due to the group's aggressive stance on recycling and composting, says executive director Darian Rodriguez Heyman. “Stuff that would normally go to a landfill is recycled or composted,” he says. “We have volunteers who are stationed by [trash areas] as compost cops, if you will.” This ensures that guests dispose of materials in the correct bins. Heyman says these efforts are important because they give participants a very visible reminder of the behind-the-scenes work the foundation is doing to keep the event green.

Hassle Factor: Even in places like New York, which has a relatively robust recycling program, it can be an ordeal to go the extra mile if you want to compost your leftovers. “It's an added effort,” admits Leslie Nilsson of Sage Events. “It's a lot more complicated, and your staff has to be trained.” Heyman adds that finding recycling- or compost-bin suppliers can be difficult, because there's not a lot of demand for those services. Some event specialists suggest selecting venues based on their recycling programs, although that is not a realistic option for everyone.

Cost: This varies based on the location and the nature of the necessary waste removal, but Lewis Medansky of Distinctive Event Productions says it cost $3,000 to rent a compost bin from New York-based American Recycling Management for a lunch hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative.

7. Avoid Vinyl
Vinyl is the conventional choice for a customized backdrop; what it offers in ubiquity and convenience, however, it lacks in earth-friendliness. Not only is the material made from nonrenewable resources, but there's no way to recycle it effectively.

That said, it's tough to find a replacement without dreaming up an entirely different kind of display, which will be pricier and more complicated. “I haven't seen any vinyl alternatives that are really outstanding,” say Josh Dorfman, host of The Lazy Environmentalist. He suggests reusing the backdrop if possible. “For our last event, we had a vinyl sign. Our feeling was, it's not great, but we're not going to throw it away—we're going to use it again.”

Hassle Factor:
“Set designs are tough” to make green, concedes Kevin White of Empire Force Events. “Everything is meant to be cheap and tossed. If you're building a design that's temporary, that's often a challenge. Materials like cork or bamboo are durable and renewable but a bit more expensive.” Innovative planners have fashioned eco-friendly backdrops out of cardboard (painted with nontoxic paint), reclaimed wood, fabric, and even modular floor tiles made of recycled carpet. It can be done, but it may require a lot of work for what is usually an uncomplicated object.

Vinyl is the default material for a reason: It's cheap and easy to install. For a green alternative, not only will you be looking at higher costs for materials, but you'll also need to factor in additional labor to create your masterpiece. While some planners have used cardboard or other materials already destined for the trash, this nominally economical “junk” still requires time and supplies to be turned into a proper backdrop.

8. Donate Leftovers
Another way to reduce an event's waste is by donating leftovers. Rock and Wrap It Up, a New York-based food-rescue organization for the music, sports, and entertainment industries, donated 1,600 pounds of food left over from MTV's holiday party at the Manhattan Center to the Bowery Mission, a downtown shelter.

City Harvest, a food-rescue program based in New York, will accept prepared food that has been securely packaged (with no dripping sauces), separated by menu item and chilled at 40 degrees or below. Food items still in their original packaging and stored in appropriate conditions can also be donated. City Harvest provides plastic storage bags for packaging food and will help groups obtain other necessary storage containers. Other food-rescue programs around the country have similar guidelines.

“If there's leftover food [at our events], we ask that it be donated,” says Kathy Findley of Heifer International. “There's a misconception that donating food is a liability.” Findley says she has found that many venues have partnerships with food-rescue programs, especially those in large cities. “If a hotel or venue tells us they'll donate but they don't know where to, we'll find a place,” she says. Although this takes a little extra legwork, Findley says many metropolitan regions have programs similar to City Harvest. Philip Dufour, principal at the J Street Group in Washington, the event producer for the D.C. premiere of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, uses D.C. Central Kitchen to share leftovers with the hungry. Groups on the West Coast can get in touch with Angel Harvest.

Hassle Factor: Findley admits it can be harder to track down groups that want to take your leftovers outside of major cities. She says she's always been able to find someone—sometimes even a homeless shelter—grateful for the provisions, but sometimes it takes more work. Ask your venue, though; the folks there can often point you in the direction of a recipient.

Cost: Since most food-rescue organizations will provide containers for packaging leftovers and pick up the food, this shouldn't put a ding in your budget at all. The exception would be if you're donating on a one-off basis to a group (such as a shelter) that doesn't have an established program; in that case, you might need to factor in the expense of containers and ferrying the food to its destination.

9. Keep Plants Alive

For National Philanthropy Day this past November, planners decorated the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco with live plants, their roots tied up in burlap bags. Billed as “living decor,” these elements were a fitting touch for the half-day event to honor and educate some 1,000 fund-raising professionals, says organizer Nicci Noble.

Likewise, Heifer International's Kathy Findley says, “We've used live plants for just about everything. They can always be dressed up.” Decor specialists who work with live plants suggest using evergreens, which are less likely to shed leaves or look bedraggled before the night is out.

Another option is to use seedlings, which could be used to play off a theme of springtime or renewal. “We use seedlings as decor and give them away after the event,” says Laurie Kaufman, director of communications for TreePeople, an environmental nonprofit based in Los Angeles. Kaufman says she has used tree seedlings as well as those of garden plants like tomatoes.
Hassle Factor:
“When you're using plants, you worry about them looking too rustic,” says Meredith Waga Perez, owner of Belle Fleur in New York. “With a plant, you can never really have it look as polished.” That said, if you're going for a “natural” look, plants might be the ticket. Also, tempting as it might be to use flowering plants, remember that the ventilation and lighting conditions might cause petals to discolor or fall off.

Cost: Depending on whether or not you plan to reuse them for future events, using plants can be a highly cost-effective option—provided the decorations and planters aren't overly extravagant. Andy Boose, owner of AAB Productions, says his costs were comparable for the evergreens he used in lieu of flowers for an October event honoring Wal-Mart.

10. Find Eco Flowers
Demand for organic flowers is “skyrocketing,” according to Gerald Prolman, founder and C.E.O. of Organic Bouquet in San Francisco. “We're getting calls every day from florists and event planners seeking eco flowers for events.” Since many conventionally grown flowers come from countries with lax regulations and little oversight regarding pesticide use and child-labor laws, Prolman says many clients appreciate knowing that their blooms are kind to both the earth and the people who grow them. And while organic flowers are generally shipped from Central or South American farms, Benjamin Jervey, author of The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City, points out that conventionally grown blooms generally come from the same regions. “Any flowers you would be buying would be coming from just as far away, so you're not necessarily lengthening the supply line,” he says. “The organic option is a really good one.”

Hassle Factor:
“In the flower world, it's more difficult to get things that are organically grown on the scale we need,” says David Stark of David Stark Design and Production in New York. “It's catch-as-catch-can, based on what's good and what's available.” In terms of Organic Bouquet's ability to fulfill large orders, Prolman says that while most organic blooms can be secured with no additional planning, large orders will need additional lead time. Also, he adds, some regional, rare, or fragile flowers are not always available. Finding florists that have contacts for organic blooms might be tricky if your event is outside of a major city. Prolman says he works with Jasmine Blue in L.A.; in New York, Belle Fleur handles requests for organics. If you happen to be using a Marriott property for an event, finding organic blooms is about to get easier. As one of many venue owners and chains looking to get on the eco bandwagon, Marriott recently forged a partnership with Organic Bouquet to make it easier for planners to source eco-friendly flowers.

Cost: “We're getting a quality premium, and the sustainability is the added bonus,” Prolman says. In other words, this isn't an option for those on shoestring budgets. Meredith Waga Perez of Belle Fleur says organic flowers cost an average of 20 percent more than conventional.

11. Nix Single Servings
Water bottles are convenient and ubiquitous, but all those bottles usually wind up in landfills, and the water in half-full bottles is poured down the drain—a tremendous waste, environmental advocates say. For a reception at the United Nations headquarters following a screening of an MTV documentary in which the hip-hop star Jay-Z draws attention to the need for clean water in the developing world, bottled water was eschewed in favor of plain tap water, says U.N. Works Programme chief Carmel Mulvany, who coordinated the event. (Sparkling water was on hand as a cocktail mixer.)

The University of California at Berkeley offers catering guidelines for reducing waste at event meals. They suggest forgoing single-serving condiment packages in lieu of large containers for the table or on a buffet line. Lunches should not be pre-boxed if possible, and side items like chips and cookies should be offered loose, in bowls or platters (don't forget tongs!), rather than in individual packages.

Hassle Factor:
Most venues or caterers can take in stride a request to serve pitchers instead of bottled water, or family-size dishes of sides. It might not hurt to add a line or two to the program explaining the reason for the switch, so attendees don't assume you're just trying to cut corners. Likewise, choosing to make bottled water available upon request strikes a good balance between earth- and guest-friendly. Barbara Kramer, co-producer of Designers & Agents, a series of shows for the fashion and retail industry, has found another solution to the water-bottle waste issue: Fiji Water is a sponsor for her events, and the brand provides water in coolers as well as by the bottle. Kramer also asked Fiji to contribute branded cardboard recycling containers, and then positioned the jazzed-up bins near the coolers, so guests had the option of refilling or recycling water bottles. For D&A's May and June shows this year, Kramer is working with up-and-coming artists to decorate the recycling bins and make them even more eye-catching.

Cost: This tactic has the benefit of cutting down on per-item costs, since people who might be inclined to tuck a bag of pretzels into their bag are less likely to carry out loose food. Likewise, many people grab a soda or water for the road; no one's going to try that with a pitcher. Especially if you're offering tap water, costs are negligible compared with bottled.

12. Offset Emissions
Carbon offsetting has gotten a lot of buzz lately, but environmental experts are divided on its effectiveness. It works like this: Go to the Web site of a carbon-offsetting service such as Driving Green or Carbon Fund and plug in a few vital stats about your event. The service calculates how much carbon dioxide the event will produce and gives you a dollar amount. Then you pay the specified amount, and the money funds sustainable energy initiatives that will “offset” your use of conventional energy. It's a popular idea—events such as the Green Brooklyn Conference and even the 2007 Academy Awards did it—but some green groups consider it problematic, because you're still actually consuming the energy and releasing greenhouse gases into the air. They point out that these actions can't be reversed, no matter how much you spend. “Is it really climate-neutral if all you're doing is buying offsets?” says Bill Burtis, communications manager for Clean Air-Cool Planet, an environmental watchdog group. He suggests that a group should first take steps to reduce the energy it consumes before considering offsets. “There are so many ways energy is expended in the creation of an event,” he says. Earth-wise, it's better to curtail your environmental footprint, rather than just paying for it.

Hassle Factor:
Logistically, these Web-based services couldn't be simpler. However, Jennifer Hattam, the green-living editor for Sierra magazine, advises doing a little legwork to find a carbon-offset service that funnels its funds into development of renewable energy resources such as wind farms or solar power. Many environmentalists say that planting trees, another popular use for carbon-offsetting funds, is not nearly effective enough to be a viable investment.

Expect to pay less than a dollar per head for a typical reception or dinner with a locally based guest list. Other services, such as U.K.-based Climate Care  and Terra Pass, offer offsets for air and ground travel. Figure about $10 for each guest who makes a cross-country flight to attend your event.

13. Tweak the Temp
Controlling the temperature in the room can definitely be earth-friendly—lowering the heat in the winter and keeping the AC down or off in the summer both save energy. The question remains whether it's guest-friendly as well. Kathy Findley of Heifer International says she keeps the thermostat set to 68 degrees in the winter and 76 in the summer to consume less energy. Tell your venue in advance if you want to do this; most don't mind, but they might have to make the adjustment for you if the thermostat is in a different room from your event.

Hassle Factor:
Even Findley admits that this step might be too extreme for some, acknowledging that you often have to put the comfort of your attendees first. After all, if you're holding a black-tie banquet in the middle of summer, it's not likely you're going to want your guests sweating out the night. “Consider who your audience is and what they're going to be doing,” advises Jennifer Hattam of Sierra magazine. “Every event needs to make its priorities.” To prepare her attendees, Findley includes a reminder in pre-event literature so they know to dress appropriately. If you want to drop the temp when it's chilly out, consider serving warming concoctions like hot toddies or mulled wine.

None to implement, but it's not likely you'll get any kind of a credit from the venue for your energy-saving practice.

14. Print Wisely
Event specialists have many options when it comes to making invitations and programs more eco-conscious. Patie Maloney of the Environmental Media Association, who used all recycled paper and soy inks for the group's 1,000-head, star-studded award ceremony in L.A., says the availability and quality of recycled paper has gone up substantially in the past several years. “In 1989, it was like 10 percent recycled content,” she recalls. Anything earth-friendlier, if it was available at all, was liable to be the consistency of a paper bag. Today, Maloney says, she can get recycled paper cardstock that matches conventional paper in terms of quality.

Another alternative is to go tree-free entirely. Some paper manufacturers, including Crane, offer paper made from recovered cotton. And one company makes a paper product with even more unusual origins: Mr. Ellie Pooh makes paper from the refined cellulose fibers found in elephant dung. Corrin Arasa, president of Events East/E2, used this paper for invitations and press releases at the Project GreenHouse event she produced at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

When it comes to ink, soy-based inks are preferable to conventional inks, which are made from nonrenewable petroleum. But an even more earth-friendly option is using vegetable-based inks, since soybeans aren't always grown in an eco-friendly manner. Ask upfront if your printer can provide one or the other, since eco-friendly inks aren't yet as commonly available as recycled paper. Rolling Press is an environmentally friendly printer in Brooklyn, and Greener Printer is in Berkeley.

Hassle Factor: Using recycled paper is one of the more low-key ways to make an event more earth-friendly. Greg Barber, president of Greg Barber Company, a printing supplier with a focus on earth-friendly products, says that even high-end processes like engraving can be done with recycled paper and soy inks. He also points out that using recycled paper isn't an all-or-nothing proposition: “With choices of either 30 percent or 100 percent postconsumer content, event planners can go as green as they want.” Even suppliers that don't specialize in recycled paper are likely to have some postconsumer options.

Cost: Some event specialists say they don't see a major difference in price. That said, the best option for would-be environmentalists on a shoestring budget might be 30 percent recycled paper, which is closer in price to conventional paper. Greg Barber says his paper costs are identical for high-end papers and cardstock; ironically, it's only low-end copier paper that's more expensive recycled.

15. Cut the Handouts
For some events, the option of replacing paper programs or binders with CDs or flash drives—thumb-sized devices that store data and can be plugged into any computer's USB port—can be a godsend. If attendees typically leave laden with handouts (including many, let's face it, they'll never look at), flash drives are not only thoughtful but stand a better chance of actually being taken home and read. You can also consider having maps and directions available for download onto cell phones, PDAs, or other gadgets, so guests don't have to print them out, if you have an appropriately tech-savvy crowd.

“I'm intrigued by the idea of skipping paper and putting material on flash drives as a much more sensible and less expensive approach,” says Una M. Cote, owner of the Source Inc., who plans award banquets for real-estate franchise Century 21 up and down the Eastern seaboard. She has already toyed with eliminating the paper programs entirely but has found that managers want a tangible reminder of their brokers' efforts. So she has cut down on the number of booklets by giving them only to brokerage bosses rather than to all attendees; the full list of award winners is displayed on a screen throughout the event.

Hassle Factor:
This is one case where the green option is also a logistical boon. “It's a disaster to load people down with printed materials that cost a fortune,” Cote says. “Nobody has the ability to carry it all.” However, as Cote has found, some kinds of events might still call for paper.

Cost: Even after purchasing CDs or flash drives, event specialists who have gone paper-free with programs and information packets almost unanimously say they've saved money on printing and mailing costs.

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