Paperless versus paper-free: How clear is your sustainability policy?

We see it frequently: usually in bold and coloured type, sometimes italicized and generally with exclamation marks behind it.

We are going green! The (insert name of conference) is going to be paperless!

What does it mean?

How clear is your sustainability policy?

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “paperless” as: recording or relaying information by electronic media rather than on paper.

That makes sense. That must mean that the conference is going to use new technology (apps, document sharing sites, online registration, etc.) to minimize the use of paper. That’s great, except there are some who would read that declaration and think, “they are going to be paper-free (using no paper whatsoever)”.

Now we have a problem.

Those that assume paperless means paper-free may see any use of paper as a failure to meet the stated goal.

It would be extremely difficult to become paper-free, no matter how hard you try, although I do believe that some events come very close. Realistically you cannot control everything, and there will always be attendees who will print out the agenda, exhibitor list or confirmation paperwork at their home office because a) their phone doesn’t support the app, b) they are concerned they won’t be able to access the data when they need it (lack of wifi), or c) habit. There will be speakers who will bring handouts (even if you have told everyone that they are available for download).

How can we resolve this unintentional miscommunication of paperless versus paper-free?

Begin with revising your Sustainability Policy. Remember what it was?

We are going green! The (insert name of conference) is going to be paperless!

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What does ‘green’ mean to me?
  2. What are my goals?
  3. Is my statement S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time Bound)?

A sample paper reduction statement might read something like:

The organizing committee of (insert name of conference) has made a commitment to reduce the amount of printed materials generated for the 2012 conference.

How will that be accomplished? If you are unsure where to begin, the Vancouver Convention Centre has a downloadable Sustainable Event Guideline document available for planners that contains detailed checklists you can refer to when developing strategies for your event.

One example from their checklist:

Provide materials via PDA download or online where possible.

One example of how this strategy can be measured:

The comparison of printing costs from the previous year, which include details such as number of packages printed, how many pages, etc. This information can help to develop a business case for the creation of a mobile app.

The most important part of developing these statements is that they have to be achievable. The ethical implications of Sustainability Policy development must be considered.

“Say what you do, do what you say”

I am going to wrap this up by giving you an example of an internal struggle I had a couple of years ago during a conference I was planning.

The theme of the event was “Take Flight” and I really, really wanted to have a fun activity during a coffee break where attendees could create a paper airplane and then ‘fly’ their plane. The person who designed the best plane and flew it the furthest won an airline ticket provided by a sponsor.

But….that would require paper and I had made a commitment to minimize my use of paper wherever possible. What is a Green Meeting Planner to do?

The solution was for the host organization to save used, discarded office paper for the month leading up to the conference. By the time the event rolled around, we had plenty of pre-loved paper to use, and it received one more use before it headed to the recycling bin.

I achieved my goals without abandoning my vision and one lucky attendee got to literally, “Take Flight”.

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