Observations from and about the Sustainable Operations Summit

Posted on June 25, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

Campus sustainability professionals are barraged by marketing. Each day, I receive several calls or mailings from sales representatives interested in doing business with Rice University, offering everything from energy-efficient lighting fixtures to carbon offsets to the latest in air filters. When a profile of Rice’s campus sustainability efforts was published in our alumni magazine in early 2007, I quickly learned which of my fellow graduates now held sales positions. Sustainability is hot, and companies see campus greening as a way to make money. Let us be thankful for that.

I attend several conferences every year, and I have come to expect marketing to occur at these events in one of two ways. First, a company co-sponsors the event, and in exchange their logo is featured in the conference program, and perhaps they are allowed to set-up a booth for passers-by or even to address the attendees for about two minutes in the gauzy marketing-lite style that is now permissible on PBS. Or second, the conference features a vendor expo that is of course voluntary for attendees, with the understanding that once you step foot inside the expo hall, you are fair game for the marketing sharks. Swim at your own risk.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Sustainable Operations Summit in Monterey, California, a conference with an unusual – some might say controversial – format that turns the traditional models for marketing at conferences upside-down. Yes, there are the familiar keynote speakers, session tracks, and panel discussions that we all recognize. And yes, there is also an expo hall, featuring booths from about 30 vendors representing a wide range of product offerings. However, the expo hall is part of the conference program itself, and entering that hall is not voluntary. Rather, each attendee is scheduled for a series of half-hour, one-on-one, “mandatory” meetings with vendors as part of the overall conference experience.

During the registration process for the Summit, the attendee is asked to select a minimum of ten vendors from a list of about thirty with whom they would like to meet, and similarly vendors are allowed to review the registration rolls and set meetings with particular attendees. When attendees arrive at the Summit, they receive an itinerary that includes the conference schedule and as well as their assigned vendor sessions. The first time I attended the Summit, I had about eight vendor meetings interspersed throughout the two-day event. This time, thirteen. The vendors of course pay mightily for this privilege, and these fees enable the conference organizers to pay for A-list speakers like Al Gore and Paul Hawken while keeping the all-inclusive registration, lodging, food, and golf (not me!) package at an arguably inexpensive rate for attendees.

With the prospect of spending six and a half hours in a two-day span meeting with corporate sales representatives, I found myself questioning my comfort level in participating in this format, and wondering more broadly why it is that I go to conferences in general, and what it is that I hope to gain when I attend a conference. Perhaps by answering these questions, I reasoned, I could properly assess the value in my attending the Sustainable Operations Summit.

So why do I go to conferences? We each have our own reasons, of course. My primary motivations are to:

  • Gather insights and otherwise learn from others
  • Be inspired
  • Present my work
  • Network with my peers

I personally feel that if I leave a conference with a potentially actionable great idea, then my time was well spent. So what great idea did I take with me from the Sustainable Operations Summit? Actually, I’m happy to report that there were two.

First, Wendell Brase from the University of California at Irvine (UCI) presented several strategies for reducing energy consumption in laboratory buildings. One that particularly struck me as an excellent idea is rethinking discharge velocities from the exhaust stacks on top of the building. The typical value is 3,000 feet per minute, which is required to overcoming cross-winds so that potential contaminants in the building’s exhaust stream are thrown high enough into the air so that they won’t blow back down onto people in the immediate vicinity. But why maintain this velocity as a constant? UCI is experimenting with using appropriate controls systems to lower the velocity if the crosswinds are minimal, or if the exhaust stream is free of contaminants. The potential energy savings could be significant.

Second, I have found a potential new direction for our construction waste management initiatives. Over the past 18 months or so, Rice has been actively recycling construction and demolition waste from many of our construction waste sites. To our surprise and delight, we are seeing diversion rates of over 80% – and in one instance over 90% – on several of our projects [I will cover this in greater detail in another posting]. But as I realized at the Summit, regardless of whether these construction materials are recycled or end-up in the landfill, Rice bought the materials for the purposes of constructing a building. We are paying for waste, possibly even 20% more than we need to be paying for our building materials. What this suggests then is that we need to work directly with our design and construction teams up-front on a program of source reduction, which should lower the overall cost of materials for a project. What’s interesting to note is that this idea came not from a speaker or a peer, but from a vendor during one of my “mandatory” meetings.

So under what circumstances can these vendor meetings be productive for campus sustainability professionals who otherwise disdain hardball sales tactics? I advise the following steps:

  • First, set the tone. Learning about new products is an important part of our jobs, and the chance to meet directly with a vendor to discuss the latest in photovoltaics or water-efficient toilets or green cleaning supplies has real value. But you have to run the meeting, or at least set the tone about your expectations. If you don’t, you’re likely to get the full sales pitch, and if that’s not what you want, then you’re going to walk-away dissatisfied with the experience.
  • Second, have a conversation. Some people do want to start from square one and hear a vendor’s pitch, so that communication is going to be primarily one-way, at least for a while. But chances are you already know something about what the vendor has to offer. So rather than sit back while they turn-on the powerpoint or flip to page one of their sales brochure’s statement of the company’s environmental values, you should take the initiative and ask what’s cooking in the R&D lab. Can they give you a peek at what they plan to feature at NeoCon or GreenBuild? I’ve found that this helps to orient the meeting towards a real discussion.
  • Third, provide feedback. Use the opportunity to tell vendors what you’re looking for from their industry, and even their company. If you’re meeting with a carpet company, and if your hope is that they take back and recycle all carpet – even their competitor’s brands – that is removed as part of a new installation of their product in your facilities, and that they should do this free of charge, then tell them that. If you expect paper products manufacturers to use only 100% post-consumer content recycled fibers without chlorine bleaching, then tell them that. These are people who have the ability to influence product and service development within their companies, and they care about what the customer thinks. They are looking for ideas too!

I found that by following this approach, I was able to turn what otherwise could have been an uncomfortable – and even questionable – use of my time into a productive activity. Still, we all have our limits, and 13 sessions of corporate one-on-ones was a bit beyond my limit. So in the spirit of my third suggestion above, that is exactly the feedback that I provided to the conference organizers.

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