Conference Change

What's hot, What's not, and Why

Conferences are a good leading indicator of emerging environmental trends. The meetings themselves may be planned a year or more in advance, but speakers generally talk about what is going on in "real-time" terms. Even more revealing are the informal networking discussions during the breaks when attendees share their hopes, fears, and ambitions. Indeed, tuning in to the buzz at these conferences is sometimes the best reason for attending. What's the buzz about today?

Over the past decade, most environmental-professional and trade-association meetings have been like funerals: a chance to catch up on who was recently fired, who retired, how bad the budget cuts have been, where to find a new job, etc. The agendas have been dominated by survival topics such as how to demonstrate business value (i.e., justify your existence). Even the upbeat, sustainable development stuff can depress some attendees (e.g., "I could never get my management to go along with that!").

I exaggerate, of course. But without a doubt, the last decade has been a bummer for environmental professionals in industry and government. Conference attendance has been down, and some professional organizations such as the Air and Waste Management Association (AWMA), one of the largest and oldest, teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.1 However, change is in the wind; things are heating up in a few select areas. An examination of the "warming and cooling" cycle of various conferences provides insight into future environmental dynamics.

Historical Perspective
In the early 1970s, there were few environmental conferences. For that matter, there were few trained environmental professionals. I recall conferences attended by grumpy, about-to-retire engineers who were, much to their dismay, re-assigned to make pesky environmental issues go away. In those days, large companies did not fire loyal, albeit unproductive, employees; they put them in project purgatory where they could not do too much damage to the company. Environmental positions were an ideal parking spot, or so management thought. By the mid-1980s, all that had changed. Major environmental expenditures were underway, more credentialed professionals arrived on the scene, and the nation was united in an effort to fix the environment. Environmental staffs were energized. At least for me, ground zero for these good vibrations was the annual Woods Hole Pollution Prevention conference hosted by Anthony Cortese, Director of the Center for Environmental Management at Tufts University. Held in a Victorian-style mansion overlooking Buzzards Bay, it was an eclectic mix of high-level movers and shakers.

At the risk of sounding like Al Bundy reminiscing about his high-school-football glory days on the 1987 TV sitcom Married with Children, I look back at those conferences with nostalgia: raw brainpower, diversity of opinions, cutting-edge discussions of what the future may hold, and comradery fueled by the booze at the evening cocktail hour (or was it two?). We were all joined in a common mission, be we activists, academics, government, or industry representatives.

Around the same time, new environmental organizations were created to facilitate the thirst for information. Organizations with similar-sounding names appeared (e.g., NAEP and NAEM).2 The excitement peaked around 1993 and, by the end of the decade, it fizzled as businesses and government organizations began cutting staffs and budgets. For example, the infamous House Speaker Newt Gingrich vs. President Clinton budgetary standoff of 1995 had both an immediate and lasting effect on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) ability to sponsor conferences and professional society memberships.

Instead of consolidating, as similar businesses often do in a shrinking market, the professional societies and the trade associations that ran these conferences competed for attendees and struggled along. Survival mode set in.

GEMI, one of the hottest, new industry-led environmental organizations of 1990, held its fifteenth anniversary meeting last year where George Carpenter, director of corporate sustainable development for Proctor & Gamble Co., delivered a sobering assessment of the environmental profession and the challenges ahead. He indicated that, in the past 15 years, the profession has transformed from a "high-value career choice" to a "commodity." Yet over the same period, the environmental challenges have, if anything, grown -- exponentially. Looking ahead to the next decade, he astutely asked, "Will any of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals have been met?"3 Whatever happened to Woods Hole? By the mid-1990s, EPA was the controlling sponsor. The buzz was replaced by all the excitement and originality that one might find in a tired bureaucracy. ZZzzzzzzzzzz. Before the end of the decade, it was all a memory of the glory days, à la Al Bundy.

Conference Warming
For me, the tipping point in conference warming came at the 2005 Waste Management conference in Tucson, Ariz. This annual industry trade show and meeting is focused on the nuclear waste management industry. Running for more than 30 years, this conference has seen bleak times as the nuclear industry crated in the United States. But in 2005, the future was looking hot -- nuclear -- as it were. There was no real buzz in the room, just the overwhelming prevalence of smiling, energetic people looking forward to better times -- something I had not seen in nearly a decade.

But it was the April 2006 Ceres meeting in Oakland, Calif. that was a real blast from the past: esprit de corps reminiscent of Woods Hole, sans the small-group intimacy. This conference was a broad array of professionals from a diverse spectrum of affiliations and backgrounds. What they all shared was an enthusiasm about their role in making a better world for tomorrow. The subject matter was all about strategy, governance, and the future; not about holding on to jobs and proving one's worth to skeptical business managers.

Attended by more than 550 participants, it was the largest ever for Ceres. Now, flash back to 1993 when industry-led organizations were at their peak, Ceres was holding on by a thread. Viewed as too radical by many corporations, this organization of environmental activists was shunned. Bob Massie was brought on board in 1996 as executive director, and he slowly began the organization's transformation. Currently led by Mindy Lubber, Ceres is on a roll, and she knows it.

Ceres's rise, while industry-led organizations have declined, is emblematic of other, much broader dynamics in play.

First, global environmental issues have attracted the attention of major foundations that have pumped money into organizations such as the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), the World Resources Institute (WRI), and university-based research institutes such as Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability. This revenue stream has increased lately due to the rising frustration over the Bush administration's stance on the environment. For industry-led groups, the reverse holds true: Why spend corporate money on these issues when our guy is in the White House?

Second, there are few industry-conceived and -driven organizations that have credibility with the general public. One of the worst was the Global Climate Coalition. Started in 1989, it completely tanked in 2002 as its position on climate change became more and more incredulous. Even sincere and dedicated efforts such as Responsible Care® have not achieved their objectives in securing public credibility, trust, and recognition. ISO 14001 has not been the ticket to demonstrating environmental responsibility. Too many ISO-certified facilities have had compliance problems or spills.

Third, company-driven environmental audits and disclosures have reaped little in the form of building public credibility. Corporate environmental reporting and, more importantly, verification are not widespread and remain a confusing array of information. Even the experts have a difficult time making comparisons among companies. The Global Reporting Initiative has helped, but consistency, comparability, verification, and universal use are a long way off.

To fill this "trust gap," corporations are aligning themselves with activist NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or university-based environmental centers in various partnerships, agreements, and/or joint projects. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense, Rainforest Alliance, Nature Conservancy, Friends of the Earth, and others are now wooed by corporations that want to prove their "greenness" and social responsibility. For example, Greenpeace and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development issued a joint statement on climate change at the 2002 Earth Summit. This simple act instantly made international headlines, overshadowing much of what else went on at the conference.4

Success breeds more success. At conferences, this translates into the ability to attract corporate sponsorships, bring in top speakers and grow attendance. Activist and other non-industry-dominated conferences are hot.

Shaping the Future
I'm oversimplifying a very complex and dynamic situation, of course. For example, there are some industry-led organizations that are shifting their strategies to be more future-oriented. ORC Worldwide (ORC) has recently formed an "emerging-issues" task force to identify and examine trends and strategies and is also ramping up its European Union HSE Forum. (Full disclosure: I am on the "emerging-issues" task force.) Most conferences now have sessions on environmental, health, and safety (EHS) trends and strategies. GEMI is also broadening its original approach of stand-alone annual conferences. It is now considering meetings integrated with other groups, including business-related organizations and academia.5

Certain niche industry sectors are hot. Aside from the previously mentioned nuclear waste conference, my colleagues report that the Water Environment Federation, which primarily services the municipal wastewater treatment sector, is very hot. Think about it. Manufacturing is moving offshore while the population continues to increase, and municipalities, never known for fiscal restraint, have taxpayer money to send people off to conferences.

But, in general, things languish. A number of VP-level EHS managers from manufacturing, with whom I chatted at the Ceres conference, expressed frustration over the quality of industry-led conferences. Great for tactics and training entry-level staff, but "Where is the buzz, the leadership?" they pondered. Even the most exclusive conferences offer little more than a chance to benchmark and swap stories among their peers in comfortable surroundings. Bring in the token environmental activist, but, for heaven's sake, do not really shake up the status quo. For some, this is sufficient, indeed, it's just what they want.

I suppose it is a question of degree, emphasis, and timing. While we can argue about the details and cite specific exceptions, there is no doubt that the overall dynamics have shifted significantly. Yet some industry-led organizations appear to plod along, essentially with the same headset shaped by the glory years of the 1980s and early 1990s.

For most readers, my assessment may seem overly negative and judgmental: MacLean in his usual mode of describing the glass as half empty. Nothing could be further from the truth. I (and apparently activist NGOs) see the glass as overflowing ? absolutely gushing -- with challenges and opportunities. Some CEOs also are beginning to see this shift. Paul Anderson, CEO of Duke Energy, and Peter Darbee, CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., both keynote speakers at the Ceres conference, certainly do. Al Gore, another keynote speaker, appears to be leveraging this growing environmental awareness shift into another presidential run.

What Should You Do?
Begin by re-examining the conferences on which you spend your limited resources. Maybe it is time to consider some of the more unorthodox meetings led by activist NGOs or university groups. Maybe it is time to challenge your current organization(s) to deliver fresher, more varied, and thought-provoking presentations. The best speakers may not be free or the ones who are the easiest to talk into presenting.

Maybe it is time to run for office in one of these organizations and bust up the good-old-boy cliques and politics that seem so pervasive in these groups. Maybe it is time to demand excellence from these professional and trade-association organizations. Hint: The best directors are not necessarily the ones that make you feel good or are the most skilled at "kissing up" to the board of directors.

Why not demand that EPA provide some real leadership? I'm not suggesting a return to the glory days of regulations; nor am I suggesting that more voluntary programs and awards will hold any credibility with the public -- the current administration's track record has virtually destroyed these as options. As for trade associations, maybe it is time to take positions representing something other than the lowest common denominator. Maybe it is time to rock some boats from within; the activist NGOs are certainly positioning themselves to do it from the outside.

The preceding suggestions are a major challenge, of course, but there are other options within your direct control. The most obvious one is to be open-minded and creative in how your organization's internal meetings are structured. Provide a greater mix in the program -- fewer talking heads and more dynamic speakers and break-out sessions that will motivate the participants. Some companies, such as Con Edison, have gone so far as to organize invitation-only mini-conferences to get the agendas and mix of attendees that they cannot get externally. But recognize that you do not have to be a Fortune 500 company to get a small group together and share ideas or bring in external participants. Finally, start educating your executive management on emerging dynamics, competitive opportunities and how to provide leadership. The path has already been blazed by a growing list of CEOs. It is much safer now thanks to their leadership.

The possibilities are endless. The glass is overflowing.


  1. The AWMA was near bankruptcy in 1997 and, over the past eight years, has been able to stabilize the decline.
  2. NAEM, originally called National Association for Environmental Managers; NAEP, National Association of Environmental Professionals.
  3. G. Carpenter, Leadership Into The Future, PowerPoint® presentation. Global Environmental Management Institute, Washington, D.C., April 13, 2005. For more on the Millennium Development Goals visit,
  4., last visited 4/26/2006.
  5. E-mail communication with Mitch Jackson- GEMI chair, 6/8/06.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Richard MacLean is president of Competitive Environment Inc., a management consulting firm established in 1995 in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the executive director of the Center for Environmental Innovation (CEI), a university-based nonprofit research organization. For Adobe Acrobat® electronic files of this and his other writings, visit his website at http//

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