We're Improving Sustainability Conferences by Adding Real Action

After attending many sustainability conferences over the years, I was struck by the feeling that they weren’t adding enough to the cause.

After attending many sustainability conferences over the years, I was struck by the feeling that they weren’t adding enough to the sustainability cause. You feel energized while you're there, but the inspiration quickly fades as you get back to your day job. Sometimes I even felt regret for all of the resources I used in attending.

These feelings, coupled with the fact that the lectures at conferences can be viewed as stimulants for the "real work" that happens in the networking time, gave birth to an idea: What if we could pull together a volunteer event as part of a sustainability conference? We could not only achieve some meaningful networking, but also achieve some lasting good for the community.

Attracting over 2,000 participants, the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Eco Conference has become one of the premier environmental gatherings in the country, held right in our community of Austin, Texas.

Early in the planning for the event, AMD, where I work, partnered with the SXSW Eco Team and they immediately embraced this idea. AMD and the SXSW team worked together for the next few months to build a volunteer event into the conference program.

The event took place on October 4 and, by all accounts, was a big success. We fielded a “green army” of over 150 volunteers. The objective was to clean up an historic urban waterway—Waller Creek—which runs through central Austin. The event was split into three phases; each focused on a different part of the creek involving a different team of volunteers. The first shift came from the SXSW conference participants, next came citizen volunteers from the local community and the last shift were volunteers from AMD and other local employers.

By the end of the day these teams had cleaned up over 20 city blocks of the creek and removed 114 bags of trash and recyclables that weighed about 1,300 pounds. With such a large workforce, smaller teams were able to mobilize and split off to accomplish three other worthy tasks:

  • Made 5,500 seed balls that will be used to restore vegetation to areas burned in last year’s wildfires;
  • identified 120 invasive species in an effort to map the urban canopy and restore a native ecosystem; and
  • planted several trees on the University of Texas campus
  • \n

While the event was a success, we see even more potential. AMD is eager to share the lessons we learned from coordinating this event. We aim to set a new precedent for sustainability conferences to transform a small part of the agenda into a big volunteer and networking event with lasting sustainability benefits. Imagine the good that can be accomplished if more conferences offered sponsorships for volunteer events rather than just coffee breaks.

Here's a few key tips:

Appoint a central coordinator: Someone needs to devote sufficient time to be the central point of contact and link up all of the parties who will be involved.

Nonprofits are crucial: Local nonprofits like American YouthWorks and Keep Austin Beautiful were essential in managing this event. These groups have counterparts across the nation that do the groundwork needed to manage successful events.

Build a financial model: Everyone involved in the effort should feel that it's worthwhile. Since nonprofits are essential to the effort, the sponsorship package should include sufficient funding for these groups. And don’t forget the small stuff—like coffee for the morning shift!

Have fun: After all the trash was picked up, we all gathered at a local watering hole overlooking the creek so we could admire our work and continue networking.

Only in its second year, SXSW Eco was a great conference. We left with a lot of good ideas, new connections, and memorable conversations. One of my most enduring memories was “Murphy”—the name that our team gave the beautiful oak tree we planted.

Tim Mohin is Director of Corporate Responsibility for Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Tim is the author of "Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations." Tim’s postings and the comments made in his book are his own opinions and may not represent AMD’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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