Did Swag Pollute BlogHer09?
These are just a few of the words I have heard used to describe the "swag" handed out at BlogHer09, a conference that has aroused as much backlash as "bravos" since it ended last week.
How did things get so out of hand for an event and institution that have commanded so much respect since its founding five years ago?
To some degree, BlogHer became a victim of its own success. The reputation of the conference has grown as "the" place to network with other bloggers, pick up new technical skills and get a sneak peak on blogging's future. As a result, demand to attend has skyrocketed, forcing BlogHer to hold the event in big cities with large conference facilities that turn out to be so expensive, corporate sponsors are needed to help defray costs.
But corporate sponsors don't come to BlogHer conferences to promote blogging. They come to promote their brands and sell their products to the most powerful consumers in the world: American women who blog. The bigger (and more expensive) the conference gets for BlogHer and attendees, the more appealing it is to companies looking to promote themselves to the captive crowd a BlogHer conference delivers over two days.
As an attendee, I felt overwhelmed when I checked in Friday morning. Had I accidentally stumbled upon a promotional event for PepsiCo? The soft drink conglomerate, BlogHer09's major sponsor, seemed to be everywhere: manning its "Juice" TV studio on the main floor, aggressively handing out bottles of its new Trop 50 drink to passersby, dominating the Expo arena with the largest, busiest, freebie-est lounge. But PepsiCo wasn't alone. Every single session was sponsored by a company; some Fortune 500 entity attached its name to every meal and every party. There was no commercial-free "breathing space" anywhere on the agenda.
As a member of the team BlogHer put together to help green the conference, I felt a bit cheated. The Green Team worked hard to collaborate with conference organizers and develop a list of items that would have low eco-impact but still satisfy attendees and conference sponsors alike. Indeed, BlogHer deserves credit for taking significant steps to reduce the environmental footprint of the conference by minimizing paper use, promoting recycling, and reducing waste. They also helped us negotiate with PepsiCo to eliminate bottled water at the event in favor of water dispensers, which we considered a major accomplishment. But I can't help but wonder if the environmental gains we secured through Green Team negotiations were neutralized by all the free bags of Fritos, throwaway plastic pouches of applesauce, and other disposables that were dispensed over the course of the event.
It was especially demoralizing to learn that, in lieu of its throwaway plastic water bottles, Pepsico would hand out flavored water in -- yes - throwaway plastic. Talk about an empty victory.
As the moderator of the conference's Leadership panel on green and sustainability, I feel like it's my responsibility to step up and express my concerns. I can't lay total blame on the companies. I don't completely blame BlogHer, either. BlogHer founder Elisa Camahort is right when she says that going into the Expo was optional. No one forced attendees to take the junk being handed out there. And BlogHer evidently had no control over independent parties held in private suites to attract select conference goers. Whatever attendees chose to do, they did all on their own.
However, I do take issue with the argument that because BlogHer09 was not a "green" conference, the conference sponsors did not have to adhere to principles of sustainability in what they offered to attendees.
"Green" is not a niche. It's not even a lifestyle choice. It's a matter of survival. We need to start treating it that way, including at events like BlogHer09.
As women bloggers, we have the world's most powerful communications tools at our disposal. It's why so many corporations exhibited at the event. Consciously or subconsciously, it's probably why so many of us attend: we like having a megaphone, and we want to use it better.
But what good does it do if we use our voices to shout the same messages that have been shouted since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, which all boil down to "More! More! More!"
As influential women, we have the power not only to walk away from more junk, but to tell its producers to clean up their act
As influential women, we have the power to encourage companies to offer useful services rather than more stuff we don't need.
As influential women, we have the power to redefine the world we have and create the world we want -- not just at events like BlogHer09, but in every aspect of our lives.
Let's do it.