The Green Meeting of the Future

A meeting devoted to the future of sustainable communities goes beyond having a net-zero impact.

The Green Building Alliance maintains a “red list” of construction materials that have been shown to be harmful to humans. It serves as one of the starting points for the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) approach to sustainability at its annual unConference, with the planning team holding not only exhibitors but all suppliers to strict environmental standards. “We’re walking the talk,” said Julie Tonroy, CMP, ILFI’s director of conferences and events. “Manufacturers that want to be there have to show us that they don’t have red-list ingredients in their products.”

The Living  Future unConference marked its  10th anniversary this year.
The Living Future unConference marked its 10th anniversary this year.

Living Future 2016, which was held at the Westin Seattle on May 11–13, brought together more than 1,000 architects, engineers, city planners, contractors, and others in the building and construction trades. “The Institute’s mission is to lead and support the transformation toward communities that are socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative,” said Joanna Gangi, IFLI’s communications director. “Education, advocacy, and stewardship are key to furthering our mission, and so we created the unConference to do that. It is a forum and storytelling platform for leading minds in the regenerative-design movement to come together, share their stories and expertise, network, and learn.”

Designed to be highly collaborative, Living Future offers a three-day agenda that favors networking events, workshops, and tours of local communities over traditional lectures and panel discussions. To commemorate the program’s 10th anniversary this year, ILFI chose the theme “Truth + Transparency.” Keynote speakers addressed issues such as environmental justice and the intersection between architecture, education, research, and the global environment, while breakout sessions were created around themes like sourcing renewable building materials and verifying sustainability standards throughout supply and manufacturing chains. The meeting also featured the Speak Your Truth Booth, where attendees fired off their visions for more sustainable communities during a series of four-minute, TED-style talks.

“What we were really working to achieve is a sense of transparency about what people are putting out there in the marketplace,” Tonroy said. “We’re looking at regenerative products, products that don’t carry red-list ingredients, and products that are designed to be benign.”

These principles have been built into Living Future’s DNA, making the meeting a showcase not just for green building products and processes but for greener meetings in general. “I always broker an agreement to do offsets for both our power and our water,” Tonroy said. “We do footprint calculations for the entire event that include the people in the hotel rooms, the people in the meeting spaces, the food that they’re eating — how much they’re consuming, basically.”

And every dollar ILFI spends on F&B flows back to the local community. “We put a number of sustainability requirements around using locally sourced, in-season, organic foods in our contract with the venue,” Tonroy said. ILFI’s insistence on supply-chain transparency and hyperlocal ingredients has actually helped some of its suppliers grow their business. “It’s really rewarding when you find that you’re working with a hotel chain that has never sourced from local, sustainable vendors,” Tonroy said. “All of a sudden, they’re deviating from the Sysco truck and working with local purveyors that have sustainable, local, organic items, and now you’ve helped them to open up a new supply chain for the future.”

Another of ILFI’s contract stipulations is that all leftover food is donated to local organizations. In addition, vendors may only use china, glassware, or compostable serving ware, and Tonroy’s team instructs catering staff to use common serving vessels as often as possible. There are no single-serve F&B items, and hotels are asked to remove water bottles from attendees’ rooms and ensure that recycling bins are in place.

Each year, Living Future attendees are also given the chance to participate in a legacy project in the community where the event is held. This year, volunteers spent the first afternoon of Living Future working in the Danny Woo Community Garden, in Seattle’s Chinatown neighborhood. The 1.5-acre garden has been a part of the community for 40 years — and as the people in the neighborhood have gotten older, their needs have changed. In addition to a general cleanup effort, volunteers helped improve access to the park for elderly residents. “We essentially widened paths,” Tonroy said, “because they have some folks there that are utilizing the park that have mobility issues, and so we widened it to accommodate ADA requirements.”

Kate Mulcrone

Kate Mulcrone is digital editor of Convene.