Shaping a Sustainable Path

Haiti's recovery effort continues to serve as an inspiration.

Port-au-Prince, March 2010

I took this picture last year in Haiti, ten weeks after the earthquake that filled Port-au-Prince with rubble, killed thousands and left thousands more homeless and living in tents. This river, filled with discarded plastic bottles and trash, runs through downtown, and I remember thinking as I clicked the shutter that I was looking at two kinds of disasters, one natural and one man-made. In that instant, I pledged to myself that I would never, ever drink water from disposable plastic bottles again.

I wish I could say that I have lived up to that promise, but I can’t. For lots of reasons, including the fact that it’s hard to change.

Doubletree Hotel Portland

Which leaves me grateful this Earth Day for event organizers that make it possible, and even easy, to make a more sustainable choice.  These water stations at the 2011 Green Meetings Industry Council annual meeting in Portland, are a gorgeous example.

In their book Switch, authors Chip and Dan Heath talk about “shaping the path” — the idea that one can encourage change by making it easier and intuitive to do the right thing. “What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem,” they write. “When you shape the path, you make change more likely.”

Event organizers have an incredible opportunity to shape a sustainable path for their attendees, creating an environment where constructive, life-affirming actions are not just possible, but a pleasure. The upcoming APEX/ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Meeting Standards, which we wrote about in the May issue, offer planners a road map, but they still have to put their hearts into it.

This Earth Day, I am recommitting to that smallest of changes — avoiding plastic water bottles. I’ve tried this no-brainer before and failed, so if you have any suggestions or encouraging words, please send them my way.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.