There was no such thing as a “green” convention when Janiece “Jan” Sneegas became director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly and Conference Services in 2002. So she was initially taken aback when someone suggested that she consider making GA more environmentally sustainable.
Yet in 2003, after meeting with Amy Spatrisano, then the co-principal of a visionary company now called MeetGreen, and learning about the huge amount of landfill waste and other environmental destruction wrought by conventions, Sneegas embraced the challenge. Over the past seventeen years, she has not only completely transformed GA so that its sustainability practices are a key part of its identity but has had an enormous and lasting impact on the environmental practices of the meetings industry nationwide.
“It’s part of our theology,” says Sneegas, who is retiring after GA 2019 in Spokane, Washington, but will continue to consult with the UUA through GA 2020. “This is a religious thing for us. It is our Seventh Principle. We are called to do this work.”
Within the area of sustainability, Sneegas’s influence has been groundbreaking. “Over the years, the UUA General Assembly has set the bar for sustainable events,” says Nancy J. Zavada, president and founder of MeetGreen, which continues to work with GA, including keeping metrics on its greening efforts. “We work with dozens of organizations annually, and the UUA is the leader in environmental initiatives and implementation. This is due to Jan and her team’s diligence, from the destination selection process through to the on-site sorting of waste after the General Assembly is over.”
Every city where GA convened has been held to high standards, and, more often than not, GA has “improved the venue, hotels, and destination, leaving a lasting legacy,” Zavada says. In addition, Sneegas served on the first board of directors for the Green Meeting Industry Council and helped draft standards for sustainable meetings. “Thanks to her guidance, the GMIC flourished and has greatly impacted the meeting and event community,” says Zavada. In 2016, for her sustainability work, Sneegas was named one of the Top 25 Women in the Meetings Industry by Meetings & Conventions magazine.
Running the annual General Assembly, which typically draws 3,000 to 6,000 UUs for three days of worship and activities, is no easy task even without the sustainability focus. But Sneegas, who holds a doctorate in leisure studies/therapeutic recreation from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a Zen-like center of calm in the chaos that is GA, with a dry sense of humor and a preternatural ability to anticipate and respond gracefully to the various crises that inevitably arise.
“Jan is an unsung hero,” says Spatrisano, who emphasizes that Sneegas has used her influence not only in the area of sustainability but in insisting on fair labor practices and other justice measures with the vendors that serve GA.
The greening of GA began in earnest in 2005, in Fort Worth, Texas. Early efforts were humble, when Sneegas asked UUs to recycle paper, plastic, and glass and to avoid using single-serving condiments on their food. Fort Worth had no city program for recycling, so Sneegas and MeetGreen found a man named Woody Pemberton to haul recyclables in his pickup truck to a private recycling center for the same cost that GA would pay the landfill. “And that was the start!” she says.
In 2006, GA began to include sustainability requirements in contracts with convention centers. That was also the first year GA began collecting financial contributions from UUs to offset the carbon costs of the meeting. (GA buys carbon offsets from a company called Carbonfund.org, started by a UU named Eric Carlson.) Over the past eight years, Sneegas’s team has required that hotels engage in sustainable practices, including providing in-room recycling receptacles, having no Styrofoam cups anywhere on site, avoiding single-use coffee pods for in-room coffeemakers, and trying to provide fair-trade coffee.
Last year, at GA 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri, 92 percent of waste was diverted from landfills to recycling centers or composting. This qualified it as a Zero Waste Event under industry standards, “a very difficult pinnacle which very few events ever reach,” says Zavada.
‘My staff has taken this on like there’s no tomorrow, because there is no tomorrow if we don’t do this.’
Early on in her greening efforts, Sneegas decided that her goal would be to push each city further along the sustainability spectrum, no matter where it started. GA had a huge influence on Portland, Oregon, in 2007, where UUs were the first to ask the Oregon Convention Center to do front-of-house composting so that food leftovers rather than just kitchen waste were included. That year, Sneegas and her team also convinced the DoubleTree Hotel to make changes that included replacing single-use shampoo and body wash bottles with shower dispensers. Their requests had a “dramatic effect on what was implemented as standard policy at the DoubleTree going forward,” Sneegas says.
Often, the GA team is aided by a “local champion,” as Sneegas calls them. At GA 2013, in Louisville, Kentucky, a young woman named Jamie Ostermeier in the convention center’s catering department helped Sneegas convince the center to purchase all meat products and most vegetables from suppliers within a 220-mile radius. Now the center offers that option to other groups, Sneegas says. There have been many other heartening successes with long-lasting effects. In St. Louis, Missouri, in 2006, she and her team persuaded the convention center to donate unused food to people in need, which it has continued to do. “Those kinds of successes are what make it all worthwhile,” says Sneegas.
It’s not all success stories, nor is it easy work. In one city, GA had no sooner wrapped up when a hotel put Styrofoam cups back out. In another city, the convention center’s food services staff promised to offer vegan options, but Sneegas was wary. When she insisted that simple salads weren’t enough and that vegans needed a protein source, they responded that they offered a vegan protein option: chicken. Sneegas politely but firmly set them straight.
No matter the challenges, her three-person staff—and the approximately twenty-two volunteers who make up the GA “Green Team”—have risen to meet them. “My staff has taken this on like there’s no tomorrow, because there is no tomorrow if we don’t do this,” Sneegas says.
It’s encouraging that the thousands of UUs who attend GA have embraced the philosophy, she adds. “We tell a hotel, ‘If you don’t train your housekeeping services to leave used towels in a room, our people are going to be down at your desk complaining,’” Sneegas says.
Sneegas will be greatly missed when she retires, say those who have worked with her. “Jan’s passion, dedication, and commitment to making this world a better place is unwavering,” says Zavada. “In the nearly two decades I have known her, I have never seen her back down from doing the right thing and holding others accountable to do the same.”