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Can webinars make an environmental impact?
March 26, 2008 @ 10:00 AM | By InterCall Blog

Please welcome our guest blogger, Ken Molay . . . .

I’ve been enjoying reading The Green Blog and I applaud InterCall for helping to raise awareness and keep the conversation going about green initiatives. Consequently I was delighted when the gang asked if I would contribute an article about green trends from my perspective tracking the webinar industry. I stay pretty well connected with news and information from vendors and users of web conferencing technology through my own blogs in that arena (www.TheWebinarBlog.com and www.WebinarWire.com).

It’s certainly no secret that environmental benefits are a hot marketing trend at the moment. You can take your pick of pithy and (sometimes) witty headlines such as “Green Is The New Black”, “Green Is Sexy”, and “Green Is Good.” Web conferencing providers have an easy play in this space with the obvious benefits they can promote from meeting attendees forgoing travel in favor of remote participation.

Some conferencing providers have started providing “carbon reduction” calculators to help their clients estimate environmental impact reduction by not traveling to a central meeting space. Anything that helps people to think more about the subject and want to take a more active role in reducing their environmental footprint is welcome, and I would be the last person to denigrate vendors for their efforts. But even the most avid supporters of such calculators would have to admit that the estimation algorithms are crudely drawn at best.

The usual discussion around environmental benefits of virtual meetings centers on carbon output from commercial air travel, with perhaps a few extra points tacked on for automobile rides to and from the airport. I’ve always been a bit cynical about the air travel piece of the calculation. Those planes are flying fixed routes and carrying freight and mail in addition to your personal 250 pounds of body and luggage. The net incremental impact of you taking a seat on that flight or not might not be so very large (unless we all stop flying and the airlines cancel some flights completely). The percentage additional fuel burned to support each additional passenger probably isn’t all that much. (Disclaimer: I’m not a aeronautical engineer and I haven’t researched the real numbers. I may be all wet on this belief.)

But I think the impact calculators overlook some hefty additional environmental benefits that are harder to estimate, but very real. Consider the case of a virtual seminar, rather than a smaller team meeting or collaborative session with a few participants. Web seminars may have hundreds of people in the audience and may include several presenters, located in different cities or countries. If we ask presenters and attendees to travel to a central location for a physical meeting, it’s not just the air travel that impacts the environment. A meeting room that had been sitting dark now needs lighting, air conditioning, electricity for sound systems, vacuuming, possibly washed and dried tablecloths, and so on. Attendees use hotel rooms with yet more resources devoted to lighting, temperature control, washing sheets and towels, vacuuming, etc. If you serve meals or snacks to your attendees, you are responsible for additional transportation of the ingredients, along with the impact associated with cooking, serving, and clean up. Since individual attendees have no control over what foods or portion sizes end up on their plates, there is inevitable wastage (along with more clean up and disposal impacts on the environment).

Yes, I realize that even virtual attendees need lights on in their offices and have to eat, but these impact factors can be minimized when left to each person’s individual control. A conscientious person can choose the amount and type of food they want, when they want it. They probably don’t wash their sheets and towels every night. If they work in an open space office plan, they don’t even have individual lighting costs to contend with, since the office lights are on whether they are there or off at some remote seminar location!

All this is just my way of pointing out that web seminars can have an even greater environmental benefit than you might have thought at first glance. As web conferencing technology gets better, internet bandwidth and speed improve, and people become more accustomed to getting their information online rather than in person, we should see greater and greater use of large-scale web seminars. And that’s going to be a good thing for all of us.

>> Ken Molay is president of Webinar Success, offering production and consulting services to companies making use of web conferencing for structured events.

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