BlogHer is the world's largest network of women bloggers. As such, it commands substantial financial sponsorships from multi-national conglomerates, many of whom jump at the chance to peddle their wares to the thousands of attendees who throng BlogHer's annual conferences. After all, these women are bloggers: their online presence functions like a giant megaphone to the rest of the world. What company wouldn't want to promote its products to so many potential free advertisers?
How "green" the BlogHer conferences are has become increasingly controversial over the past few years. Last year, an uproar ensued when the group's conference seemed to have been commandeered by Pepsi and other companies that for three days bombarded conference-goers with trashy swag. I was on BlogHer's "Green Team"; the victory we thought we'd won convincing Pepsi not to hand out bottled water was undercut by all the soda bottles and other junk companies peddled right and left throughout the event.
This year, I did not attend the conference. But by all reports, the swag was much more restrained. Still, the confab was sponsored by a bevy of companies promoting the kind of throwaway "stuff" Annie Leonard shined such a bright spotlight on in her searing online documentary, The Story of Stuff. To wit, not only did the companies give away a lot of junk – they also sponsored a suite where conference goers could throw it away (or "recycle" it to places like homeless shelters, begging the question: if you don't want it, why do you think a homeless person does?).
There are a lot of important questions that need to be asked around the dynamics of an event like the BlogHer conference. What is the responsibility of any conference to make its event "green"? Should a conference use the real clout it has to pressure its partners to attain the highest possible level of responsibility? Should organizations and individuals hold companies responsible for their actions by withholding access to their members – and their money?
I take issue with the suggestion that BlogHer should be let off the hook for the many wasteful products it allows companies to promote at its conferences. I don't think BlogHer or any other conference should be given a "pass" just because, as Lynn Miller notes at Organicmania, it is not a "green" conference. That message marginalizes "green" rather than legitimizes it. Would anyone condone sexism at a conference because the event was not a "woman's" conference?
But there is a more important point to be made. Companies that promote their products at BlogHer do so with only one goal in mind: to perpetuate the same patterns of wasteful consumption that have wreaked havoc on the environment heretofore. I often say that we women, who spend $.85 of every dollar in the marketplace, have the power to change the world by changing the way we spend our money. But honestly, the world wouldn't be in the shape it's in if women hadn't been buying so much junk to begin with. I'd wager that more women who attended BlogHer will be blogging about the cute little toy or other product they got for free than the purified water they drank.
Conference organizers argue that corporate sponsorships (and those product give-aways) make conference attendance fees cheap. But is cheap always better?
If you need to think about your answer, read Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by investigative reporter Ellen Ruppel Shell. Says Shell, "America has been transformed by its relentless fixation on bargains. This pervasive yet little-examined obsession is arguably the most powerful and devastating market force of our time. It has fueled an excess of consumerism that blights our landscapes, raises personal debt, lowers our standard of living, and even skews our concept of time."
BlogHer has the potential to be a truly revolutionary force for good, but not because it offers purified water at its conferences, or puts its program online instead of printing it on paper. In this day and age, actions like these should be a no-brainer. What would put BlogHer on the map would be to adhere to a list of socially and environmentally responsible criteria that its corporate sponsors must meet in order to be affiliated with the world's largest network of women bloggers. (NOTE: Green America is extremely selective about who it allows to exhibit at its events - and it draws many more thousands of people to the multiple events it stages in several cities every year than does BlogHer.)
Would the number of corporate sponsors shrink initially if BlogHer set a true green threshold for conference underwriting? Perhaps. Or perhaps BlogHer's vision would inspire companies to new heights of environmental responsibility. I'd put my money on the latter. There's certainly precedent for throwing down the gauntlet: remember the Sullivan Principles? Apartheid ended, in part, because so many consumers called for its demise – and threatened to boycot companies unless they did, too.
Most companies exhibiting at BlogHer and underwriting the group's programs have 'green' products in the works, if not already on store shelves. But they're marginalizing them the same way BlogHer is, and making them the exception, not the rule.
BlogHer is a megaphone to women across the U.S. and increasingly, around the world. It's time for that megaphone to be green, inside and out.