BlogHer is about community, the power of women’s blogs and the promotion of women’s voices. It’s also about corporate sponsorship, commercialism, and the tradeoffs made to create a platform and conference experience for 2,400 women. I LOVED my BlogHer conference experience this year. It was a rockin’ good time. Nevertheless, I am troubled by some of the fundamental values of the organization, and I won’t be participating on the Green Team for future conferences.
But first, the good stuff…
1) Connecting with other women bloggers.
The BlogHer conference gives women bloggers a place to come together, to meet up in person, and to let our diverse voices be heard. According to Gloria Feldt in the Closing Night keynote, BlogHer is ranked as the #4 most powerful social media outlet. It promotes women’s voices in a time when men are still the loudest in the blogosphere. Here are just a few of the fantastic women I met up with in person:
2) A Change Agents session track for those of us who use our blogs to promote a cause.
I had the opportunity to participate on a fantastic panel: Change Agents: Creating Tangible Social Change: How to Move People to Action. I shared how I used the power of this blog as well as the relationships I had developed with other bloggers, blog readers, organizations, and media outlets to wage the Take Back The Filter campaign to urge Brita to take back and recycle its plastic water filter cartridges. My energetic co-panelists were Gina McCauley from What About Our Daughters and Blogging While Brown, Stephanie Himel-Nelson from Blue Star Families, and Melissa Silverstein, who founded the site Women and Hollywood.
And there were many other sessions on ways to use our blogs to promote causes and work on the issues we care about. If you stuck to the Change Agents track on the BlogHer10 schedule, you might never have guessed you were at a conference that was just as much about making money as sharing ideas. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with making money, but please hear me out.)
3.) Efforts to Minimize Waste
I was thrilled to see that at every dining and session table were pitchers of water and real glasses. And there were water stations in visible spots for filling up reusable bottles. It was a vast improvement over last year, when women complained they had a hard time finding the water filling stations.
Meals were served using compostable plates, cups, and utensils. While I would have preferred reusable foodware, I was glad to hear that the hotel would actually compost those dishes rather than throwing them away.
While once again, there was a lot of promotional swag distributed by sponsors, a Swag Exchange Room was provided to allow participants to ditch what they didn’t want and pick up what they did want. And this year, it was much better organized than last, with separate bins for different categories of items and staff people there to prevent the chaos that ensued last year.
Other waste-reduction initiatives included providing the pre-conference guide digitally instead of printing and using the hotel’s digital signage in order to reduce paper/cardboard waste.
4) Vendors and sponsors restricted to designated areas.
Part of the anxiety women felt during BlogHer09 was from the constant assaults by vendors who wanted to get their products into our hands. You know how I said that BlogHer is the #4 most powerful social media outlet? Vendors know it and want to tap into that power in any way they can. And last year, you couldn’t walk down a hall, ride an elevator, or even sit in a session without being subjected to a sales pitch. Women complained. And this year was different.
First, only official conference sponsors were allowed to promote their products at the hotel, and they were required to keep to the Vendor Hall and some suites on the top floors. If you didn’t want to see what they had to offer, you didn’t have to.
Second, vendors that were not official sponsors were not allowed to throw parties at the hotel, rent suites at the hotel, or promote their products anywhere on the hotel property. Sure, the vendors showed up. But they hosted parties offsite, by invitation. Unlike last year, there was no frenzied rush from room to room to grab swag bags before supplies ran out.
5) Green Events
At A Green Affair (officially BlogHer hosted) and the Green Soiree (organized and hosted offsite by my friends the Three Green Angels), green bloggers were able to meet up, exchange ideas, plan strategies, and just have a great time.
The Three Green Angels did a fabulous job organizing an UNOFFICIAL gathering that was beautiful and waste-free, including real plates, utensils, and cloth napkins.
The vendors who were invited to the Green Soiree were small businesses selling sustainable products… businesses that could never have afforded the price of an official BlogHer sponsorship. Like LunaPads, Little Bites, Global Green Pals (which I’ll probably review in a future post) and many others. (As Annie Leonard said to me, “I’m not anti-business. I’m anti-sucky business.”)
6) Powerful Speakers
I have to commend BlogHer this year for coming through with some serious keynote speakers. Saturday morning, we heard talks by the 2010 BlogHer International Scholarship recipients, which included Esra’a Al Shafei from Bahrain (MidEastYouth.com); Dushiyanthini Pillai from Sri Lanka (Humanity Ashore); Marie Trigona from Argentina (Latin American Activism); and Freshta Basij-Rasikh from Afghanistan (Afghan Women’s Writing Project). Some of these women risk their lives to give voice to critically important issues, and the Internet makes their outreach possible.
Saturday’s closing keynote was titled, “How to Use Your Voice, Your Platform and Your Power,” and included Marie Wilson, Founder and President of The White House Project (and creator of Take Our Daughters to Work Day), author and activist Gloria Feldt from Heartfeldt Politics and journalist and environmentalist P. Simran Sethi, all of whom had strong statements to make about women and blogging and what it is we do with the platforms that we have.
But… did the message get through?
While there was great content and a real effort at minimizing waste at the conference level, what worries me the most about BlogHer is a culture of consumerism and corporate sponsorship.
1) Limited Power of the Green Team
I was part of the BlogHer10 conference Green Team this year. And I feel like BlogHer benefited more from being able to use my name than I did from being on the Green Team. Last year, the team created a ruckus when we demanded that Pepsi not bring bottled water. This year, BlogHer limited us to one conference call or Skype chat per month to give our suggestions. But our suggestions were just that. We had no real power to change anything.
So I was dismayed when a green blogger approached me after my Change Agents panel and said that she had debated coming to BlogHer but thought it would be better this year when she saw my name on the Green Team list. At the conference, she was shocked to see who the sponsors were and the amount of swag, and she was disappointed in the “greening” of the event.
And in fact, one of the prominent keynote speakers expressed some of the same sentiments to me after her panel. What could I say?
2) Questionable Sponsors
BlogHer sponsors include companies like Walmart (with its unfair labor practices), Procter & Gamble (producer of toxic home and personal care products), Pepsico (promoting the privatization of drinking water and greenwashing its junk food), Nestle (also promoting the privatization of drinking water and undermining breastfeeding in the developing world), Johnson & Johnson (producer of toxic baby products), and a whole host of other companies with questionable labor, environmental, and social justice records. These are companies that many of us green bloggers routinely criticize. (Here’s the full list of BlogHer10 sponsors.)
What are BlogHer’s criteria for social and environmental responsibility of the companies whose sponsorship it seeks? I’ve argued that it’s important for us bloggers to define advertising and review policies based on our core values. It’s equally or more important for an organization that represents us to figure out what its standards are and choose companies that are not actively undermining our and our families’ health and wellbeing.
The Green Team had no say whatsoever about who the sponsors would be or what the criteria would be for accepting sponsorship. That was not even an area where we were invited to make suggestions.
3) The Swag, the Swag, the Swag…
BlogHer presents every conference attendee with a huge bag of products from the sponsors. Here’s what was in mine…
A bag is allocated for each attendee ahead of time. So refusing the bag at registration does nothing to reduce the amount of stuff in the first place. All she can do is return it to the Swag Exchange Room, where whatever is leftover at the end of the conference is donated to the Salvation Army. (I kept a mug and a pad of paper. The rest went to the Swag Exchange.)
How many Jimmy Dean alarm clocks do you think the Salvation Army needs?
When is a reusable bag really a disposable bag? When companies toss them at attendees as if they were disposable, and attendees leave them behind because they have no room in their suitcases.
Terra Chips, what were you thinking?
BlogHer may have cut down it’s own paper usage, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to what the sponsors printed and handed out.
The Green Team made suggestions about what giveaways might be useful to women, but ultimately, BlogHer left it up to the sponsors to bring whatever crap they wanted.
4) Our Platforms for sale
Some sponsors hosted suites in the hotel to promote their brands and to entice bloggers to write about their products. That is, after all, what they get for sponsoring BlogHer. They are not trying to sell their products to 2,400 conference attendees, but to the audiences of 2,400 bloggers.
In the Hershey S’mores suite, I will admit to toasting one marshmallow over a propane flame and sandwiching it with half a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar between two Graham crackers. There went my vegetarianism for a minute. *Sigh* It was a very guilty pleasure.
And then I sat down in the fake backyard with its fake plastic grass and fake plastic charcoal flames to listen in on the conversation taking place between bloggers and PR rep.
What I heard freaked me out. These women were begging for a chance to promote Hershey’s products on their blogs. One woman bragged that she had peanut butter cups or M&Ms or some such candy as the theme of her blog, and that’s why they should advertise with her. The problem, to me, wasn’t so much the fact that these women were at BlogHer to make business deals. Everyone blogs for a different reason. Its was the desperation I heard in their voices. “Pick me! Pick me!” Who had the real power in that situation?
I’ll keep attending and writing for BlogHer because 1) I feel like the voices of bloggers for environmental and social justice are needed. Witness the change in programming this year. And because 2) It’s great to be able to connect up with other people whom I only know online. In short: it’s really fun.
But I won’t lend my name and credibility to a Green Team that has no power to effect real green change.
What does “green” mean anyway? Is it pitchers and glasses for water on the tables and compostable plates instead of plastic? Or does it mean changing the core principles of a business to align with what is good for the planet? What good is reducing a bit of waste while at the same time advancing patterms of overconsumption that wreak havoc on eco-systems and don’t even make us happy in the process? What does it matter if we offset our carbon for a weekend if in the long run we are helping to promote companies that are contributing to the destruction of life on earth?
After I got back, I ran across an interesting article about the power of company Green Teams and how they can be effective. In “Is it time to re-think your green team?” the authors emphasize that for green teams to be truly effective, they must be part of the internal structure of the organization. First and foremost, they must have strong executive support:
Buy-in at the highest levels of the organization means that green teams are aligned with the company’s goals and the companies themselves view sustainability as an issue that is an important part of their business values and foundation. Executives must view their work on an equal footing with new product or service development or launch. In short, the competitive advantage of effective green teams must be understood and embraced.
The article goes on to conclude:
Enterprise transformation for sustainable value has to be systemic and exist within the frameworks at the core of an organization, not at the fringe.
Change can be cosmetic and transient. It is externally driven and can easily be reversed. Transformation is core, fundamental, and lasting. It comes from finding shared sense of purpose through meaningful collaboration, from within enterprise, and as such represents evolution of culture.
The BlogHer green team exists on the fringes. In fact, there is a culture of “separation of church and state.” While it’s great that the marketing department and the editorial department are separate (meaning that sponsors do not dictate content on the BlogHer.com site), it’s not so great that the green team has no voice at the level where policy is made.
As long as the BlogHer Green Team remains on the periphery of the organization with little power except to make suggestions about superficial conference changes, I’ll pass. But a BlogHer green team with the power to influence the fundamental values of the company? That sounds interesting.
What other attendees had to say:
Lynn from OrganicMania: Towards a Better BlogHer
Diane from Big Green Purse: It’s Time for BlogHer to be Green — Inside and Out
Jen from Eco Women: Protectors of the Planet: Just How Eco Was BlogHer ’10?
Jen (the same Jen) from Jen on the Edge: Thinking
Lisa from Condo Blues: I Found My Voice at Blogher10
Do you have a post about the BlogHer conference to share? Please leave a link in the comments.