Taking care of business while taking care of the environment: that’s one way to define “sustainability,” the word that seems to be on everybody’s lips these days as a slogan for a wide-ranging mix of earth-friendly social goals and business strategies. Although there’s plenty of disagreement about exactly what sustainability entails, there’s no doubt that trend-sensitive media professionals are willing to invest time and money in learning more about it. Hence yesterday’s strong debut of The Green Media Show Conference & Expo, a sustainability-focused event that concludes today.

Produced by SustainCommWorld, and created by The Institute for Sustainable Communication (ICI) with the support of Xerox, Kodak, and other partners, The Green Media Show is the first conference to address sustainability in the contexts of media and business-to-business communications. About 200 people are registered for the conference sessions, and 600 to 700 are expected to browse the displays of 27 exhibitors on the show floor at Marriott Copley Place in downtown Boston.

The conference registrants, say the event’s organizers, include marketing specialists, production managers, print and media buyers, and other professionals from an assortment of private-sector businesses and public agencies. What they have in common is a need to understand how the current rage for sustainability will change their mandates to achieve business and organizational objectives. Those in the for-profit sector also would like to know if there are any bottom-line gains to be made from operating in a sustainable manner—a motivation that many speakers counted among the good reasons for adopting environmentally sensitive practices.

Don Carli, senior research director for ICI and conference chair of The Green Media Show, convened the event by declaring that the $952 billion advertising/media/entertainment sector has a genuine opportunity to sell sustainably produced “low carbon media” to consumers who genuinely want to buy them. According to Carli, it’s now possible—and urgently necessary—to measure the carbon footprint of every form of media from banner ads on web sites to billboards in Times Square. “Carbon today costs $15 per ton,” he said. “It’s going to get more expensive, but ignorance is far more expensive than carbon.”

The fact that we can now “identify, quantify, and improve the flows of energy in the supply chain” creates what Carli called “a crisis of opportunity” to do these things. The trick for businesses is doing them in a way that bolsters profits and plays well to customers and other stakeholders. These objectives apparently have been achieved by Timberland Company, whose co-president, Michael Harrison, told the story in an opening keynote on putting environmental values at the heart of brand management.

He said that Timberland, a $1.5 billion bootmaker, traditionally has been “all walk and no talk when it comes to the environment”—committed to earth-friendly practices, but not much inclined to advertise them. That changed last year when unfavorable fashion trends drove the company into a sales slump. A decision was made to reposition the brand image via the “Earthkeepers” campaign, a marketing initiative highlighting the use of recycled materials in Timberland boots.

The campaign itself was a showcase of sustainable innovations, featuring washed and re-used billboard signage and store displays made from discarded post-consumer materials such as old tires. The Earthkeepers “plant a tree” promotion on Facebook combined the viral and the environmental by sponsoring the actual reforestation of a region in China after a sufficient number of virtual tree plantings had taken place at the social networking site.

Harrison noted that in the Boston area test market where Earthkeepers was rolled out, double-digit sales growth could be attributed to the campaign. Acknowledging that “nobody is going to buy an ugly boot just because it’s green,” he said one lesson of Earthkeepers is that the marketing of attractive products can be improved with appropriate appeals to consumers’ interest in sustainability.

In one way or another, all of the presentations on the first day underscored the connection between operating sustainably and operating successfully. Typical was the panel discussion on “greening” the mountains of paper in enterprises. This session focused on the fact that although information-based businesses and government agencies have not found and may never find a way to go paperless, they have discovered many ways to sustainably manage the paper that the nature of their operations requires them to use.

Jane Bloodworth, manager of printing, graphics, and map design for the World Bank, said that by converting documents to non-paper formats where possible, aggressively migrating from offset presses to digital platforms, and bringing short-run four-color work back in house for printing on demand, her organization has reduced both the number of impressions it produces and their environmental impact as well. The World Bank uses 100% recycled-content paper for its cut-sheet digital printing and will change over to 100% recycled roll stock for the web offset presses it continues to operate, she said.

At Cengage Learning (formerly Thompson Publishing), 30% of the content is digital, and 70% is produced in hard-copy form. Cengage customers care about where the paper comes from, said Ken Brooks, senior vice president, noting that paper sourcing “is a growing factor in customer acquisition decisions.” He recommended obtaining paper from suppliers that can be certified by third parties for best practices in forest management. He also said that about one-third of the paper Cengage purchases is made with post-consumer fiber despite the fact that increasing the recycled content increases the cost. For production, he added, the company prefers to work with printers that offer “zero-makeready” presses, large-format presses, and other equipment that helps to minimize paper waste.

As associate chief of staff for strategic environmental programs at the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), Trish Fritz directs activities that reduce the GPO’s carbon footprint and make its operations more environmentally friendly. The GPO, she said, is moving to 100% post-consumer recycled paper, having found no runnability problems with it and deeming its extra cost not significant enough to be an issue. She reminded her audience that papers bearing a third-party certification seal cost no more than papers that have not been certified as originating from sustainably managed forests.

The Green Seal organization promotes the use of environmentally responsible products and services. Linda Chipperfield, its vice president of marketing and outreach, noted that Green Seal offers guidelines for sourcing recycled paper and for reducing paper consumption. She noted, however, that sustainable production requires looking beyond paper and printing to the entire life cycle of the product, including end-of-life events such as recycling and composting. A strategy for sustainability also involves supply chain management, staff education, result measurement, and, above all, good communication of the effort to those who should know about it. “Make it real, make it quantifiable, and then let your customers be out there bragging about you,” Chipperfield said.

The Green Media Show has been staged entirely in keeping with the heavily green emphasis of its conference program. Aiming at creating the smallest possible carbon footprint for the event, the organizers have taken environmental impact into account in almost every physical detail. For example, all structures in the expo area are made of either 100% recycled or recyclable materials. Counter tops are made of recycled compressed paper that can be recycled again. All booth signage is printed on 100% recycled cardboard with low-VOC, vegetable oil based inks. Even the ID badge lanyards, formulated from corn syrup, are 100% biodegradable.

SustainCommWorld, the producer, also is working with a wind power developer to create carbon offsets covering attendees’ air travel to and from the event as well as offsets for marketing, print advertising, and show floor production.