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Building a Better, Greener World — Together

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Q&A with Kimberly Lewis of the U.S. Green Building Council

Every day, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its members work to help us live, work, and play in healthier buildings, communities, and cities. We talked to Kimberly Lewis, senior vice president of community advancement, conferences, and events for USGBC, about the movement, ideas for marketers to go green, and how designing sustainable buildings and communities makes our world a better place today and tomorrow.

Q: Tell us about USGBC and why this organization exists.

KL: The U.S. Green Building Council is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on transforming the built environment to create healthy, regenerative buildings, communities, and cities. We believe that every story about a green building is a story about people first. USGBC attributes its success to the countless, passionate green building leaders and advocates all working to transform the building industry. In our earlier days, folks were doing great things for sustainability but were unaware of the broader impact that was occurring within the movement across the globe; they were siloed in their work and thinking. Our founders made the decision to form an organization with an integrated vision to bring the entire building industry together — representing various trades and competencies (architects, engineers, contractors, urban planners, designers, code officials, educators, etc.) — to establish a movement focused on celebrating the leadership, advances, and innovations of the top 20 percent of the built environment. This is quite different from some of our sister environmental NGOs who were focused on litigating bad behavior versus celebrating commitments and proven actionable commitments for change. 

Buildings carry some of the heaviest carbon footprints, and we spend more than 90 percent of our time in them, so they need to work for us! Ultimately, we wanted to incentivize the work in making healthy spaces for everyone — from a local and regional perspective to a global one, everybody deserves to live in sustainable, high-performing, healthy, and regenerative communities. We have accomplished a lot in 20 years as a young organization, but we have barely made a dent in the work to be done at a global scale.

To that end, we have achieved more than 4.5 billion square feet of registered and LEED-certified space globally, there are more than 300,000 LEED APs globally, and we have convened more than 28,000 attendees and 1,500 exhibiting companies at our conference, Greenbuild — all as part of our efforts to strengthen our accountability as we work to mitigate climate change together. 

Q. How did the council propose to accomplish this mission?

KL: Our founders established three goals: a rating system, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED); to quantify and qualify a high-performance, third-party verified voluntary standard — the LEED AP credential — to define the qualified green building workforce and community; and the Greenbuild International Conference & Expo, the largest award-winning platform to convene and celebrate the leadership — our members and advocates who work hard to advance the mission. We call Greenbuild our Tent Revival!

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Q: Explain how LEED works.

KL: LEED defines performance. Everyone can talk about how green and sustainable they are, but how do you measure and verify that performance? This rating system defines how a building is designed, built, and operated in a way that increases performance, reduces long-term building costs, and lessens impact on the surrounding environment — thereby making our buildings, communities, and cities better. We worked hard to make sure it focused on successful outcomes, not just strategies. So we ask ourselves these questions: How do we incentivize people? Who wants to be the first to do something innovative and good as well as be transparent about it?

That became the power of LEED. Folks understood the transparency behind the verification and the third-party verification separated us from other local, regional, and global systems. This leadership platform creates opportunities for people to try new things, to lead, and to change their best practices. When people see that logo, they know the owners, designers, and builders walked the talk. 

Q: Clearly, USGBC strives to transform the building industry to meet changing needs in an evolving world. What is the next generation of challenges to the movement?

KL: We must ensure that the benefits of green buildings are accessible to all, regardless of economic barriers — that is the equity challenge. So, how do we create green schools, houses of faith, community centers, and affordable housing that give more folks access to energy efficiency and healthy indoor air quality? We know clean air can be a struggle in urban areas, and clean water can be a struggle in rural areas. This shouldn't be something we have to advocate for — it should be a right.

It’s about bringing everyone together to think holistically about buildings and communities in a way that works for everyone, builds with the community in mind, and provides a seat at the table for their perspectives. As the leader in promoting access and equity to the benefits of green building for all on behalf of USGBC, I am pleased to say we are holding ourselves accountable to a five-year, 20 percent growth in greening under served and resourced communities through partnerships. We do believe that partnership is the new leadership.

Q: As someone who has served on several industry advisory boards, including Starwood, Marriott, IAEE, and the New Orleans, Atlanta, and Denver CVB, what are some future trends you’re seeing and hearing that will affect the event industry over the next decade?

KL: Well, we talked about being green, then we moved to sustainability, and now resilience and health and wellness are redefining what “green” means. An example is disaster preparedness and having an emergency plan in place, which relates to resilient communities and cities. How do we increase the strength and adaptability of our cities and communities? How do we plan ahead as opposed to reacting? We had the opportunity to work with the City of New Orleans and several global green building experts to provide a white paper, titled “The New Orleans Principles,” to define how to rebuild a city recently overcoming a natural disaster, and the initial convenings all happened at Greenbuild 2005 (post-Katrina) in Atlanta.

Additionally, health and wellness is no longer just a trend. Thanks to the work of our partners at the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), folks are committed to designing buildings with the occupant in mind. We see many of our hotel owners and operators focusing on health and wellbeing amenities that promote greater guest comfort and human productivity.

We're also beginning to see hospitality building owners and operators thinking differently about planning and design. So instead of maximizing education spaces in dark, windowless convention center rooms, we rethink the location. For example, Freeman helped us build a breakout on the veranda of the LA Convention Center. It was one of our highest-rated educational sessions of all time, which makes sense because our productivity improves when we’re connected to natural light and nature. So, this leads to future convention centers and spaces designed with natural light and other amenities that keep the attendees' productivity and comfort in mind.

Q: Your annual conference, Greenbuild, hits Boston in November, and we love the “All In” theme. What’s the meaning behind it?

KL: “All in” comes from looking at the challenges in our global marketplace, and one of the biggest is population growth and climate change. Across the world, our urban centers struggle to maximize the built environment, the infrastructure, and the communities in ways that win for everyone. Our new CEO, Mahesh Ramanujam, believes this is an opportunity. He believes everyone should have access to sustainable resources now and in the future. We can't fully understand what we should be doing now to be relevant in 2050 if all voices aren't represented at the table. His perspective is that you need to go deeper, dig into the data, look at performance, and look at strategy and outcomes so that we can create that vision and the sustainable platform where everyone benefits – that’s All In.

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Q: A lot of organizations could look to yours for inspiration when planning a greener, more resilient brand experience. To get them started, can you give us an idea of the questions your team asks when planning for Greenbuild?

KL: How do we affect the buildings, communities, and cities where we meet? How do we affect the convention centers and hotels? And how do we affect people and their health and wellness? People are the strength of this movement, so we think about them living and traveling in that city. How will our presence affect them?

Also, are the cities walkable? How close are hotels to the convention center? Are there opportunities to be active and move around? Can we get fresh, local food that’s in season? What about recycling and waste management? What is the city doing in terms of sustainability and green building? Who from the green movement has already executed an event in that building or city — can I reuse some of their strategies?

Q: Most marketers want to be green, but adding sustainability practices can feel overwhelming while juggling their already-packed checklists — any advice?

KL: Greenbuild first launched over 15 years ago, so we’ve come a long way. The industry looks to us as leaders, but our program has really evolved, which is good for marketers to hear because it’s a learning process. My advice is to start small, pick three things you are going to do, set goals, plan, measure performance, and celebrate accomplishments. Define what success looks like, and stick to clear goals you’ve set with metrics to follow. Then you can see what you accomplished, assess ROI, and debrief on the lessons learned. 

The bottom line that is you cannot look at green as an add-on. It needs to be within the DNA of your event so it’s there from the beginning and intricately woven into what you do. It’s not a vertical lens, it’s a horizontal lens. So, if you broaden the concept of green in terms of efficiency and resource management, it will change how you build your program.

At a minimum, think in terms of bulk and how that contributes to financial health — minimize the products you source and print less. These are savings you can measure and compare, year over year.

Q: What do you find most rewarding and exciting about this work?

KL: It’s having the opportunity to offer our message to new audiences and to people who are most likely left behind, such as the disenfranchised, the poor, the elderly, people of color — these people go to my church, they’re my family members. It’s inspiring to know my work can be a part of the solution to help them and the next generation live better lives in healthier, affordable schools and homes.

It’s also rewarding to see how this movement takes people out of their daily professions — I'm an engineer/architect/building contractor by day, but I'm also a parent. And what does a parent think about most? Their children and how to protect their well-being, their environment, their education.  

Even though the numbers may be challenging and we're just scratching the surface, I'm excited to go to work because we’re chipping away at the barriers and challenges every day, which makes it all worthwhile. I’m passionate about service and helping people — sustainability contributes to the health and vitality of this earth as well as for generations to come.  

For more perspectives on our Global Outlook, download the insights paper: Tomorrow, Today: The Future of Brand Experience.


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