I may be a bit cheeky with this title given that I’m writing this blog for the Society for Sustainable Events. It’s intended to be a serious question.
We have a tendency to lean into tactical approaches to the ways we plan and execute events, despite the desire to be “more strategic”.
This often leads us in our sustainability planning to take a checklist approach. Should we eliminate bottled water? Yes, good idea. Certainly, that must be more sustainable. Should we try to produce less waste? Of course, that’s more sustainable. How about cutting down on our carbon emissions? Yes, let’s do that.
But, what would it be like if we removed the word sustainability from our event planning and leaned into the strategy and climate literacy to comprehend what we want to accomplish? Could we focus on continual improvement through climate literacy, strategy and data insights to avoid tactical and ineffective actions?
It may be that what is needed is to build expertise and comprehension, then look at a strategic approach with real goals and objectives and understand how measurement is a tool for achieving those goals and driving progress – and that’s a great starting point!
After all, isn’t that essentially what we do in our event marketing and measurement when it comes to attendee data to help drive improvement and strategy? Why are we not doing that for sustainability?
We use these terms - green meeting, sustainable event, circular economy, climate change, global warming, zero waste, net zero carbon. Do we really comprehend what these are? Could we explain them to our stakeholders in a comprehensive kind of way?
If it came down to it, could you explain what you want to do without the word sustainable? You need the language and the education before you can build that business case or communicate effectively with suppliers, partners, internal and external stakeholders and your attendees.
Is our goal to produce a zero-waste event? A net zero carbon event? Strategically, what would that look like? Who would we need to engage? Who would we need to partner with? What would be our communication plan to stakeholders? How would we measure it and how would we use the data? What opportunities does it create for our brand and for our stakeholders? What challenges would we need to overcome to be successful? What resources are needed? How might this affect the decisions we make about where to hold the event and how we design the event?
How are you going to decide what to measure and why? What comes before you even get to the question of measurement?
It’s this process of inquiry that lets us really dig into why we’re doing what we’re doing and be able to have a clearer picture of what, ultimately, will be the path to a sustainable event.
As we encounter a changing climate we need to take climate related changes into account as we choose destinations and venues and design our events. There will be new skills needed. What we need is more comprehension and climate literacy. We need our event teams and our supply chain partners to understand the vocabulary of climate change.
We need to understand where carbon emissions come from, the different scopes of carbon emissions and how they affect the footprint of an event, the different kinds of greenhouse gases and where they come from. We need to look at every aspect of the event supply chain and understand where the dependencies are and how a decision made in one part of the event may have an unintended consequence on another part of the event if we don’t understand the totality of how carbon permeates across every aspect of an event from transportation to waste management to food and beverage to materials and on and on.
Once we, as event professionals have this literacy we can then begin educating across the spectrum of event stakeholders - internal teams, vendors, external communities, attendees, media, partners.
Sounds a bit overwhelming, right? Can’t we just have a simple checklist of things to do and leave it at that? I suppose we could if all we ever want to do is tinker around the edges and never really solve for what may be a risk to our livelihoods at some point as storms increase in intensity, as wildfires burn out of control, as seas rise threatening coastlines, as heat waves threaten crops and people.
I don’t mean to overwhelm. My goal though in this series of perspectives has been to uplevel the conversation on event sustainability and move beyond the simpler tactics that are easy to do (see my list in the last blog post).
What I’m advocating for is to really develop a meaningful strategy by understanding the issues related to climate change and incorporating them into event planning from the beginning. This should be through the execution of the event and post-event as you measure what you are doing and work to continuously improve. Ultimately, the hope is that you become an organization that delivers events that accelerate the pace of change for the pillars of environmental protection, social equity and economic viability.
This is a big conversation, and an important one. On September 20th I’ll be interviewing Anna Abdelnour. Anna is the CEO and Founder of isla - the independent industry body supporting the events sector transition to a more sustainable future, in line with global Net Zero targets. As the driving force behind isla, Anna articulates and leads the sustainability vision for the industry, focusing on direct action, measurable targets, education and standardization of the sector to accelerate and capitalize on global momentum to transform to a sustainable global society.
Having worked with a plethora of agencies on large scale events for global clients, Anna knows just how capable the industry is in delivering huge projects under pressure and believes the same collaborative attitude is integral to addressing the climate crisis within the events sector.
I’m looking forward to a provocative, engaging and insightful conversation on ditching the word sustainability and leaning into climate literacy and strategy. I hope you’ll join us!
One of my goals in this series is to try and elevate the conversation and move sustainability in the event sector further and faster. I’m worn out from the same conversations and questions I’ve been getting for the last 15 years or so. I’m tired of event organizers, event planners and event suppliers reverting to simple checklists and doing the basic things and calling it a sustainable event.
However, I’ve recently been working with some event teams from corporate clients and been in dialogue with operations people on the event agency side and realizing that there are still a lot of event people that have either barely started or not started at all when it comes to implementing sustainable practices into their events.
It's a bit disheartening, to say the least. But, I get it, kind of. The event industry is still recovering from the shock of a global pandemic and the focus has been on just getting events started again and getting people to show up.
That said, it does seem to me that we’ve been talking about sustainability in the event and hospitality industry for a very long time now, at least twenty years. So, it seems to me that there should be some standard list of the minimum we should be doing at this point.
This is my list that I’ve been telling the people I’m working with should be standard now at virtually any event (in no particular order):
· Eliminate Bottled Water
· Digitize Everything (but take inclusion and accessibility into account)
· Public Transportation Whenever and Wherever Possible
· Reduce Venue/Facility Energy Usage
· Compost As Much As Possible/Donate Where Possible
· ReUse or RePurpose As Much As Possible
· Reduce or Eliminate Single Use Plastic
· Donate, Upcycle or Recycle Signage, Fabrics, Carpet
· Measure Waste, Carbon, Energy, Water/Write Report
Now, in my mind, this is not an overly ambitious list of things any event should be doing by now. These are all relatively easy things to do. The key from this list is the last bullet point. We need to be measuring as much as we can and capturing the data in a report of some kind that states where we are.
That is the key to continuous improvement. Once we create baselines of our carbon output, our waste diversion rates, our overall energy usage and our water usage we can start to make decisions across the entire spectrum of event decisions and the event supply chain to improve our numbers and begin to look at those more ambitious goals I’d like to see.
Now, if you’re already doing all of this, bravo! Maybe you’re ready to start doing more and being more ambitious. If so, I’ve got a list for that as well (again, in no particular order):
· Set Targets for Carbon Reduction (Align to Stated Corporate Goals or Paris Agreement)
· Pledge to Net Zero/Operationalize to Net Zero
· Fly Less
· Consider Virtual When Possible
· Consider More Local or Regional Events Where Attendees Don’t Have to Fly
· Move To Plant-Based or Default Veg Menu Planning (Avoid Beef, Lamb and Pork Where Possible)
· Measure Food Miles and make more fresh, local, organic, seasonal and sustainable food choices in your menu planning
· Reward Destinations and Venues that Focus on Sustainability and Renewable Energy with your business
· Ban or Mandate NO Single Use Plastics
· Set Targets for Waste Diversion Rates
· Choose Recyclable or Reusable Materials for Signage and Expo Booths
· Look to Reduce Signage, Carpet and other Materials
· Rethink Food Minimums to Avoid Waste
· Use Compostable Everything in Food and Beverage Service
· Compost Food Waste
· Donate Leftover Food and Materials
· Work to Find Vendors with Electric or Hybrid Vehicles for Any People Moving
· Work with a Reputable Vendor on Carbon Offsets as a Last Resort
Even beyond the lists above there are some other trends that I’m seeing that you could also consider as you get more and more ambitious and improve year over year and event to event:
· Localizing and Diversifying the Supply Chain – we could be doing more to buy local and find vendors for underserved communities. Find some minority or women-owned businesses to work with. Get your procurement departments to be more flexible.
· Circularity/Circular Economy – we need to get out of the take-make-waste mentality of the linear economy and move to a more circular approach where we make-use-repurpose-repair-upcycle-recycle and eliminate landfill.
· Health and Wellness for everyone – programs to promote health and wellness for attendees, for staff, for vendors. Get out of the wearing everyone out mentality of sessions all day long every day with few breaks.
· Environmental Justice – Community Outreach – working to bring wealth and reduce negative impacts on lower income communities.
· Accessibility, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
· Rewarding Venues and Destinations for Renewable Energy Transition
· Sessions and Dedicated Space at Events to Discuss Climate Change and Sustainability
· Carbon Accounting and Budgeting for Events
· Destination and Venue Choices Based on Public Transportation Infrastructure and Walkability
· Habitat Restoration and Regeneration – we could be working on restoring habitats in the communities where we work to further bring positive impacts to our event destinations beyond just economic impacts.
I would imagine that the big question is – is anyone doing this much? Probably not, but I do think there are some events that have made major strides in these directions.
This month I’ll be talking to the lead for sustainability at IMEX, one of the largest trade shows and exhibitions in the event world.
IMEX has made major strides over the years on their sustainability journey with a real focus on nature as an overriding theme and value proposition for their events.
We’ll dig into their progress and their path of continuous improvement as well as seeing what areas they’re currently working on and where they hope to go next.
The last thing I will say for now is where I started. Let’s all be more ambitious, but let’s all work on continuously improving wherever we are on our path to sustainable events.
It’s summer season now. Everything is in bloom and green in my garden. Vegetables are growing and the sun is shining.
But, all is not right with the world. We just had the hottest week of weather globally in 100,00+ years, while there are floods and torrential rain in parts of the world, not to mention wildfires out of control and smoke so bad it turns the sky orange and creates the worst air quality in the world on some days in major US cities.
Temperatures right now are 100+ across the South and Southwest United State.
And yet, travel has returned to pre-pandemic levels. There are events happening right now in places like Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Miami and people are flying there, adding to the already higher greenhouse gas emissions than we will soon be able to tolerate.
And, people are still flying, even for one day meetings! Is that one day meeting so important that it couldn’t be done virtually?
WHAT THE HELL ARE WE DOING?
For all the talk about sustainability and regeneration or any other term related to being more responsible towards the planet and people (and there is a lot of it right now) we’re still tinkering around the edges.
Sure, we’re doing away with plastic water bottles (mostly), but we’re still serving food that has a heavy carbon footprint and water footprint and transporting it thousands of miles sometimes to have that one ingredient that isn’t local or in season during your event.
Sure, we’re not printing as much on paper but there is more and more digital content and signage using unheard of amounts of electricity that is often generated using fossil fuels in massive data centers, some which are located in areas of extreme weather that requires even more electricity to run either air conditioning or heating to maintain the right temperatures on all those servers generating our digital world.
Maybe we’re working with companies that are trying to electrify their transportation. Maybe we’re eating more salads and less beef. Maybe we’re using venues that have some solar or wind power. All good, but these are still baby steps when we’re in a crisis.
And, of course, we’re still flying. A lot, apparently. Is this sustainable? Is it responsible?
I recently sat down with Shawna McKinley, one of the smartest people I know when it comes to sustainability issues in the event industry. You can see our interview on the Society For Sustainable Events YouTube channel here
We talked about a number of issues related to travel and transportation for events. Here are a few of the key takeaways from our conversation:
On the contrary, pals: You ignore ongoing and imminent peril at your own risk. I don’t know what you should be doing – making noise, at the very least, but this is the real shit.”
You can (and should) read the whole piece here
If we think that our industry, the event industry isn’t at risk and we continue to just dither and do the small stuff the consequences are unimaginable. We no longer have the luxury of working in silos, not having ambitious goals and roadmaps when it comes to sustainable events, not measuring our impacts and not taking seriously the impacts that live events have on the planet and the people that inhabit our world.
Let’s roll up our sleeves, rally the troops and get to work on creating a net zero event industry.
We’re fully into spring now. Roses are budding and blooming, the plum tree is showing signs of fruit, the winter veggies have gone to seed and it’s time to plant for summer.
Which gets me to thinking about food, because we all eat. And with seven billion people in the world and rising, that’s a lot of food and a shocking amount of food waste. One third of all food produced (~2.5 billion tonnes) is lost or wasted each year. A lot of that food goes into landfill where it ends up contributing to greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.
Let me borrow something from a recent blog by Seth Goldin, which you can find here
Creating the food we eat has significant climate impact. Some of the factors, in unranked order:
Even if we wasted no food at all, the impact of all of these activities would be enormous.
All of this is to say that food and food choices, while only accounting for about 5% of the carbon emissions at an event, has a much larger overall impact systemically in the world and we need to be thinking about this when we think about our food planning and food choices at an event.
I continue to believe and continue to challenge the event industry to realize and acknowledge that reducing our carbon emissions and being a part of the solution to climate change is our biggest task in order to survive and thrive in the coming years.
So, I want us all to rethink our food choices as a carbon reduction strategy at our events.
In my last Patio Perspective I proposed adopting a plant-based or default veg diet as a way to reduce carbon. That’s certainly a viable way of looking at it but it’s probably more complicated than just telling everyone that they now can’t or shouldn’t eat meat. If we want to be inclusive we need to be more strategic than just replacing one way of eating with another without any input from our attendees or from looking at the broader picture of farming, farmers, food producers and how food gets to market and to your buffet tables, tables or boxed lunches at your events.
Also, I should throw in a disclaimer here and say that I do eat meat and fish while trying to be more default veg as much as possible and being conscious of where my food is sourced from and how it’s produced.
This is just to say that I don’t think we should be food shaming. People eat the way they do sometimes for very specific reasons and not everyone can always eat the same way or eat the same foods. For example, May is food allergy awareness and celiac disease awareness month and we’re going to talk about that and how it fits into food planning and food choices on our next Patio Perspectives event on May 17th with Tracy Stuckrath.
There is also a question here that is hard to answer sometimes - what foods create the most carbon and what foods are most wasted? There are carbon implications in both parts of that question.
We all know, intuitively, that beef, lamb and meat in general are high on the scale of carbon emitting and carbon intensive foods in the way they are raised, processed and transported. A reasonable carbon reduction strategy would certainly include reducing these foods, if not eliminating them. (I know of at least two relatively large conferences that went to a completely plant-based diet for their event.)
We also know, intuitively, that some seafood is overfished and transported from long distances and that local fish that meet sustainability standards would also help reduce carbon emissions and food waste overall. This could be another area of rethinking our food choices.
Here’s the rub though. Let’s say we do run an event and have a completely plant-based diet as our food strategy. Are we convinced that we have eliminated food waste and carbon in that strategy? Is anyone measuring the amount of food wasted when attendees don’t want to eat a completely plant-based diet?
There may be no perfect answer, but we can rethink and make better food choices and cut down on our carbon emissions overall.
Some things to think about:
All of these are both individual and collective actions we can all take. And the more we can collectively rethink our food choices the more we can be a part of the overall solution to climate change.
I’m looking forward to summer and the food bounty that comes with it. I’m also looking at my own food choices and how I can lessen my impact on the planet. I invite all of you and the event industry to do the same.
I’m seeing the first signs of renewal and regeneration of spring now. The first small buds on the plum tree, some flowers on other plum trees as I walk the neighborhood. Buds and blossoms on the magnolia trees.
So, I’m thinking about renewal and regeneration. There has been much talk in the event industry in the last year, as live events have returned, about doing things differently. Organizations and companies have talked about how they will focus more on sustainability for both their events and for their organizations.
I love hearing this, and like the new buds on the trees and the signs of regeneration, I see a few signs of starting to take big actions to change behaviors, to invest in sustainable practices and to measure and report actions that are taken.
This is important because it feels like we’re at a transition point. A lot of people that have been pushing the sustainability message for a long time are nearing the ends of their careers. New people are starting to step up into leadership and this generational change makes sense.
I’m reading Yancey Strickland’s book “This Could Be Our Future” and one of the points he makes about change is that big changes are generational and can take thirty years or so. We’re at about that point in terms of when some of the early innovators started thinking about and talking about sustainability in the events industry.
Once change starts to grow it can accelerate quickly and become contagious. It’s also hard to change though when you must do the changing, but on a long timeline anything is possible. We’ve often said that sustainability is a journey, not a destination. Change is not overnight, it’s incremental and a lot of change happens over time.
It's often felt like the event and hospitality sectors have been resistant to change and have been very slow to take sustainability seriously, to integrate it into the standard practices and operations of planning and daily operations.
I’m not saying that nothing is being done. I know there are planners and suppliers, designers, show organizers, food and beverage managers, sustainability consultants out there working hard every day to push the message, to push past talking sustainability to taking real actions to move the event and hospitality industries to more sustainable practices.
Perhaps the good news is that the next generation of event and hospitality planners and suppliers were born after the first Earth Day and many of them have lived their entire lives with recycling programs and a focus on not wasting things. They’ve also lived their lives with the threat of climate change an ever-present topic of discussion and have seen some of the first-hand effects of climate change both environmentally and socially.
This brings me back to renewal and regeneration and where we are at this moment. Have we realized and acknowledged that the big issue and the big problem we are all tasked with is reducing our overall emissions, both individually and organizationally? As we talk about renewal and regeneration, are we taking the appropriate actions on a big enough scale to do our part as an industry to mitigate the effects of climate change and work towards a healthy planet with healthy people and an equitable economy?
“While governments and businesses have the most power to reverse climate change, perhaps the best thing we can do as individuals is to hold them accountable, dispel influential myths and shift our collective attention to the actions that matter most. Although the jury is still out on the effectiveness of throwing soup at famous artworks, we know that switching to clean energy, flying less, and adopting a plant-based diet are some of the most effective ways to help save our planet.” That’s from a recent article in the New York Times.
Those three things are likely tough and even controversial for the event and hospitality sectors, though they are not new and have been around for a few years now. It may be time for more serious discussion about them though.
I’m hoping to dive into each topic separately in coming perspectives and I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories on what you’re doing and thinking about relative to renewal and regeneration or the three topics highlighted above.
Paul Salinger has over fifteen years of experience in sustainable events, notably leading event sustainability efforts as Vice President of Marketing at Oracle and co-founding the Green Meeting Industry Council's Northern California Chapter. As a retired individual, he remains committed to advocating for event sustainability as a Board Member of SFSE.