I often hear of event planners as being problem solvers. We often think about sustainability as a problem to solve, and no doubt there are problems relating to event sustainability and there is a growing body of people that work on it continually.
The question I have is, is the way we are solving problems effective? Do we think of event planning and sustainability planning as part of the creative process where it is visionary and generative rather than just another problem to solve?
When we just look at parts of the event process as problems to solve, we may miss changing the underlying structures that contribute to and cause the problems in the first place.
The problem leads to action to solve the problem leads to less intensity of the problem leads to less action to solve the problem leads to the problem remaining. (From The Path of Least Resistance by Tom Fritz).
When we’re just focused on problem solving do we miss the bigger underlying causes of the problem itself? Do we limit ourselves to solitary actions to solve an immediate problem? How do we move beyond problem solving to generating a vision for the world we want to see, or the event we want to create, and then work towards that in a more creative way than the same ways we have always done things? How do we move from the tactical and reactionary to the strategic?
Here's a potential example:
In our food and beverage planning we make choices based on traditional eating habits with meat and starches being at the forefront of meals. We give attendees the option of choosing a vegetarian or vegan meal so that we can plan accordingly for those that choose that option. The underlying structure is that the food system, especially in the US is heavy on meat as the star of the meal. It’s also the most carbon and water intensive part of the meal, especially if it is beef, lamb or pork. Depending on whether we asked attendee preferences on food or not the problem becomes potential food waste if attendees choose to not eat the served meal, which may end up in landfill creating more greenhouse gas emissions. The other underlying problem may be that the heaviness of a standard meal focused on meat (and maybe portions that are too large to consume) leaves attendees more lethargic and afternoon sessions become either less attended or less focused for attendees – thus we have both an environmental problem and a people problem, and maybe even a financial problem if we have food guarantees and end up wasting or having to donate food. So, we try to solve this problem by a variety of means but we haven’t changed the underlying structure of the food system in a way that creates a sustainable approach to food at the event.
An alternative, creative, generative approach might be to move to default veg or plant-based menu choices as the first option and ask people who need or want meat protein to indicate that as the alternate choice to the meals being served. The other part of this is to work with chefs or caterers to take this approach and to start to think in a FLOSS (fresh, local, organic, seasonal, sustainable) way to reduce carbon and water impacts and to support local farmers and the local food economy.
This also works if we start to look at both portion sizes and food that feeds the brain in a way that creates energy rather than saps it for those afternoon sessions.
If we did more of this we could then start to look to long term changes to the food economy and the food system in a more sustainable way. Rather than just solving a short term problem we are creating a more sustainable long term vision for event food service.
We have always counseled planners and event teams to integrate sustainability practices and processes into their event planning from the beginning.
What we have not necessarily done is encourage climate literacy or work towards creating a culture of sustainability.
A culture of sustainability is one in which all team members, from senior leaders to frontline people, are mindful of the effects on people, the environment, and the long-term financial success of the business.
Creating a Culture of Sustainability
1. Institutionalize sustainability
Be generative in the way you and your teams work and start to have conversations about climate change. Work with your teams on making sustainability a part of the way you work and extend that work across organizations.
An example if this might be that when we determined that we needed to make Oracle OpenWorld more sustainable we formed a network of suppliers and collaborated with them to create common goals and common ways of working that focused on sustainability as our overriding value proposition for the event. This led to practices that enhanced the sustainability conversation for events within San Francisco, institutionalizing sustainable events within the community.
2. Improve environmental performance measurement and continuous improvement
We have always measured attendee behavior and data to understand where they come from, what their needs are, and how to create better experiences for them. We need to measure our environmental impacts and other sustainability factors in the same way and with the same intention to get the data needed for continuous improvement.
3. Create centralized communication and promote successes
One of the biggest ways we can create and promote a culture of sustainability is to change the way we tell our stories of the successes we have as well as the ongoing opportunities for improvement and sharing that broadly so that we can learn from each other.
4. Promote a culture of inclusive sustainability
Sustainability is also about people. You can’t care for the earth and not care for people. We need to make sure we are including all parts of the community into our culture of sustainability.
5. Integrate sustainability into the decision-making process
Have sustainability become the lens through which all decisions are made.
How to build a culture of sustainability in your organization:
If we can create a culture of sustainability in our companies, our organizations, our teams and each other we can start to make decisions based on the effects of those decisions on people, the planet and the financial health of our economies.
If we can move from the linear take/make/waste economy of the last two hundred years to a more circular economy of make/use/reuse/repair/recycle we can build the type of sustainable event industry and economy that regenerates people, the planet and the financial health of the industry.
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.