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!
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.