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.
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.