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Sustainable Events: 7 Lessons Learned

Sustainable Events: 7 Lessons Learned

I always thought the term “sustainable events” was a walking oxymoron for events are one of the most energy-intensive, high-waste undertakings. I am, however, also a firm believer that every “little green step” counts in the path towards more sustainable business practices.  

I was therefore extremely grateful to my company, Refinitiv and my managers for the tremendous opportunity to lead our global sustainable events initiative and policy – initially as a passion project in addition to my day job, and now as an integral part of my new role as Head of Summits and Sustainable Events (no pressure!). 

I am not going to deny, pursuing sustainability and achieving tangible, long-term impact is a gargantuan task that’s fraught with its struggles and challenges, but a project I sincerely believe is critical to our sustainability journey as an organization. 

I am by no means a sustainability expert, but wanted to reflect on some of the initial lessons learnt  in case others might find them valuable, to offer a source of comfort to those encountering similar challenges in this space (we are all in the same boat!), and to prompt more people to embrace sustainable practices in their own line of work. 


1. It takes bold decisions to change mindsets

Contrary to popular belief, making changes to your event won’t impact delegate experience negatively as long as the reasons behind it are clearly communicated to your audience. Once our delegates understood that the reason why we offered no printed agendas or plastic water bottles is to mitigate the staggering 100,000 tons of carbon emissions the events industry generates annually, the feedback has been unanimously positive, and actually allowed us to stand apart from our competitors.


2. Being more sustainable won’t necessarily cost you more money 

Budget constraints have been brought up as a regular objection to our sustainability work. While carbon offsetting your event or creating an eco-friendly exhibition display might cost more, incremental steps such as going paper- or give-away-free could actually save organizers on printing and production costs. 


3. Do your due diligence on your eco-friendly vendors

Greenwashing practices have become ubiquitous as pressure grows on businesses to become more sustainable. Before partnering with suppliers claiming to follow sustainable practices, make sure you find out more about their supply chains, their business model and their own carbon footprint. 


4. Venues can make or break the success of your sustainability efforts 

Venues can either become your strongest allies, or your biggest stumbling block on your sustainability journey, as they often manage areas that event organizers have little control over, including waste, energy or water. This is why sustainability must be embedded as a key criteria in your venue sourcing process, through a screening questionnaire for example, to incentivize venues to commit to working with you before a contract is signed. 

It also allows you to assess the extent of their sustainability services, including how their waste is managed, what % of their energy is from renewable sources, what water saving initiatives they have in place, and whether they have a dedicated sustainability team or green concierge to support your sustainability efforts.

Venues are also your key stakeholders to get hold of the data you need post-event to evaluate the effectiveness of your sustainability initiatives, and to be able offset the carbon emissions of your event should you choose to do so. 


5. Reduce, reuse and recycle (before you consider offsetting)

While the option to offset the carbon footprint of your event is always at your disposal, it should only come as a last resort to account for sources of emissions you may not be able to influence such as guest travel, energy consumption or the transport of goods used at the event that you can’t procure locally.  

While offsetting allows you to invest in projects that would help mitigate carbon emissions in countries most in need, often with added socio-economic benefits, it does not equal reducing the carbon footprint of your event which should always come as a priority. 

There are so many easy changes you can introduce to reduce, reuse and recycle, including (but not limited to):

  • Eliminate single-use plastic from your events – replace water bottles with glass jugs or refill stations, take-away coffee cups with mugs, single-use sugar sachets with cubes, and say no to straws, stirrers, balloons and any form of food or gifts wrapped in plastic packaging; 
  • Go paperless, and provide your event and marketing materials (agendas, presentations, speaker profiles, reports and other relevant resources) in digital form only through a live event page or app that will also help increase audience interaction at the event; 
  • Donate your leftover food to a food bank or arrange for it to be composted – many hotels would have an in-house organics recycling facility to tackle the gargantuan surplus food from their F&B establishments;
  • Replace your corporate gifts with a charitable donation, unless they are made from eco-friendly materials and can genuinely provide value to your delegates instead of ending up in the landfill after the event;
  • Reduce the need for single-use, event-specific materials (printed backdrops, signage, lanyards, badges etc.), and/or reuse or recycle them; 
  • Use no décor, or if you do, repurpose flowers etc. from past events, and donate them to charity post-event; 
  • Provide seasonal food with a sustainability certification (fair trade, MSC-certified seafood etc.), and reduce reliance on meat with more vegetarian and vegan options; 
  • Where possible, engage local and eco-friendly suppliers (located within a 400 km radius

6. Always strive to improve and measure your progress along the way

Setting realistic benchmarks has been one of the most challenging aspects of my sustainable events work. How can I determine an ideal percentage of event-related waste to be recycled or repurposed, energy to be derived from renewable sources, or goods and services to be locally and sustainably sourced, as desired KPIs for our sustainable events policy? 

There are specific ISO standards – ISO 20121 – in place for sustainable events, which is an extremely helpful reference point when you first get started, but the emphasis continues to be on making improvements rather than being prescriptive on what metrics organizations must put in place. 

In your first year of implementing a sustainable events policy, it’s therefore critical to collect accurate data pre- and post-event on what sustainability initiatives you have implemented, and how successful these were, which can then inform the benchmarks and performance indicators you set for the following year.  

We are currently trialing a post-event sustainability survey which will hopefully provide us with the relevant information from our internal event leads, venues and respective suppliers to measure our impact, and identify areas that need additional support.


7. Savor your journey (and not just the KPIs)

I genuinely believe that sustainability is a journey and can never be considered something we are able to fully accomplish. I also don’t think we can ever claim that our events are carbon-neutral, zero waste or completely green, but we owe it to our planet to do what’s within our means to make them more sustainable. 

Sustainability professionals often suffer from a case of “eco-anxiety”, a mindset of never having done enough and all of our efforts ending up in vain, but we often forget to appreciate that every single action counts in the path to become more sustainable.  

We have a long way to go, but I hope that in 12 months’ time, I can look back on these reflections, and proudly say that I have made a difference to our company’s sustainability journey. 

If you have any sustainable events resources, guidelines, case studies and best practices to recommend, please leave a comment below. 

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not the organization represented.

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