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Seeking Sustainability

For meeting and event planners, seeing green is unquestionably a good thing.

Whether climate concerns weigh heavily on a planner, it’s in their best interest to factor sustainability into their meeting strategies. That’s because the industry (and much of the world) is focusing on and embracing sustainability as an important objective. Attendees, sponsors, exhibitors and event organizers are expecting it on some level.

But in a world with constantly shifting standards, how can a planner approach designing truly sustainable events — or even moving in the right direction? How can they avoid “greenwashing?” And what about other factors that may be an obstacle to sustainable events, such as attitudes and budget?

Here’s what industry experts said about walking the walk with sustainability.

Eliminate ‘All or Nothing’ Thinking

Sustainability, and climate in general, are larger-than-life subjects. Because of that, efforts to address them often seem complicated and unapproachable, but this line of thinking is an obstacle to better practices.

“The biggest thing is people not being quite sure where to start,” said Lindsay Arell, CEO of Honeycomb Strategies, a sustainability consulting firm, and chief sustainability officer at ASM Global. “People think [sustainability] has to be done 100% by their suppliers or it’s not worth talking about.”

To combat this all-or-nothing mindset, Arell recommends planners evaluate events to recognize what’s already being done well and what can be improved. This opens up conversations between vendors, suppliers, sponsors and exhibitors and gives everyone the opportunity to do as much as possible. Each event has its own challenges, so taking inventory of strengths and weaknesses is a good way to establish a baseline and goals.

To avoid “greenwashing,” the practice of touting sustainability with no measurable efforts to back it up, the event’s data should be recorded and reported.

“When people are self-reporting, unfortunately you can’t always trust it,” said Drew Shula, founder and CEO of Verdical Group, a sustainability consulting firm for events and buildings. “But if there’s been a trusted third party that’s reviewed it and put their stamp of approval on it, you can trust that.”

Sustainability consultants are another means of improving an event’s sustainability efforts. In addition to coaching a planner on best practices throughout the planning process and the event itself, they often calculate and report on the event’s data. Many event organizations also provide best practices for sustainability for organizers to refer to.

Combat Carbon

In the world of sustainability, “carbon” refers to greenhouse gas emissions from energy use, transportation and production of materials, among other things. Most discussions about improving sustainability focus heavily on reducing carbon emissions.

“To make your event the most sustainable, primarily you’re focused on the carbon impact, which comes from your venue’s energy use and the physical materials purchased for the event,” Shula said.

Venue choice is important; if there’s ever an opportunity to hold an event in a LEED-certified venue, a “living building” or another venue that has made conscious efforts to reduce its energy use, climate-conscious planners should strongly consider this option.

“People coming [to the hotel] will say they like that the hotel is green,” said Sutisa Spellman, director of sales and catering at the Pechanga Resort Casino in California, which is known for actively working to cut its environmental impact with programs like food waste recycling.

Another high-impact area of event planning is travel. Planners should consider how attendees travel to their event, whether it’s accessible by car or public transport, or if there are green travel options, such as ride-sharing. Once they get to the event, off-sites and hotels within walking distance to the venue can cut down on additional emissions.

Another event component with a high energy footprint is catering. Animal agriculture, especially red meat, is responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Creating a catering menu centered around plant-based and local, in-season ingredients ensures fewer emissions.

While all of these are great strategies to reduce an event’s carbon footprint, any in-person event will ultimately use energy. One way to attempt a net-zero emissions event is to purchase carbon offsets. These are credits related to reducing carbon elsewhere in the world, which help an event become “carbon neutral.”

“A lot of our clients will get the energy, waste and water numbers, and then we see what that translates into for carbon,” Arell said. “And in some cases, the event will have a carbon offset sponsor.”

Reduce Waste

Another goal associated with improving sustainability is reducing waste, and it’s often where organizers start.

“I think there has been a lot of progress around zero waste,” said Shula. “People understand waste reduction; they want to do it.”

There are plenty of ways to decrease physical materials used at a meeting or event and to repurpose the waste.

On the trade show floor, attendees are often bombarded with paper materials and swag from each booth they visit. This is often wasteful, because much of that swag ends up in a landfill. Implementing policies on trade show floors that encourage the use of digital marketing tools and discourage physical materials could reduce some of that waste on the trade show floor.

Another simple way to promote less waste is with water-filling stations that encourage attendees to use reusable water bottles instead of single-use plastic. Whenever food is involved, using reusable flatware and silverware is important.

“When we’re doing events like receptions or dinners, we don’t have any plastic things,” Spellman said of events at Pechanga Resort Casino. “It’s more elegant and it saves waste and money.”

If single-use utensils or flatware are necessary, such as at a trade show with lots of food samples, try switching to compostable materials instead of plastic.

Signage is another area where both exhibitors and the event’s organizers could push for digital options. Discouraging materials like foam-core signage in favor of more environmentally friendly materials is also an option if an organization insists on physical signage.

When it comes to catering, excess food can be donated, while food waste can be composted and repurposed. Pechanga Resort Casino recycles all its food waste to create biofuel and compost.

Budget for Sustainability

Another obstacle to discussions of sustainability in the event industry is its perceived cost. It’s often viewed as expensive to the point of inaccessibility, and this can discourage organizations from prioritizing it when designing their meetings. However, planners should be able to share a few advantages that may offset the added cost.

First, there’s no getting around it — sometimes there are additional costs when prioritizing sustainability. Implementing a zero-waste system at an event may mean hiring additional staff to sort and weigh waste and take food to compost centers. Carbon offsets also cost money.

Ultimately, it’s something that can be worked into a budget if planners and event organizers agree to prioritize it.

“If it was free, everybody would do it,” Shula said. “So it’s people assigning value to paying a little extra to do good and report on that and share that story.”

However, the extra costs might not be as bad as expected.

“There are some things that do cost more money, and unfortunately when these initiatives were starting, there was a premium put on them,” Arell said. “But sustainability at its core is about efficiency. We’re seeing so many clients now that are actually making money.”

If an organization’s goal is to reduce or eliminate signage in favor of digital signage, that lowers printed materials cost. Creating walkable meetings means there’s no need to pay for shuttles. And local, vegetarian menu items are often cheaper than buying meat. There are plenty of other cost savings to be found in reducing an event’s materials.

Sustainability sponsorships are another way to help even the cost of prioritizing sustainability. Sponsors can purchase carbon offsets for the event and simultaneously promote the good their organization is doing.

“We don’t charge the client more,” Spellman said. “Most of the cost is absorbed because we’re wasting less and buying less.”