15 quick event sustainability wins you can implement now.
While achieving a net zero event is an admirable idea, the idea can be intimidating, even a bit overwhelming, especially for those who have smaller events. Where to start?
In a recent webinar, Building Sustainability into Business Events, Prevue Senior Editor Barbara Scofidio and three top sustainability pros — Virginie De Visscher, Acting Executive Director, Business Events, Destination Canada; Roger Lehner, Senior Operations & Sustainability Executive, IMEX; and Mariela McIlwraith, President, Meeting Change — provided both a high-level and a boots-on-the-ground perspective on crafting more sustainable events.
“It’s easy to get started, but it’s also not always easy,” said Lehner. “You need to be very persistent and you have you need to have difficult conversations and sometimes you can’t do everything. Sometimes you just need to do a few things and take some easy wins and put something on the ‘parking lot’ for the next meeting.”
Quick Event Sustainability Wins: Food and Beverage
- Design more plant-forward menus that feature less meat and dairy. You don’t have to go full-on vegan or vegetarian, emphasized McIlwraith. Just focus on providing more options that have lower carbon and water footprints than most meats and dairy products.
- Put your vegetarian and vegan options at the top of the menu. This helps to “change the perception that people have, which is normally that you have the meat option, and vegetarian is an alternative to it,” said Lehner. While IMEX events haven’t entirely eliminated red meat at its IMEX Frankfurt and IMEX America events, “We have significantly reduced it.” For example, at a gala dinner at IMEX Frankfurt, the percentage of those choosing the meat-free option when from 10-12% to about a third this year “just because we made that small change in communication,” he said.
- Talk with your food service providers to find out what they can do to focus on in-season foods that are good value as well as locally sourced. They also may be able to help you save more by piggybacking on menus with other group events taking place at the venue at the same time.
- Reduce food waste by right-sizing portions. You don’t need to heap food on the plate, especially since a good chunk of that food will end up going uneaten. “Putting out less food to begin with is a great way to reduce an event’s carbon footprint, and it’s a great way to save money too,” said McIlwraith.
- Communicate your food-waste-reduction strategy with attendees and other stakeholders so they understand that you’re focusing on sufficiency, not over-abundance, to reduce food waste at your event. Destination Canada made a point of communicating that its lunches would be vegetarian, and why, and got no real pushback, said De Visscher. Of course, they also put a lot of effort into ensuring that the vegetarian meal look really appetizing, she added.
- Hold a plated meal in lieu of a buffet. De Visscher said they reduced portions by 20% with this strategy — with the added benefit that attendees had more energy for the afternoon sessions instead of falling into a post-lunch food coma.
- Eliminate single-use water bottles. There are lots of creative water station options now that attendees can use to refill a reusable bottle with flavored or non-flavored water options.
- Arrange for leftover food to be donated. Both the U.S. and Canada have liability protections in place to protect event organizers and venues from liability concerns when it comes to donating leftover food.
Quick Event Sustainability Wins: Travel
There’s only so much a planner can do to reduce the carbon footprint of those who travel to an event, right? Well, actually, there are some ways you can make a difference even with this carbon-heavy necessity, the panelists said.
- Consider where people will be coming from and the amount of lift available when choosing your destination.
- Encourage people to take lower-carbon travel options, such as traveling by train, when possible.
Quick Event Sustainability Wins: Ground Transportation
- Consider having people walk to events that are less than 20 minutes away. Of course, first ensure alternatives for those with mobility issues, but this is one way Destination Canada helped both reduce its events’ carbon footprints while also added a health benefit.
- Offer a carpooling option. De Visscher shared that her organization offered attendees a platform they could use to find out who else would be riding from the airport to the event venue so they could share rides.
- Offer electric vehicle options for the airport shuttle.
Event Sustainability Wins: Negotiating and Contracting
Across the board, the panelists agreed that it’s key to communicate the importance of sustainability throughout the negotiation process.
- Bring up sustainability at the request for proposal (RFP) phase. “Putting sustainability into the RFP doesn’t cost anything, and it is a conversation starter,” said De Visscher. Not only will this alert suppliers and venues to the importance of sustainability to your event specifically, an increasing demand for sustainability also can encourage them to make more investments into their own sustainability practices — it creates a business case for them to up their game as well. A good resource for how to include sustainability into an event RFP is a collaboration between the Professional Convention Management Association Foundation and the Singapore Tourism Board call The Time Is Now — Sustainability in the Business Events Industry.
- Hold a “green stakeholder call.” The IMEX Group hosts calls that put together its sustainable event consultant, MeetGreen, with its venues and key suppliers to fill them in on the group’s sustainability goals and initiatives and brainstorm ways each partner can help achieve them.
Event Sustainability: The Bigger Picture
For those who want to do a deeper dive into making their events more sustainable, perhaps even achieve net zero, start with training, said De Visscher. The Event Industry Council (EIC)’s Center for Sustainability and Social Impact offers a plethora of resources, including the Sustainable Event Professional Certificate Course, which is available in digital, in-person and hybrid formats. Newly launched this year is the EIC’s Foundations Certificate, which guides events industry organizations in setting up the essential policies and plans to launch their sustainability and social impact programs by providing guidance, templates, examples and coaching. The EIC Sustainable Events Standards also is a useful place to get started.
Another key piece to developing a sustainable events program, said De Visscher, is using a performance measurement program to track progress toward your goals. Destination Canada has had its more than 16 destinations benchmark where they currently are using the Global Destination Sustainability Index.
Then tell your story, because greenwashing is a real thing. Destination Canada offers a storytelling masterclass to all its partners to help they share their sustainability stories in ways that others can learn from and implement in their own destinations and event programs.
The IMEX Group’s recently released IMEX America Sustainable Event Report outlines that organization’s roadmap to net zero events through reducing emissions, offsetting what they can’t reduce by investing in vetted carbon-offsetting projects, and sharing what the organization is learning as it goes down its road to net zero events. While sharing best practices is good, “we also share if something doesn’t quite go to plan because that’s important to know as well,” said Lehner.
“A big part of what we encourage everyone to do is to look at their events and yes, deliver them in a sustainable way, but to also make sustainability and the transition to a net-zero future part of the agenda of every single event that you organize,” he added. “That can potentially have a much larger impact than just the sustainable delivery of [an individual] event.”