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Build sustainable events in 5 simple steps

two people walking outside
two people walking outside

In 2019, we witnessed climate strike movements happening all over the world as consumers put more pressure on governments and industry to provide sustainable solutions to combat CO2 production, plastic packaging and waste.

Sustainability is a topic that will continue to take center stage in 2020. Events take a heavy toll on the environment, generating significant waste, straining local resources like water and energy, and indirectly producing CO2 emissions through event travel and shipping. Savvy event managers can join the sustainability movement and market eco-friendly features as key differentiators of their event.

What is sustainable event management?

Sustainable event management is the process of integrating environmental and social responsibility issues into event planning. ISO 20121 is a set of guidelines and best practices to help event managers control events’ social, economic, and environmental impact.

As event managers, every action counts — from relying on tap water instead of plastic bottles to hosting your event in a pedestrian-friendly city and encouraging the use of public transport. Event managers can even appeal to their sponsors, asking them to think more carefully about their booth materials, swag, displays, and event waste. By making sustainability a shared mission, event managers, sponsors, and attendees can all play a part and make a difference.

Here are five ways event managers can build more sustainable events:

1. Lead by example with sustainable materials

Event materials like signage, decor, booths, and swag merchandise generate significant waste. Much of the material is printed for one specific event and can’t be reused for any other purpose. However, there are some ways to reduce this waste. Chicago-based Agency EA helps their sustainability-minded clients come up with novel ways to execute events by ensuring maximum ‘wow’ and minimum waste.

According to Sydny Layne, Senior Digital Project Manager at Agency EA, “Sustainability is definitely top-of-mind with most clients but the challenge is often cost — based on our research study, over 50% of experiential marketers struggle with incorporating sustainability into an event. But there are ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle at events and we try to help our clients come up with simple ways to make a difference.”

Agency EA recommends the following ways to reduce materials waste:

  • Repurpose certain materials or purchased assets for future events.

  • If unable to store purchased furniture, donate to a local charity.

  • Rent when possible (including technology, furniture, etc.) to reduce one-off waste.

  • Avoid printed materials and leverage the event app or digital content for information.

  • Reduce the amount of swag (think one big item vs multiple smaller items that may not be used), make it consumable (food or beverage) or allow guests to order what they want then ship it after the event to avoid ordering excessive quantities.

  • If you do use swag, avoid putting the year if possible. Unused swag can have a longer shelf life and be reused.

2. Select sustainable food choices

The USDA estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the country’s food supply ends up in landfills and, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), food waste is responsible for roughly the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as 37 million cars.

Food waste is a big problem at events. It can be difficult to estimate how much food is required to keep attendees satisfied and most event managers err on the side of caution by ordering more rather than less.

So how can you make a difference and select more sustainable food choices? Incorporate as much seasonal, local and organic food as possible. Local or regional is defined as being less than 250 miles from farm to fork.

Consider eliminating beef from the event menu. Beef has an immense ecological footprint from a water and carbon perspective — one pound of beef takes 1,799 gallons of water and releases about 22 pounds of carbon. By removing it, event managers can conserve millions of gallons of water during a large multi-day conference. Conferences like Dreamforce and Connections by Salesforce are already doing this.

Additionally, most of the food and drinks served at events are delivered in disposable containers with disposable serving materials, napkins, and plastic cups, and bottles. All of this adds up to a waste management nightmare. To reduce this impact, request that condiments are served in bulk, use real plates, cutlery, and glassware, or use compostable containers.

3. Use water refill stations

Sustainable event managers provide refillable water bottles to attendees and place refill stations throughout their event venue.

This keeps attendees hydrated and reduces plastic waste from disposable water bottles. Most event venues are adopting this practice now but not all of them. Make sure water fountains and refill options are included in your event venue RFPs.

4. Choose the right venue and event partners

Hosting sustainable events is largely dependent on working with other sustainability-minded partners. When you contact potential vendors and partners, ask them about their event sustainability practices.

To get started, the Green Venue Report is a useful resource to help you choose an eco-friendly city. If you have a location in mind already, check its overall sustainability performance.

Aim to choose a location that has a dedicated event sustainability planning department or a climate action plan. Some convention centers even give event organizers sustainability information upfront. For example, you can learn all about Chicago’s green initiatives on Choose Chicago and Boston’s on Signature Boston.

Finally, check out the walking score of the city and find out the number of hotel properties within 2 miles of the convention center that hold third party sustainability certification (LEED, APEX/ASTM, Green Key, or Green Leaders).

5. Use technology to build greener events

In many ways, running a sustainable event is about reassessing how you run your events and finding more efficient and cost-effective ways of doing so. Technology plays a huge role in helping you do this — the power is in the data!

Here are several ways your event technology partners can help you build green events that appeal to the millennial consumer:

Use beacon-in-a-badge technology to monitor attendee movement during meal times so you can better predict food quantities.

Highlight water refill stations on your event map within your event app.

Remind attendees to bring a water bottle in your pre-event email communications.

Promote your event app as a symbol of your sustainability focus. It helps cut down on the printing of schedules, event signage, and more.


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