As dire news about the climate continues to dominate the headlines, the imperative to decrease the carbon footprint of meetings continues to grow. This change is driven no longer simply by altruism, but by consumer demand. As attendees become more concerned about environmental challenges, they’re changing their behavior at home, says Lindsay Arell, LEED AP, principal at the consulting firm Honeycomb Strategies. “When they’re going to an event, conference or trade show, their eyes are being opened to the big impacts like waste, air travel and consumption. They’re beginning to push the planners.” Exhibitors, too, are starting to ask for more sustainability policies at meetings.
Luckily, as interest in green meetings grows, there are more opportunities than ever for associations looking to meet the needs of their stakeholders and host more eco-friendly meetings. “It’s not as hard to do as it once was,” Arell says. “What we experience with our clients is, once they get going in that direction [toward greener meetings], they don’t want to stop. Taking that initial step can be a little nerve-wracking, but once they get positive feedback and realize they can save money, it feels better and people want to continue.”
Greener Meetings, One Step at a Time
Diana Forbes, CMP, director of meetings for the American Public Works Association (APWA), has always had a personal passion for reducing her carbon footprint. So when the organization’s largest event of the year — the PWX, or Public Works Expo, which can draw nearly 6,000 people — rebranded five years ago, it seemed like the perfect time to put sustainability at the forefront.
The first thing APWA did was eliminate the expo’s 40-page program and switch to a mobile app. She wanted to do more, so, she says, “I wrote a sustainability statement, and then I went and found my champions. I looked to my team and partners — my general services contractor, my A/V partner, my registration contractor — and said, ‘What are you doing and what more can you do to help us create less of a carbon footprint?’ And they did more. Then, I went to the exhibitors. There are over 350 of them in an 80,000-sf space, so that’s a huge number of people that can make an impact.” They put together a two-page guidebook with requirements and suggestions for vendors on how to green their booths, including switching to low-energy lightbulbs and only giving away meaningful swag that people would actually keep and use.
It’s important to stress that Forbes didn’t do all of these things in one year. Her biggest piece of advice for anyone looking to decrease a meeting’s carbon footprint is to make changes in stages. “Break it down into silos and start with just one area of your event,” she says. “Figure out what you can adopt in phase one, and then phase two, because it’s too much to do it all at once. Once we started breaking it down like that it became a little bit easier.”
Inching Toward Greener Meetings
While Forbes presents one great case study for how an association can make their gatherings greener, there are plenty of other steps to take. “For most people, focusing on the reduction of single-use plastics can be a really good start,” says Alyssa Harding, executive director of the Sustainable Food Trade Association (SFTA). Replacing plastic water bottles with water stations or banning plastic straws and cutlery, or handing them out only to people who ask for them, can greatly reduce the amount of plastic trash generated at an event.
“The old ‘reduce first’ is really the most important thing,” says Sara Patterson, CMP, meetings director for the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association (PHADA). “That has the most impact. So really question every single item you bring to the conference or mail out beforehand. How many pages does your conference brochure need to be, or how much can you put in your mobile app versus a printed program? How many signs do you really need? Can they do double duty for your events?”
Eliminating basics such as conference programs or event-specific signage can be challenging if attendees are accustomed to those things. If the organization’s leadership is resistant to change, Arell recommends easing into it. The show manager at one company she consulted with was concerned about eliminating the program, both because he feared attendees’ reaction and because the program generated important sponsorship revenue. Arell recommended that one of the company’s smaller shows take this step first. In the registration materials, the organization asked attendees if they would forgo the paper program and use the app instead. More than 60% committed to that, so the show produced fewer programs.
“We felt more emboldened, so we asked the question again the next year and printed even fewer,” she says. “Hopefully, we will eliminate printed programs altogether, except for maybe a printed one-page schedule. This is a change in your way of doing business,” Arell acknowledges. “You have to think about how you bring everyone along and do it with numbers. Then, the discussion is not, ‘Where did this come from?’ but, ‘We’ve been easing into this for the last three show cycles and it’s saving us money.’”
It’s tough to eliminate paper altogether, even with a conference app, so Patterson’s next piece of advice is to think about the lifecycle of materials used at the event. Buy post-consumer content recycled paper and print with soy-based inks when possible. Make sure there are recycling bins so paper and glass bottles don’t go in the trash. “Even things like swag you’re going to give away — can you source it domestically? Can it be recycled at the end of the day, or be repurposed or used again?” she asks. Gathering plastic nametags or ensuring reusable signs are retained means a lower environmental impact and saves the association money.
Taking Green to the Next Level
Planners looking to take their carbon footprint reduction tactics to the next level might consider changes to the food and beverage service next. “I’ve been really trying at my events to go around and make a note for myself about how much food we actually eat so I can do really accurate ordering,” Patterson says. “It’s also important to work with the hotel to understand the overages they account for.” In addition, see if hotels have programs to place leftover food in employee break areas or send it to community organizations that feed the hungry.
Since meat and dairy have such a significant impact on climate change, land and water use, and other areas of environmental concern, there has been a movement in recent years to serve more vegetarian and vegan meals at events. “Not every show is going to go immediately into a full vegan menu, but maybe you can ask your attendees to make a pledge to eat vegetarian, or work with your suppliers to offer menu items that are enjoyable to a non-vegetarian or vegan eaters,” Arell says.
Harding has been very committed to making events zero waste when possible. That means using durable dishware and other reusable items whenever possible; setting up a three-bin system for trash, recycling and compostables; and educating attendees about how to reduce and properly dispose of waste.
To ensure unwanted items go in the proper bin for disposal, “I build branded signage with the materials we’ll be using at the event, so people will see pictures that say, ‘These utensils are compostable, so they’ll go in these bins,’” Harding says. “Sometimes, I’ll even tape the materials to the bin to reduce contamination across the waste stream.” She hires people to stand by the bins and help guests determine where to put their unwanted items. All materials are sorted to ensure trash, compostables and recyclables end up in the right spot before they’re sent to processors.
“The hardest thing to do is standardize the materials that are incoming from your event,” she says. This is especially true of shows where exhibitors hand out a lot of food or other samples. To decrease the likelihood that exhibitors will use non-compliant materials, she sets up discounts for them with companies that produce products such as compostable cups and plates. It’s important to note that not all products labeled “compostable” will actually compost. Before recommending compostable dishware, check with the local composting facility and see what materials they will accept.
The SFTA also integrates carbon offsets into the price of its events. Harding works with an organization called South Pole, which helps them find projects that fit with their goals and values. Carbon credits are a place where greenwashing definitely takes places, so it takes some work to find a reputable organization. “I would create a code of conduct and a checklist, and ask them things like what are their key projects and what are the key regions they work in,” she says. “Then, reach out to different organizations and see who fits that bill.”
Harding encourages any association looking to get serious about sustainable meetings to develop a green events policy and/or set up a “green team” for the event. Written guidelines and a group of people who are committed to implementing them makes sure the planner, who has plenty of other things to worry about, isn’t the only one accountable for tracking sustainability measures on-site.
Looking for even more ways to make events sustainable? The sustainability committee of the Events Industry Council has developed the Sustainable Event Professional Certificate that can be taken in conjunction with programs such as the CMP. TRUE Zero Waste, an organization that helps companies decrease their waste, offers a TRUE Advisor certification. “It really delves into the nitty-gritty of waste and waste diversion and is really applicable to events as well,” Patterson says.
Measure, Measure, Measure
“I’m such an advocate for metrics and numbers,” Arell says. Data will demonstrate any cost savings associated with going green. It will also measure the positive effects on the planet. “It’s super important to understand what your impact is from an energy standpoint, a waste standpoint or on water consumption.”
New technology can offer some fun ways to track savings. Arell says, “We always talk about bringing your own refillable water bottle, but then I was chatting with a client and she asked, ‘How many people who bring it use it?’” To determine the answer, she found a company that could create stickers to put on the sides of water bottles. Every time a guest used it at a filling station, a scanner would capture a bar code and count the refill. Anyone could track the number of scans on an app. Not only did it gamify using water bottles for attendees, it gave the host organization some great information.
When starting any new environmentally motivated program, the first step is to benchmark current levels of consumption and impact. Then find ways to measure changes designed to save water, energy, waste or something else. Track that information over time to see the ongoing impact. A consultant can help determine savings, or there are websites with carbon footprint calculators that can provide rough estimates.
While setting up internal tracking systems is important, you don’t necessarily have to do all of the work on your own. “Those facilities that have a sustainability program in place usually can produce reports for you that show your diversion rate, how many gallons of water you used or how much energy you used,” Forbes says. “Members are interested in that information, so we share it when possible, and we can use it to track our progress.”
Get Venues, Suppliers and Attendees Involved
Indeed, as interest in sustainable events continues to grow, partners such as venues and suppliers are increasingly able and willing to help associations meet their environmental goals. Most of the facilities Forbes uses these days has a sustainability manager who can help her explore new ways to cut waste, save money and lower their impact.
“It’s cool to see what you can keep adding just by asking the facilities you go into,” she says. “A lot of them have really interesting programs already in place. We were just in Salt Lake City, and they gather all the leftovers that exhibitors have, whether it be bags or pencils and pens, or something else, and they have resources locally that accept donations. So, they package it up and send it out into the community.”
Other venues need to be pushed a little more, which is not necessarily a bad thing. “A lot of the time when I’m chatting with venues or suppliers, they say planners aren’t asking for [sustainability measures], so they don’t offer them,” Arell says. “But planners don’t know what their options are, so they don’t ask. You should ask what’s going on. From my work from a venue perspective, that’s what is really creating change. If they have big clients coming and saying they need to have these initiatives in place, their operations team is going to be much more willing to put these initiatives in place, and keep them as a permanent way of operating.”
Since there is still so much greenwashing happening, Patterson stresses that it’s important to get sustainability commitments in writing. “Say exactly what you’re doing and what the impact will be,” she says. “Get it in the contract language. Sometimes, that’s the best and the only way, at the end of the day, to make sure that really happens.”
Attendees also play a crucial role in making events greener. Getting their help often requires some education, both in advance and at the event. “In our outreach before events, we like to include verbiage that talks about how we’ll manage the event and waste stream,” Harding says. “We say things like, ‘You’ll see compostable utensils, so make sure you dispose of them properly.’”
“When sharing with attendees, we’ll often say something like, ‘This is something we’re trying to embark on. We’re not going to be perfect, but we need your help,’” Arell says. She’s also a strong proponent of including questions about sustainability in post-event surveys. Attendees often have great suggestions about measures they’d like to see at future events.
A certain amount of vendor and venue education may be important as well, Harding points out. If attendees are using compostable dishware but the catering team puts items in the trash instead of compost bins, the desired effect of diverting those materials from landfills or incinerators is lost.
The Future of Sustainable Meetings
What does the future of green meetings look like? “I’m seeing a lot more shows that incorporate sustainability as a sponsorship,” Arell says. That means sustainability can be a money maker, not just a money saver.
“One thing we are starting to see is this shift from environmental sustainability to also thinking about community sustainability, and what we are doing in that community to leave a positive legacy,” she says. “Organizations want to do something that builds relationships. It’s great for shows that return to the same location year after year.” Projects should have a local focus and be closely tied to the organization’s mission and values.
One of Harding’s favorite examples of this type came from an expo were several brands were showcasing their support of regenerative agriculture. They built a display that includes a large quantity of high-quality soil. “Once the event was over, they took all the soil that was part of the display and donated it to the Baltimore Parks and Recreation Department,” she says.
In addition to looking at community sustainability, planners are looking at the health and wellness of attendees. Patterson suggests, “Not only doing local, healthy food to energize your attendees and keep them attentive at your meetings, but also working in exercise, stretch breaks and time for folks to get outside.” She adds, “I also try to plan some down time at the conference so, at the end of the week, people are excited to go back to their organizations and aren’t completely exhausted.” These personal sustainability measures are showing up more often as consumers become increasingly aware of their own needs, as well as the needs of the planet. | AC&F |