Rethinking SustainabilityMarch 1, 2016

Encouraging Green Initiatives at Events Is Good Business, Too By
March 1, 2016

Rethinking Sustainability

Encouraging Green Initiatives at Events Is Good Business, Too
Paul Salinger (l), vice president of marketing for Oracle, and Jeff Chase, vice president, sustainability for Freeman, at the 2014 Oracle OpenWorld conference in San Francisco. Oracle’s mission is to hold “the most sustainable conference in the world.” Credits: Shawna McKinley

Oracle’s mission at their OpenWorld conference in San Francisco was to hold “the most sustainable conference in the world.” Credits: Shawna McKinley

For Rebecca Schnitzler, event operations manager at Aimia in Minneapolis, sustainable meetings are a key way for her company to promote good corporate social responsibility across the meetings and events they hold.

“In our daily lives, we don’t mind taking a couple of extra steps to place something in the recycling bin,” Schnitzler says. “We should adopt the same habits when we are attending a meeting in another community.”

Aimia is not alone in its efforts to incorporate sustainability components into meetings and events. Today’s corporations recognize that “green” business means good business, especially when a more holistic notion of sustainability is embraced.

“Sustainability is extremely important for…planners to consider. The sheer impact large groups of people can have on the environment, social issues and economic impact must be considered.”
— Bonnie Boisner

Kerry Bannigan, co-founder of Nolcha, an award-winning events and meeting agency based in New York City, integrates a number of sustainable components into events. Examples include recycling of luncheon materials and food waste along with paper used throughout the day as well as donating to need-based groups.

“The conferences we host at the United Nations are all about positive world social impact, booking green locations and venues, while providing sustainable elements such as tote bags as the event goodie bag.

“We are in a society that is slowly becoming more educated on the importance of sustainability and how to integrate it into our personal and professional lives. It is important that meetings and events continue to introduce and encourage sustainable components as the impact can be vast due to the amount of people attending events,” Bannigan says. “The more people actively participating in ‘green’ practices makes for a better place to live for us all and positively impacts others.”

According to Bonnie Boisner, vice president of event management at Aimia, organizations have become increasingly scrutinized for their impact on the environment.

“We all have a footprint on this earth with a duty to protect and sustain it,” Boisner says. “The greater the organization or event, the bigger the impact, whether that be positive or negative. Recent crises such as the water shortage in California have forced every industry to rethink sustainability initiatives. This issue particularly hits close to our industry as many of the largest business conferences and events domestically are held in California.”

Additionally, increased global travel has generated a greater awareness for other sustainability issues uncommon in the U.S., creating increased awareness and thoughtfulness in planning.

“Sustainability is extremely important for meeting/event planners to consider when orchestrating an event,” Boisner says. “The sheer impact large groups of people can have on the environment, social issues and economic impact must be considered. When you are planning events for thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of people, it is imperative that we are cognizant of the impact and try to maximize our positive impact and minimize harm.”

Jeff Chase, vice president of sustainability at Freeman in Dallas, says that a common misconception on the part of corporate and incentive meeting and event planners is many saying, “I would love for my event to be more sustainable, but I do not have time to focus on this.”

“However,” Chase says, “Over the past few years, our event industry has been transforming to help the event organizer with methods and procedures to track and measure their event’s footprint on the environment. All you need to do today is ask for it from your vendors, and most of them have the ability to generate a good impact report for their event.”

Promoting Zero Waste

An outstanding example of how far meetings and events have advanced in the sustainability arena is to review what Oracle has accomplished at their OpenWorld annual conference in San Francisco with the help of MeetGreen, which provides sustainability consulting services for Oracle. In 2014, there were 50,327 participants at the Moscone Center, and according to Oracle, the waste footprint of each OpenWorld participant is equal to the weight of eight baseballs. In 2014, they managed three baseballs fewer than in 2012. The company’s aim is to “pick up the pace of reduction and recycling to reach zero waste to landfill by 2018.”

In addition, they say their onsite carbon emissions have dropped by 41 percent since 2011 due to reduced shuttle fuel use and energy efficiency upgrades at venues, which “puts us on track to achieve a 50 percent reduction in onsite emissions by 2018.” Oracle offsets 100 percent of these emissions and compliments their attendees for also choosing to offset their travel footprint — more than 6,161 metric tons of carbon emissions were offset in 2014.

Other ways in which Oracle sets a fine example for the rest of the industry includes donating meals such as the 9,390 meals donated in 2014 to local charities.

Debunking the Myths

Misperceptions about sustainable events and meetings abound within the meeting industry. Here are a few that industry experts often experience:

Myth. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is just a trend. It will not last.

Reality. According to Boisner, corporate social responsibility is a motivating factor for attracting, retaining and rewarding employees. In fact, 87 percent of companies with CSR programs have employees who exhibit strong company loyalty. (Source: Incentive Marketing Association’s Performance Improvement Council.)

What’s more, according to the 2014 SITE Index, CSR components of programs are here to stay and are part of budgets.

“These stats support the fact that CSR is a necessary component to the success of an organization,” Boisner says. “It isn’t a ‘nice to have.’ Your employees and buyers are both interested and invested in the impact you are making on the world. Meetings and events can be a great opportunity to show these audiences your commitment to sustainability.”

Myth. Only millennials want to participate in sustainability initiatives during meetings and events.

Reality. This is completely false. For example, Aimia incorporates CSR initiatives in many of their programs.

“Whether our participants are tagging sharks in Miami to learn more about the decreasing shark populations, making wheelchairs for the United Way or simply filling backpacks with school supplies for children in South Africa, we have noticed every generation wants to be involved,” Boisner says. “While the type of activity may vary based on your audience interests, one truth is apparent: People care. And, this is not limited or defined solely by generational nuances.”

Myth. “Sustainable” is a synonym for “green.”

Reality. Sustainability differs from the term “green” as it is more holistic in nature. Sustainability encompasses environmental, economic and social and/or behavioral issues, whereas green focuses on only two parts of the three — environmental conditions and economic strength. Meetings and events have the ability to influence all sustainability initiatives — not just those that are coined green.

Chase adds that green relates more to the 4Rs — rethink, reduce, repurpose, recycle — and sustainability is broader in scope to bring a balance to the economic activities, environmental responsibility and the social/community programs together to be an overarching effort for an event.

Myth. “Green” is all about recycling.

Reality. Promoting good green practices goes beyond using the right bin — it’s all about learning a sustained behavior.

Angeline Holder, CMP, director of catering and events at Conrad Miami recently had a meeting where the planner wanted to ensure that their attendees reused their water bottles through the entire event, and beyond that, cultivate the practice of having a reusable bottle after the meeting ended. A vendor created the reusable water bottles, and Conrad Miami had water cooler stations through the meeting space with water infused with lemon and berries. “Attendees were able to replenish their water bottles during and in between sessions,” Holder says.

Myth. Sustainability is too expensive.

Reality. “In reality, yes, back in 2006 it did cost more to do your signs on a recyclable material, but in the last 10 years, the world has changed and now the cost is the same or lower,” Chase says.

Jody-Ann Rowe, founder of Event Certificate in Ontario, Canada, says that as companies move toward integrating more sustainable practices within their events, they can pass on the higher cost if necessary for supporting these practices and using more efficient materials through a “green tax.” Or they can work with suppliers and vendors to communicate their needs and collaborate to gradually reduce cost.

Aimia recently identified five simple, cost-effective practices they use to reduce their carbon footprint at events:

  • Efficient transportation practices such as encouraging use of public transportation within a certain radius of the event.
  • Biodegradable serviceware.
  • Digital invitations and event communications, and mobile apps and event websites for onsite communications.
  • Water cooler stations maintained throughout the event.
  • Donation of leftover food and beverages to local charities.

According to Karen Kotowski, CEO of the Convention Industry Council (CIC), one of the biggest myths about sustainable events is that they come with major commitments of financial resources on the part of the event organizer.

“What sustainable meetings require is a commitment to thoughtful choices and informed purchasing,” Kotowski says. “Cost savings in some areas will offset others. In fact CIC’s APEX/ASTM standards include a “Level 1” outline specifically designed to be cost neutral to event organizers. This offers a great roadmap to planners.”

Myth. Once you understand the concept, hosting sustainable meetings or events is easy to figure out.

Reality. While the concept of sustainability is not difficult to grasp, oftentimes certain restrictions and event needs can make event logistics more challenging.

“For example, sourcing local and organic ingredients can be problematic due to seasonal offerings and quantities,” Boisner says. “It might require a greater time commitment and network to determine how to make this happen.”

Chase stresses that there is nothing in the event business that is a breeze. “We learn to use best practices and plan for every possible thing that might change, but as you incorporate sustainability practices and do your best to use all your resources in our industry that can help guide you like the Green Meetings Industry Council materials, you will be better equipped to reach some very cool goals for sustainability,” Chase says.

Myth. Sustainable events require compromises to the attendee experience.

Reality. Kotowski says that simply isn’t the case, and she’d argue that the commitment to thoughtful choices and design puts greater holistic focus on the attendee.

“I think if we look at other consumer experiences, say automobiles or dining out, we can see analogous situations where sustainable products can successfully reach a range of customers from the budget conscious to the luxury buyer,” Kotowski says. “The same applies to meetings.”

Myth. Knowing how to plan a sustainable meeting is specialized knowledge for just a few.

Reality. In fact, CIC’s CMP International Standards include sustainable meetings as part of the essential body of knowledge for meeting professionals.

Myth. The event/hospitality industry is the second most wasteful industry behind construction.

Reality. “From all the indications that we have, we are a very environmentally focused industry, and we are working on many sides of the event industry to continue to reduce our waste and set higher waste/recycling diversion goals to keep more out of the landfills,” Chase says. “New recyclable materials and local farm-to-fork programs are all helping to reduce our waste and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions as an industry. We are all working to do the right thing for the planet.”

Myth. Sustainability will happen organically as technology improves.

Reality. Technology has and will continue to create some of the biggest changes in this arena. For example, the industry has seen a giant shift in the amount of paper printed and provided at events.

However, according to Rowe, while it is true that advances in technology can reduce the need for certain practices such as the volume of printing for an event, it’s only effective if the event organizer recognizes and uses these systems.

“Even with the advances in technology, I have still attended events in the past year that printed a 20+ page program with speakers’ information and biographies for attendees,” Rowe says.

What the Future Holds

Experts agree that sustainable events are here to stay. Naturally, the way we address space, signage, recycling, food and beverage and other social and economic issues will continue to evolve over time.

“Technological advancements will allow us to be more creative and innovative in the way we address sustainable events,” Boisner says. “Event industry professionals are passionate about helping our clients support their initiatives and will continue to stand behind a common goal to reduce our carbon footprints and make our world a better place.”

Chase says that the concept of sustainability is reaching the point of becoming more expected at an event.

“From the supplier and venue side, we see that sustainability means being more efficient and being more cost-effective, so they are doing it anyway because it makes good business sense and helps the bottom line,” Chase says. “The corporate planners need to show that their company cares, and the association planner has their membership that cares, so they need to align with the things they care about. Both need to show that they are doing the right thing for the planet and not just adding to the problem.”

As Chase explains, sustainability will become the standard way you do every event.

“Europe has already been operating with sustainable practices as their standard operating procedure (SOP) for several years, and the Americas are heading that way also,” Chase says. “Canada, Mexico and the U.S. are all embracing sustainable events; they are becoming more part of the SOP and will continue to be stronger every year.” C&IT

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