One of the benefits of the shift to virtual meetings is that Zoom gatherings and Teams trainings tend to have a much lower carbon footprint. According to a report by the event planning firm MeetGreen, attendee air travel makes up a whopping 70% of an event’s overall carbon footprint. Ground travel makes up another 15%, and everything else — energy usage in attendee guest rooms, energy at the venue, catering and freight — accounts for the other 15%.
However, the many benefits of meeting in person have only become more apparent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and that has left meeting planners in with a conundrum: How can they both lower the carbon footprint of their meetings and bring people together for meaningful experiences? Though the pandemic may be slowing down, insurance and financial companies’ focus on fighting climate change is actually picking up steam.
Nancy J. Zavada, CMP, founder and president of the meeting planning consulting firm MeetGreen, points to the growing adoption of Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) investing as an example of how financial firms are taking climate change seriously.
Insurance companies have a front-row seat to the financial realities of climate change, but are also sophisticated enough to understand ideas like the social cost of carbon concept, which Chelsea Anderson, senior partnerships & events manager at the sustainability consulting firm Verdical Group, describes as “the idea that there is an often overlooked, but real dollar value associated with the damage that results from emitting carbon dioxide.”
Luckily, there are many things planners can do to lower the carbon footprint of even face-to-face meetings. “One of the most interesting aspects of working on sustainability from the lens of the meetings and events industry is that there is an opportunity to touch many key environmental impact areas — from energy to waste to materials procurement,” says Ali Ames, director of sustainability for the environmental consulting firm Three Squares Inc. Wherever you choose to start — or whatever new ideas you bring into a plan already in motion — those efforts can make a big impact on the ability to continue to hold in-person meetings in the future.
Any company trying to make its events more environmentally sustainable should begin by developing climate-friendly goals and sharing them with partners. “An event organizer can’t control a building’s operations, but they can control which venue they select,” says Diana Connolly, founder of Groundswell Marketing. “Start by putting sustainability requirements in your RFP, and ask a lot of questions when vetting your options.”
Anderson suggests querying possible venues about the building’s energy and water efficiency, waste reduction and disposal practices, and what outdoor areas are available for use. “Usually when we’re looking for locations, we’re looking for something that’s close to public transportation and has a high walkability or bikeability score,” she adds.
When planners discuss their sustainability goals early with their potential host site, they can tap into the venue’s general expertise with green events, as well as their specific knowledge of community resources. “Collaboration can yield improved results, bringing the best ideas of the organizer and event host beyond their normal capability,” says Greg DeSandy, director of sales and event services for Huntington Place (formerly the TCF Center) in Detroit.
Engage potential event contractors in conversations about sustainability too. “For your exhibit floor, select a general contractor who is ready to help with sustainable choices, such as minimizing aisle carpet, reducing the use of plastics and helping with exhibitor recycling and donations,” Connolly says. Caterers can also play a significant role in making an event greener, as can renting IT equipment from a local vendor as opposed to buying new items.
The earlier you can set and begin working on carbon-reduction goals, the better. Anderson has worked with a number of financial institutions to plan events, “and they had a lot of red tape and approval processes that needed to be met before anything was approved,” she says. “The more information you can provide from the start, the more you can ensure the process is streamlined.”
“The most important aspect of making meetings carbon neutral is deploying emissions reduction strategies — or taking actions to reduce the emissions of meeting activities,” Ames says. Keeping in mind that air travel is responsible for the vast majority of these emissions, there are a few things planners can do to shrink emissions while still bringing people together.
One option is to host regional gatherings when possible, Zavada says. In some cases, regional meetings mean people can drive or take trains. Even if the majority of the meeting’s attendees can fly to the host city on just one airplane, “they’re not hopping between cities to get there,” Zavada says, which can make a difference for emissions.
Another possibility is to think about hybrid meetings or even limit the number of times groups meet face to face. Zavada points to a study titled “Trend Towards Virtual and Hybrid Conferences May Be an Effective Climate Change Mitigation Strategy” in the journal Nature Communications, which showed that hybrid meetings with a 50% in-person participation rate could cut an event’s carbon footprint and energy consumption rate by as much as 66% over a fully in-person meeting. “People want to meet. I get that, but there’s a time to decide how you accomplish what you want to accomplish without meeting face to face,” Zavada says. “People are getting much more specific about when they’re traveling for business and when they’re not, which I think makes face-to-face meetings even more important.”
Even when an in-person meeting is important for some people, can speakers or staff with a smaller role attend virtually so they don’t have to fly to the venue for a short period of time? These and other hybrid options are all worth considering — especially now, when people are more accustomed to and better trained on how to participate in virtual events. “The pandemic has presented both challenges and opportunities for event sustainability,” Ames says. “One opportunity is that it has normalized hosting events virtually. I foresee more events including virtual attendance options in the future. By allowing attendees to experience events from the comfort of their homes or offices, virtual events significantly reduce travel-related emissions inherent to events that bring together people from different areas.”
When face-to-face meetings are a necessity, firms might purchase carbon offsets or refer individuals to a service such as TerraPass, which offers a travel calculator so individuals can calculate the impact of their travel and buy their own carbon credits to offset it, Connolly says. Offering a carbon credit sponsorship option has become popular in recent years. “The sponsor offsets carbon credits for attendee travel while creating great brand awareness for their organization,” she says.
Carbon offsets are an important tool for achieving carbon neutrality, but they should be used as a last resort, Anderson says. “The goal should be to reduce your emissions as much as possible through [other steps] and then, when you’ve done as much as possible on your end, purchase offsets to cover the remaining amount of emitted carbon. Simply offsetting your entire event’s emissions without making any changes on the front end may be considered green washing, as it does not reflect lasting behavioral or policy changes.”
Ames has found that waste minimization and diversion efforts are one of the more effective ways to lower a meeting’s carbon footprint. “These focus on both designing waste out of event production plans and developing comprehensive waste diversion strategies to redirect any leftover materials for composting, recycling or reuse,” Ames says.
Food service is a good place to start — in part because it’s a carbon saver as well as a money saver. For a conference Connelly assisted with, “we negotiated to serve box lunches without the box. Avoiding the box allowed us to save $2 per lunch. At a conference with almost 6,000 lunches over the week, that’s a savings of $12,000, and we reduced the carbon involved with creating, shipping and disposing of 6,000 boxes.”
DeSandy notes that at Huntington Place, a group’s decision to use water bubblers and drinking fountain dispensers instead of bottled water saved them $20,000.
Using compostable serviceware can have an impact if the venue is able to actually compost it. If it just goes into the trash, it does not have any positive environmental impact. “Serviceware can be one of the largest sources of waste, and sorting through green options can be complicated,” Ames says. That’s because there is a fair amount of green washing that takes place with serviceware. “One thing to look out for are items labeled biodegradable. While this sounds like a green option, the use of this term is not regulated and does not necessarily mean the product is sustainable. Remember, even plastic will biodegrade after hundreds of years.”
During COVID, many companies returned to using bottled water, prepacked plastic silverware and other disposables. Zavada calls this “safety theater” and points out that it really does little to keep attendees safe — and does a lot to increase the amount of waste an event generates. Moving back to durable serviceware and other containers is important as soon as groups feel comfortable doing it.
Huntington Place has a Green Team, and its members will often work with groups from the beginning of their planning process to understand what materials might not be reusable or recyclable through their normal waste disposal methods. “This gives us an opportunity to tie into our network and find a home for goods that might normally end up in the waste stream before the consumer leaves the building,” DeSandy says.
At one event, the client set up a test-drive track that included several live 15-foot trees. Rather than throwing them away at the end of the event, the facility found a partner who was able to take the trees and get them planted. “One of the happiest outcomes was learning that the elephants at the local zoo love to play with the trees. In another instance, the local conservancy planted some of the trees,” DeSandy says.
Signage can be a significant expense for companies and generate a lot of waste. “Consider creating evergreen signage by leaving the dates off of signage so it may be reused in the future,” Connolly says. “Request FSC-certified paper or recyclable or compostable substrates like Falconboard.”
Also, look for alternatives to paper or plastic signage. “We are fortunate to have an extensive network of digital screens inside and outside of our facility, which can virtually eliminate the need to print session and directional signage,” DeSandy says. “If signs must be printed, organizers can specify the use of recyclable materials rather than foamcore.”
As much as people love swag, eliminating it or greatly reducing it can shrink the amount of stuff that gets thrown away after an event, Zavada says.
Food can also have a major impact on the event’s overall carbon footprint. Raising cows, pigs and other animals for meat produces significant emissions. Zavada has a client that aims to do just one meatless meal per day, and even the impact of that can be huge. Serving less meat also fits with people’s growing interest in healthy living.
If eliminating meat at meals is too much to ask, find ways to use less of it, especially beef, Connolly says. The demand for beef directly contributes to greenhouse gas production because cows produce methane and affects carbon capture because people are cutting down forests to make way for cattle grazing. Producing beef also uses more water than other sources of protein. Dishes like a chicken and veggie stir fry, turkey and bean chili, or pasta sauce loaded with vegetables as well as ground beef will fill people up with less meat.
“Request locally produced food,” Connolly says. “The amount of miles the food has to travel is a significant contributor of greenhouse gases. Ask your caterer to order from as many local sources as possible. It’s also fresher and supports local farmers. Avoid food that needs to be flown in.” Serving organic food can also make a difference because it is grown without pesticides and chemicals that pollute land and streams. Fertilizer also requires significant energy to produce, which bumps up the food’s overall carbon emissions.
Reducing food waste has been called a top way to slow global warming. “Because it is back of house, many people do not see the tragic amount of food that is thrown away at events,” Connolly says. “While most catering companies donate unused raw ingredients, they are often not able to donate meals once they are prepared.”
It’s worth inquiring about food donation programs in addition to looking for ways to eliminate excess food. For an event Connolly consulted on, “we analyzed attrition counts year after year, for every meal function in our program. These registration-to-meals-served ratios became so predictive, we were able to serve 10,000 lunches over the six-day event and had only approximately 125 leftover meals in total.”
Once a plan to lower the carbon footprint of an event is in place, brands should develop methods to benchmark and measure their progress toward their goals. Making sustainability claims is not enough anymore. People want to see data that proves companies are not green washing their claims. “There are a number of organizations that can help with carbon offset calculations and tools to help collect all of the necessary information to help lower a company’s carbon footprint,” Anderson says. “Verdical Group has processes in place to help with all or even portions of making a client’s event neutral, based on the level they desire.” MeetGreen has an UnCarbon Calculator that can help firms quantify carbon emissions not produced thanks to event sustainability practices.
Venues can be good partners in this effort. “We provide groups with a summary of pounds or tons diverted from landfills,” DeSandy says. Don’t assume all facilities will have the capability or willingness to provide this type of information, though. Ask about this at the beginning of the RFP process.
Event planners who are just starting their sustainability efforts shouldn’t try to do everything at once. “Come up with a five-year plan and backtrack from there,” Connolly says. “Pick a few areas to work on and set realistic, achievable goals to reduce your impact over time.”
Planners may need to be patient with venues, who are still struggling with uncertain business operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Much of the hard work in sustainability is done by committed human beings getting dirty, reaching out to their networks and dreaming up creative solutions to reduce waste or upcycle leftover materials,” DeSandy says. “That is just plain harder to do until we have returned to fuller staffing levels.”
But he is convinced all industry professionals will come around to implementing sustainability practices if they haven’t already. Following the 2008 financial crisis and during the early stages of the pandemic, “Event organizers and suppliers were forced to cut unnecessary expenses and shift focus to survival,” DeSandy says. Once those crises stabilized, interest in sustainable practices resumed.
“I think we can all agree sustainability is no longer a luxury expense, and therefore, it needs to become part of our business and personal culture,” DeSandy says. “Each of us can make a positive contribution and difference by leading a more natural life and adopting habits which can prolong the quality of life on our planet.” I&FMM