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Sustainable event management for the long haul

As Kermit the Frog famously lamented, “it’s not easy being green”, particularly when almost all forms of economic activity deplete finite resources or generate emissions, or both. Of course, with COVID-19 currently prompting dramatic change in individuals’ and companies’ daily activities, we’re already seeing evidence of pollution levels dropping around the world. But climate change is equally a crisis, albeit in slow motion, and we need to consider how we will avert it once economies kick back into gear.

Sustainability has rightly become one of the hottest topics in event management, as our industry looks for ways to minimise its collective impact on the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, waste and resource consumption. But where do we start and, with air travel accounting for up to 70% of an event’s carbon footprint, how can we make a meaningful difference?

At TTA, we’re in the process of making our commitment to sustainability concrete (or perhaps I should say “measurable and actionable”, since concrete is responsible for about 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions). So I recently attended the GBTA ITM Strategic Meetings Management Symposium, where sustainability was high on the agenda, to find out how others are rising to the challenge.

Greenwashing: when ‘zero’ doesn’t mean ‘none’

It was noteworthy that much of the discussion focused on measuring carbon footprint, almost to the exclusion of other aspects of sustainable business. Many global businesses now claim to be – or are setting ambitious targets to become – carbon neutral (often referred to as a ‘net zero carbon footprint’). That implies they’re reducing their CO2 emissions by adopting sustainable energy sources and processes – a complex, long-term transition.

In practice, many are achieving this by buying carbon offsets – funding environmental projects, often in developing countries, that set out to remove an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases over time. However, while offsets are a practical way to compensate for unavoidable emissions, businesses should be prioritising an aggressive internal carbon reduction strategy and only offsetting what they genuinely can’t minimise, which is the approach we’re taking.

Yes, but the economy.

Another commonly-held view seemed to be that sustainability has to be put on the back burner during economic downturns. It’s true that many businesses scaled back environmental initiatives in the aftermath of the global financial crash of 2007/8 and have only refocused on sustainability in more prosperous years. But operating in a sustainable manner is shown to make businesses more competitive, resilient and agile in an uncertain and rapidly changing world, and more likely to attract and retain customers and employees through a unified sense of purpose.

The reason the old ‘economy versus ecology’ debate hasn’t run out of fossil fuel-generated steam is that those with vested interests in highly-polluting industries don’t want to see profits dented and economic growth subdued by stricter regulation. But this misses the point: climate change is an inconvenient reality. Millennials in particular are visibly energised about tackling this global emergency and, as consumers and investors, are increasingly rejecting brands that don’t share their values. Regardless of which way the political wind is blowing, executives who remain in climate denial or flagrantly put profit over people and planet risk their businesses alienating an entire generation and becoming as irrelevant as polaroid cameras.

There’s more to it than air travel

The effectiveness of remote working is currently being trialled with an unprecedented sample size thanks to the need for social distancing or self-isolation. But longer term, virtual meetings are not a wholesale replacement for the personal interactions and physical proximity needed for humans to form the trusted relationships that drive business forward. We’re facing an industry imperative to find more sustainable ways of bringing people together and proactively become self-governing before the state ultimately intervenes through regulation.

Many clients now have strict protocols when it comes to air travel: for example, embargoing domestic flights within the UK, encouraging rail travel within Europe where possible, limiting the use of executive private jets, or rationalising the number of delegates attending far-flung conferences.

But flying is only the tip of the sustainability iceberg. We need to examine the entire event management lifecycle, from food miles and waste generation to water consumption, water pollution and energy use. Some of these attributes are within our control – for example, specifying at least one plant-based meal over the course of an event, minimising the use of printed materials through digitisation, or switching to reusable or recyclable materials. Others are subject to local limitations: one company recently stipulated that the venue had to provide waste sorting stations, but due to the lack of recycling infrastructure in the region, all the rubbish ultimately ended up in landfill.

One interesting idea raised at the symposium by the hotel sector was the potential to develop some universal scale to represent venues’ sustainability at a glance, equivalent to the star rating that indicates the quality and condition of guest facilities. It would certainly be useful when venue-finding to be able to generate a list of ‘five tree’ hotels for forward-thinking clients.

The definition of sustainable business isn’t just limited to environmental considerations, though.  At TTA, it equally extends to social responsibility, from rigorous vetting of the supply chain to protect human rights, to progressive management practices and promoting the wellbeing of our own employees.

Don’t try to boil the ocean

The conclusion from the day’s lively discussions was that, with so many complex factors impacting operational sustainability, companies can’t tackle everything at once. You have to pick your battles, in terms of what’s important to your business and your customers or clients. The starting point must be to establish what you can reliably measure, and then identify quick wins and ways to improve on that initial baseline over time through incremental change. It’s also worth mentioning that while practices and processes can be modified relatively quickly, behavioural change takes much longer to bed in. That’s where training and culture can play a key role.

As with any company-wide initiative, executive ownership is vital to the success of a sustainability programme, together with advocates and ambassadors who can embed sustainable ways of working as ’business as usual’. That’s why at TTA, we have formed a Sustainability Committee to steer the development and implementation of our strategies and policies for sustainable operations. In the second part of this blog, I’ll be talking about how we’re building sustainability for both people and the planet into our own business, and ways we can support our clients’ sustainability goals, with opportunities to add value at no extra cost.

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