Sustainability is one of the most pressing issues facing the world today, and conference sustainability has become a crucial element for scholarly societies and associations wanting to attract and retain increasingly discerning members. But, what exactly is a sustainability ethos, and what are the steps you can take to make sure genuine sustainability is at the heart of your event planning strategy?
Conferences have immense reach, which is why we host them. Conferences facilitate human engagement by providing opportunities for people to share ideas, receive recognition, and celebrate achievements. In-person conferences create environments for attendees to experience new destinations, and network face-to-face. Virtual and hybrid conferences have the potential to reach truly global audiences, bringing many more voices to the table, and furthering the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. When membership organisations adopt a sustainability ethos, and commit to purposeful event planning practices, their contribution to and impact on the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development can be profound.
Event planners as agents of change
At the heart of the 2030 Agenda sit the 5Ps: people, prosperity, planet, partnership, and peace. And at the core of these five critical dimensions sits genuine sustainability. In terms of conferences, event planners should see themselves as agents of change in relation to implementation of the global plan for environmental protection, social inclusion, and sustained and inclusive economic growth. This is the overarching concept of sustainability, and the fundamental framework on which conference sustainability is built.
“As event planners we forget that we hold a position of incredible influence. If you do your job well, you are going to shift mindsets, whereby people will then take the legacy and awareness of the conference or event out into the world and start making a real difference. It’s up to us in this position to hold ourselves accountable and take responsibility.” – Lisa Jade Kirkham, founder of GingerBiscuit
Conference sustainability should never be an add-on or after-thought. Rather, it should form an integral part of your event design. In our third quarterly webinar for 2022, titled Conference Sustainability: Are you prioritising it?, we spoke with a panel of industry pros about the growing cohort of event planners who are struggling with the rising cost of conferences, and the challenge to find the right recipe for sustainability.
Defining conference sustainability
Courtney Lohmann, PRA Business Events: “I personally define sustainability as all things related to environmental, social, and community initiatives. And then also the governance of all those things – how they relate to a code of conduct and ethics, metrics and measurement, and transparency when reporting on what you’re doing. So I use sustainability as that sort of overarching term.
What defines a sustainable conference, for me, is identifying the full scope of what you can do from an environmental, social, and governance standpoint, to really improve upon all of the things that you have been doing, and change them so that they move into a place of net zero carbon, or zero-waste, or more of a positive impact as a whole.
I believe you’re far better off being specific and transparent with what you’re doing, and with where you are. So maybe your impact in a certain area was only 3%, every sustainability effort is still valid. And you can only continue to build upon what those impacts are.
The fact that so many people still want to meet in person is all the more reason why we should be prioritising sustainably. We have to course correct immediately to create the wave of change that we need.”
Johanna Fischer, tmf dialogue marketing and creator of ecomice: “To me, the term sustainable development encompasses every innovation which can bring us better solutions for challenges ahead. It’s about responsibility. It’s about transparency, legacy, liveability.
In our industry, especially for conference organisers, sustainability is not a single item to look at, but rather a holistic task to consider the bigger picture. All is connected with all. We need to look beyond commercial considerations only, and to consider values and a combination of ecological needs and economic considerations. You should start by looking at sustainability within your association, and from there, you move onto doing things better. The more you learn, the better you understand, and the more efficiently you can do things. There are a lot of very good ideas and strong efforts out there that you can start with, and best practices you can apply.
Replacing all face-to-face with a virtual event is not a sustainable solution, as humans need to exchange with each other to find the best options. You can travel responsibly and if you cannot avoid impact, then you can compensate for that impact by contributing to a positive purpose in the destination.
In Germany we have high sustainability standards, but there is still space for more. It will take all our efforts to work on better solutions together.”
Consultant Stylianos Filopoulos: “For me, sustainability is a buzzword, meaning everything and nothing. What I think would be more helpful is to approach sustainable events from two angles: The operational – linked with actions to reduce the environmental footprint of the event, and the strategic – linked with the medium- to- long-term impact of the event.
What does it take to be both strategically and operationally sustainable? For example, if we are going to fly all these big brains into a city, instead of just thinking about the impact of their carbon footprint on the environment, let’s think about what we can do to help them co-create a social and economic impact.
In parallel, communication and transparency about sustainability are extremely important, especially in terms of brand equity for the organiser or owner of the event. We need to ensure that actions to support sustainable development accurately represent who we are and what we do, and are well justified.
Most important for me right now is to challenge the purpose – the raison d’être – of the event, and its actual impact, its legacy. Then, it will be much easier to define how to do it.”
Photo by Pixabay
Actionable insights to kickstart your conference sustainability journey
Now we know that for those of you new to the game of conference sustainability, navigating these uncharted waters can feel a tad overwhelming. Rest assured, when you see just how many fantastic tools and resources are available to event planners nowadays (many of them are free), you’ll be well on your way to building and implementing a sustainable conference strategy of your own. Remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. You’ve got this.
Step 1: Define the purpose of your event & the legacy you want to leave
Building on what we learnt from the experts, before you dive into the operational aspects of your conference planning, you first need to clarify the purpose of your event, and articulate the legacy you want to leave. This strategic approach to regenerative, resilient, and responsible event planning helps you create value for your stakeholders in the short term, and delivers tangible, positive impact on both local and global communities in the long term. By consciously taking into account the economic, social, and environmental consequences of each strategic decision you make, you are well on your way to designing a meeting that matters. Once you know what you want your conference’s legacy to be, you can start building it.
Step 2: Get buy-in from the top to achieve your conference sustainability goals & ambitions
If your association doesn’t already have a clear sustainability strategy, you are going to need to initiate the conversation. Now, we know how daunting the process of pitching ambitious plans for change can be. Especially when these changes will probably require a recalibration of priorities, and perhaps even a fundamental shift in mindset. Nobody likes change. Change is hard. But sustainability is about the collective, not the individual. And when it comes to the viability of your conference (and, by proxy, the association itself), developing a future strategy is necessary. The Copenhagen Convention Bureau has put together a handy step-by-step guide on how to hold a management workshop with top brass to discuss and, more importantly, agree on a clear path forward for you to be able to achieve your sustainability goals.
The fact of the matter is that a smart, successful, sustainable conference has the power to elevate the value of the association it serves. Not only can it validate the association’s commitment to and impact on sustainable development, it can also help to attract and retain members, and open doors to new funding and sponsorship opportunities. And let’s not forget that a conference’s output has value far beyond the conference itself. For scholarly societies and associations, the content generated at a conference can live on in an accessible way for both fellows and the broader research community.
Step 3: Communicate with both internal & external stakeholders about your conference sustainability initiatives
Once your internal stakeholders are on board with your sustainability ambitions, that’s half the battle won. Now you need to turn your focus outwards, and communicate with your external stakeholders, to make sure everyone – including your members and suppliers – is aware of your new strategy. While change is hard, being blind-sided is worse.
“As planners, we get into our routines, we know what works, we know what our attendees expect, we know how best to serve them within this space for this number of days. And when you disrupt that for an attendee, without a good communication plan, you get a lot of pushback, and then that pushback goes up the stakeholder chain. Before you know it, what you’ve tried to implement from a sustainability standpoint is seen as this huge negative when, at the end of the day, it’s really not. So you need to establish a well-thought-out communication plan that engages all your stakeholders very early in the process, telling them what changes they can expect, so that they understand they’re going to be engaging with different things while they’re on site.” – Courtney Lohmann
Be open with your attendees about your sustainability ambitions. Let them in on your goals and objectives, share your plan and how you’re going to build on your sustainability efforts, so that they can see the effort, and understand where they can buy in and participate.
After the event, extend the longevity of your attendee engagement by sending them a quick round-up of stats, showing the tangible impact of their collective efforts. Thank them for their contribution, and for being agents of change. Also, don’t forget to validate the effort of all of those working behind the scenes – from your sustainability consultant or advisor, right through to the catering and clean-up crew.
When compiling the list of questions for your post-conference survey, make sure that your questions about various sustainability initiatives you implemented actually tie into actionable insights. If the feedback you receive from attendees won’t actually inform future actions (or non-actions) in your sustainability strategy, there’s little point in requesting it.
Step 4: Use impact measurement tools to amplify your conference sustainability accomplishments
What gets measured gets managed, and what doesn’t get measured is difficult to evaluate. When you can provide the management team with quantitative insights from the sustainability measurement tools you use, the impact of your efforts is amplified.
So how and where do you gather these valuable insights? Nowadays there are a plethora of tools for you to use (we’ll provide a curated list for you to sink your teeth into below). But before you actually start accumulating all this data, you’ll need to decide what information is actually necessary. For instance, do you expect to increase your net promoter score, increase discussion around a specific topic, increase sponsorship interest, and/or increase membership interest? The answers to these questions will help you compare the expected impact of your sustainability efforts against their actual impact. And these stats will not only allow you to benchmark against previous years’ impacts, but also help you make evidence-based decisions for future conferences.
If you’re using the right conference management software, the time it takes to finish your feedback task checklist will be significantly reduced. You can use your software’s communication hub to send out feedback requests at any stage to specific contact lists via email. You can also take advantage of many mobile app features to manage your mid-conference feedback process. For example, sending instant push notifications directly to people’s phones can increase the likelihood of them responding in real time to your in-app polls and surveys.
Step 5: Report on both quantitative & qualitative insights gained from your conference sustainability efforts
Besides adopting sustainable practices, the UN encourages organisations to “integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle”. Being transparent and specific about your sustainability practices, and having quantitative insights readily available to back up your claims, is key to building trust. Even if your impact in a certain area was, say, just 3%, that effort still counts. And you can only continue to build upon what those impacts are. It’s important to remember that this is about progress, not perfection. Every step towards sustainability, no matter how small, has merit. Do your best to tell your company’s sustainability story with integrity, and spare yourself from being tarred with the nasty greenwashing brush.
When it comes to compiling your post-conference report, be sure to include both quantitative and qualitative insights regarding your sustainability initiatives – from your impact measurement tools and your delegate survey. Don’t under-estimate the power of qualitative insights. In terms of social proof, and incentive for prospective members who share the same values, these mini testimonials can be worth their weight in gold.
Tools & resources
Booking.com has introduced a filter that allows you to search for Travel Sustainable properties on its website and mobile app. The Travel Sustainable badge is available to any kind of property that has implemented a combination of sustainable practices that meet the requisite impact threshold for their destination. It’s designed to be applicable to a wide range of property types, and adaptable to local realities and considerations. The initiative – a first of its kind in the travel and tourism industry – is a credible, globally relevant sustainability measure that provides information in a transparent, consistent, and easy-to-understand way for consumers looking to make more sustainable accommodation choices.
Skyscanner has introduced a filter that allows you to search for Greener Choice flights. When browsing flights on the Skyscanner website, you simply check the “only show flights with lower CO2 emissions” box on the left side of the screen. In the Skyscanner mobile app, tap the filter and scroll down to “Greener Choice.” You may not always find flight results with less CO2 than average when you search, but Skyscanner is working closely with airlines and industry partners to continually improve their Greener Choice calculation and the data that powers it.
On the subject of aviation, we thought it was high time for a bit of myth busting. Did you know that the aviation sector produces less than 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, while 6% of emissions come from food that is never eaten? Yes, you read right. Food losses and waste are responsible for three times more emissions than the entire aviation sector.
Beware the narrow lens
The number of international business and leisure tourists increased from 25 million in 1950, to more than 1.3 billion in 2017. And the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) forecasts that the sector will continue growing 3.3% annually, which means that an estimated 1.8 billion tourists will cross borders annually by 2030. That is a staggering number of people moving about our planet for business, pleasure, and bleisure – with the latter probably applying to the travel plans of many conference attendees.
However, flights in 2022 look very different from those of 30 years ago. Your flight today will generate just 50% of the CO2 compared to the same flight in 1990. Through collaboration and commitment to addressing its environmental impact, the aviation industry has made significant strides in fuel and CO2 efficiency. This has been achieved through technological advancement and improvements in operations and infrastructure. And now a new generation of sustainable aviation fuels, which can reduce CO2 emissions by around 80%, are propelling the transition away from fossil fuels.
A word to the wise: If we view international travel through the narrow lens of carbon emissions only, we miss out on the opportunities to do good with each trip we take. The income generated from both domestic and international tourism contributes significantly to the socio-economic and cultural development of many cities and their surroundings. When empowered to do so, local communities can enjoy the direct economic benefits of hosting visitors. So, if event planners are aware of and pay attention to proactively minimising any adverse effects related to pressure on the host city’s infrastructure, as well as mobility and congestion issues, residents and visitors can enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship.
Waste not, want not
More than 25% of all the food that is produced worldwide winds up being wasted by restaurants, retailers, and consumers, or spoiled and spilled in supply chains. In a world plagued by food insecurity, in both developed and developing nations alike, we find this statistic pretty hard to digest. The good news, however, is that reducing food loss and waste is one of the most effective actions we can all take to combat climate change. And sustainable conferences can play a significant role in shaping the narrative.
“When planners say sustainability is so expensive, it’s actually not. You’re wasting so much money in places you don’t even realise. You need to go into the kitchen after every meal function, and see what food and beverage you have left over. You will learn what your attendees like to eat, what they don’t like to eat, and where you’re over-ordering, or under-ordering. Have a conversation with the chef and talk through the process of that food prep to see how you can minimise it. Just going back of house and witnessing what waste you have created is a huge eye-opening experience.” – Courtney Lohmann
Have a food rescue plan
Food rescue involves the donation of nutritious surplus food that would otherwise go to landfill sites. This is something you should be thinking about at the very beginning of your event planning, even including questions in your request for proposal (RFP). You should also communicate your goals with all stakeholders, from your suppliers to your attendees.
Nowadays, people are far more conscious of whether or not food is being wasted at an event. Besides the reputational goodwill you will garner from your food rescue plan, donating surplus food can have a very tangible impact on the lives of those less fortunate in the community where your event is held.
In terms of implementation, talk to the venue and caterer ahead of time about your goal to reduce food waste. You may find they already have systems in place to help you. The chef may have suggestions for a sustainable menu based around seasonal (local) produce. Tell them you want to focus on quality, rather than quantity – fewer options but a high standard of food. Very often they will already be partnered with a community food programme, shelter, or food pantry. If not, the Global FoodBanking Network (GFN), European Food Banks Federation (FEBA), or Feeding America can connect you with a suitable NPO in the area.
This article contains a useful list of topics you need to address with your suppliers regarding the logistics for your food rescue plan, and some important considerations to bear in mind when it comes to food-handling safety. This would be a good time to point out that there has been a shift in legislation, not just in the US, but around the world to prioritise food donation. Designate a food point person to address all food-related issues, from identifying food that can be donated (versus re-used for your group), to logistics for the donation.
TRACE by isla is the definitive carbon measurement platform for sustainable events. The tool captures emission and waste data from live, hybrid, and digital events, generating impact reports in real-time. It helps you understand your impact quicker, and gives you insight into the environmental cost of your event. TRACE helps you capitalise on the data you’re already collecting and provides guidance on additional information you may need to generate your impact report. And you can take advantage of the in-app reduction tips and guidance to plan your next event with an even more positive environmental impact.
proseed by isla is the first universal best practice framework for the whole supply chain, to standardise how the events industry approaches sustainability. It’s a practical resource jam-packed with information, guidance, solutions, and actions you can take today to accelerate your sustainability journey. With downloadable templates for policies and planning, you can track your progress to demonstrate commitments and performance improvements, and show your stakeholders exactly how you’re practising sustainability.
Ex Ordo Virtual
Case study: How the American Marketing Association made the switch to virtual with Ex Ordo
Completely virtual events are not net zero carbon, because they still increase emissions from data storage, transmission, and devices. But, transitioning from in-person to virtual conferencing can substantially reduce your event’s carbon footprint by 94%, and energy use by 90%. And for a hybrid conference, with more than 50% in-person participation, a carefully selected hub can slash your event’s carbon footprint and energy use by two-thirds. That’s pretty significant. And improvements in energy efficiencies of the ICT sector have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of virtual conferences even further.
“Some associations have addressed the great format debate by opting for a two-year cycle, with one year in-person and the second virtual. It’s a simple way to maintain the benefits of both options. Others have chosen to run a virtual pre-conference followed by a shorter-than-usual in-person event. And others still have opted for smaller regional meetings in place of a large annual event. These are all viable options, but that doesn’t mean we should neglect the current opportunity to continue designing new approaches for our events.” – Paul Killoran, CEO and founder of Ex Ordo
MeetGreen UnCarbon Calculator
MeetGreen UnCarbon Calculator can quantify the carbon that you DON’T use by choosing to hold your event virtually. With relatively few inputs, such as number of attendees, general travel information, and venue energy, they are able to produce a report using data about carbon impacts avoided in the areas of air travel, ground transportation, on-site energy generation, and accommodation.
Digital Event Carbon Calculator
Digital Event Carbon Calculator, created by MeetGreen and Shawna McKinley of Clear Current Consulting, is a nifty tool that takes basic data such as your total event participants, event duration, event shipments and pre-recorded content, and gives you insights on your event’s digital carbon footprint.
Climate Jargon Buster
For those of us who don’t have a master’s degree in carbon management, the Government of Ireland has come to the rescue with a super handy website, called the Climate Jargon Buster. It explains in layman’s terms all the common climate action concepts that are bandied about, which will have you sounding like a pro in sustainability discussions with your peers in no time. There are ‘Search by term’ and ‘Search by category’ features. Or if you prefer having everything in one place, you can download an alphabetically organised PDF.
Industry standards & certifications
This brochure presents a concise overview of ISO 20121
Officially known as ISO 20121:2012, Event sustainability management systems – Requirements with guidance for use, ISO 20121 is an international standard published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The implementation of ISO 20121 is designed to offer benefits to all actors involved in the organisation of an event, and at all stages of the supply chain. Created as a practical framework for you to identify issues relevant to your context, it allows you to set targets, create action plans, and monitor and measure your performance throughout the entire event management cycle. It also allows you to accommodate diverse geographical, cultural, and social conditions whilst focusing on sustainable procurement, reporting and transparency, and the social, environmental, and economic impacts of your event. It can be a useful tool to add credibility, by demonstrating that your conference meets the expectations of your members. It can also strengthen relationships with your stakeholders who hold similar values, and enhance your reputation through the positive legacies from your event.
ISO 20121 can be implemented as a stand-alone standard or it can be integrated with your association’s existing management systems such as ISO 9001 (quality) or ISO 14001 (environmental). For some associations, ISO 20121 certification may even be a legal or contractual requirement. While the International Organization for Standardization develops and publishes these standards, they don’t actually provide certification or conformity assessment. You’ll need to contact an independent certification body for that.
EIC Sustainable Events Standards
As part of their long-standing commitment to leading and accelerating transformation in the meetings, conventions, and exhibitions industry, the Events Industry Council (EIC) recently released their updated 2022 EIC Sustainable Event Standards. These standards provide a strong focus on guidance and metrics, and provide you with a framework and transparent process to set and implement targets, establish and achieve community wide goals, drive ambition, and accelerate change. No matter what stage you’re at in your sustainability journey, you will have the support you need to adopt, implement, and measure industry best practices. To obtain certification, you’ll need to contact the EIC directly. Their fees are based on the complexity of your auditing requirements, and the size of your association or event.
Take small steps today, make a big impact tomorrow
Together, we can mould behaviours that will give rise to a new era of sustainable conferences. The key lies in a combination of awareness and collaboration, and the need to share best practices and solutions, so we can fast-track implementation globally.
Remember, your own conference sustainability journey is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to pace yourself. If you try to go too fast, you’ll run out of gas. You need to keep some energy and passion in reserve for the miles to come. Like the athlete Arthur Ashe once said: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” You may not have all the resources right now, but you always have enough to start from the point where you are standing.