Event sustainability is very much on everybody’s mind. The issue is at the forefront of many event organizers’ agendas as events are generally a source of massive waste and leave a large carbon footprint. The main culprits are travel, energy, and F&B.
It doesn't have to stay that way, though, and there are ways to reduce the impact of your event on the environment by making informed, eco-friendly choices during every step of the event process.
In this post, we are going to share some ideas and realistic green alternatives to help you balance the impact your events may be having on the environment.
Event Sustainability is Still Not the Norm
According to Meetgreen, the typical attendee at a conference produces 4 lbs of waste per day, 2.6 lbs of which goes directly to a landfill.
Needless to say, if event organizers want to stay relevant in a sustainability-conscious world, they will have to find ways to reduce the volume of waste and overall carbon footprint generated during their events. Three predominant areas to target are travel, energy, and F&B.
The task might seem arduous, but going green(er) will ultimately benefit everybody. The planet will be better for it and brands that demonstrate their alignment with the cause will benefit from a better reputation.
Let’s tackle each problem area to explore opportunities to prioritize event sustainability.
Culprit #1: Travel and Transportation
This is quite possibly the most difficult challenge, as many events require attendees to travel to the event destination, sometimes internationally for major conferences and trade shows, such as CES.
For a national event in the US, research has shown that air travel accounts for 70% of the carbon footprint, followed by car travel with 10%, and train with 4%.
A round-trip flight between New York and San Francisco emits 1.4 tons of carbon dioxide, which can be roughly compared to what the average car emits in nearly three months of daily use.
This is enormous, and every little improvement will go a long way towards creating a green event. Here are a few ideas.
1. Use tech and try virtual or hybrid events.
Guests who participate in-person to a four-day national trade show emit on average 1874 lbs of emissions. Meanwhile, a guest attending the same event virtually would produce fewer than 5.5 lbs of emissions (source EventMB).
Not all events can be held virtually, but some can easily accommodate virtual attendees by offering live streaming options. An all-virtual event might not be the answer as many people crave human interactions, but offering virtual passes for those who can’t travel or are not willing to, could represent a nice eco-friendly alternative.
2. Choose your location wisely.
If you know where the bulk of your attendees will be coming from, choosing a centralized location will help reduce the travel necessary to come to your event.
Whenever possible, consider organizing local or regional events and choosing local talent who will not have to travel to the event.
Choosing a venue that can double as accommodation will also help reduce transportation needs between the event venue and the hotel where guests are staying.
Alternatively, when you source venues, make sure they are easily accessible by public transportation or safe, walkable routes, and promote these means of transportation heavily.
3. Compensate for emissions with carbon offsetting.
When you have no choice but to rely on transportation for your event, there are still options to go greener. Carbon offsetting is currently the best choice as several initiatives have been available for quite some time.
It’s a good idea to do a bit of research and select a credible, trustworthy partner (e.g. the UN Climate Neutral Now initiative).
You can also involve your attendees directly, and encourage them to offset their carbon footprint by adding it as an optional fee in your registration process. Research has shown that 48% of event attendees would pay more for greener events. You could even include it in your registration fees non-optionally.
4. Look into transportation options.
If it’s necessary to transport a lot of people from one location to another, consider putting a teaser event or activation en route and coordinating travel from major cities (e.g. chartered flight, train, etc.) to reduce the number of flights or trains to and from the conference.
You can also promote and coordinate carpooling options, and offer shuttle service (don’t forget to look into options for electric vehicles).
Culprit #2: Energy
Quite far behind travel and transportation, energy used for hotel accommodation represents 8% of the attendee’s carbon footprint, and energy at the venue accounts for 4%.
Here is what you can do to improve your event in that respect.
1. Choose a green destination.
If possible, select destinations that use renewable resources to produce electricity or are otherwise notable for their environmental initiatives. Using this as a requirement during your selection process will reinforce the city’s ROI for engaging in those practices.
As they become more prominent, give preference to carbon-neutral destinations (see how Costa Rica is quickly moving towards that goal).
2. Verify venues and hotels.
While you may not be able to be as picky when selecting green destinations, it’s getting easier to find venues and hotels with sustainable policies in place, especially carbon-neutrality.
You still need to make sure it’s not just a marketing gimmick, though. The easiest way to find out if they really walk the walk is by their willingness to be transparent and share reporting on their actions and progress.
You can also look for venues/hotels with ISO 20121, ISO 14001 or LEED certifications, as it means they have set objectives to improve waste, carbon and water management, and have been independently verified.
3. Look for environmentally responsible design.
Venue policies and initiatives are important, but a venue’s physical infrastructure is another important factor in their event sustainability. Examples of sustainable design include reflective roof, solar panels, green roofs, water-conserving fixtures (harvesting rainwater, recycling “greywater”), efficient climate control (well-insulated walls and low-flow fixtures to reduce the power that air conditioning consumes), solar panels, LED lighting, apiaries, etc.
4. Pay attention to green initiatives in other areas
Look for implementations such as using amenity dispensers rather than plastic bottles, planting native trees and plants, choosing gym equipment that helps generate power (like what some hotels in Aruba did), etc.
As a bonus point, ask your AV team how you can create a green event by using less energy.
Culprit #3: Food & Beverage
The third-largest culprit for event waste and carbon footprint with 3% is food and beverage. The average conference participant produces 0.64 kg of landfill-bound waste at event venues each day, and food waste can represent over 40% of an event waste stream.
Here are some ways to reduce that impact.
1. Reconsider your food options.
Whenever possible, choose produce that is locally grown, seasonal, or organic for your menus.
Special diets are all the rage, so why not offer more vegan options with plant-based meals? At the 77th Annual Golden Globes, the menu was 100% plant-based.
Also, as a general rule, reduce the predominance of beef in your menus, as producing a pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water and releases about 22 lbs of carbon.
2. Develop a zero-waste event plan.
Get an accurate guest count. Often, event organizers fear there won’t be enough food and plan more than necessary. This excess only ends up in waste, so get your numbers right and reduce your surplus margins.
Alternatively, partner with shelters and charities in the vicinity of your event that are equipped to safely transport food and donate any leftovers after your event. Many venues already have programs like this in place, so make that a criterion when you’re sourcing them.
Work with and confirm that your venue recycles their waste and has facilities for composting the excess.
3. Reduce packaging.
If you have to use containers, go for recyclable materials and look at reusable or biodegradable cups, straws, etc. You could even include them as part of gift bags.
Ordering in bulk will also help to reduce packaging.
Finally, make sure trash and recycling bins are easily recognizable and distinguishable: the easier you make it on your attendees to recycle, the more they will do it.
Other Culprits Undermining Green Events
Travel, energy, and F&B might be the biggest culprits when it comes to your events environmental problem, but there are other areas that you can work on that will help you go green.
Gone are the days when you needed tons of brochures and printed guides to get your message across and disseminate instruction. Pre-printing badges should now be a thing of the past as well. Paper is out, let tech in.
Experiment with smart badges that can be reused or are embedded in wearables. These have the added benefit of allowing you to track traffic flow and interactions more easily.
Go all-in with mobile event apps, as they can provide your attendees with everything they need (agenda, interactive maps, brochures, instant notifications, etc.) on a device they are already used to. Check out our infographic to find out how mobile event apps can set you on the path to event sustainability.
Improve your social media game by creating communities that follow you. Then leverage those communities to share information via hashtags without ever having to hand out flyers or programs.
Events use products that come with a high risk of pollution, especially when held in sensitive environments such as parks, near watersheds, etc. Cleaners, paint, single-use plastic products, generators, portable toilets, etc. are all major threats to wildlife and ecosystems.
You might not be able to ban these products altogether, but be aware of their negative environmental effects and plan to reduce their use whenever possible. For example, it’s easy enough to ban most single-use plastic like straws or water bottles or to use environmentally-certified cleaners.
To reduce the likeliness of your swag ending up in a landfill, take some time figuring out what types of items your attendees will keep (luxury items, phone chargers/power banks, toys for kids, etc.).
Select items that are meaningful, functional and relevant as they are more likely to be kept and brought home by your guests.
Don’t forget to pay attention to the fact that some guests might have to go through airport security with these items, so while a bottle of branded hot sauce might seem like a great idea, it’s still going to end up in the airport trash if it’s over 3.4 ounces.
As a general rule, ban cheap plastic items and favor upcycled and recycled items, and make your conference bag part of the swag by using upcycled tote bags.
While swag is a great opportunity to sell sponsorship, encourage your partners to brand the items tastefully so people don’t have an issue using the items in their daily lives. Not everyone wants to wear something with a really obvious brand on it.
Finally, provide an opportunity for event-goers to donate what they don’t want by setting up bins at the exit where they can put the unwanted items. This way, you can easily donate them to a charity afterward.
The path to green events starts with an understanding of your main event sustainability issues. Target the primary culprits – travel, energy, and F&B – and set attainable objectives for improvement. Involve suppliers and vendors by including event sustainability requirements in your RFPs and contracts. Most importantly, keep track of your efforts and measure your progress.
If you need help finding the perfect sustainable venue for your next event, check out Cvent’s Venue Sourcing Platform.