A drawing giving the message of sustainability

How to build sustainability into your event planning from the beginning

Topic: Insight /

When it comes to sustainability, the events industry hasn’t always been greener than green.

By their very nature, events create a lot of waste and leave a significant carbon footprint, as highlighted by a recent meetgreen.com study. This found that an average event attendee produces 1.89kg of waste a day, with 1.16kg of it ending up in landfill.

While making small changes (like eliminating single-use plastic) will of course make a difference, making your event truly sustainable takes much more. It requires a fundamental, cultural shift towards sustainability at all levels - starting from the top.

True sustainability is a strategy, built in to the DNA of the event itself, not a series of tactics designed to look good but offer small changes. So, how do you build sustainability into your event planning? Here’s everything you need to know...

Mission, vision and values

There’s a big difference between talking the talk, walking the walk and planning how to do both. In other words, if you’re going to say you’re committed to sustainability, you need to make sure you genuinely follow through on your promises. The only way to ensure that you will is by building sustainability into your company’s core mission, vision and values. Otherwise it can backfire terribly, just like it did for Iceland.

Their controversial (subsequently banned) Christmas advert showed the destruction of the rainforest and plight of orangutans at the hands of palm oil growers. The ad followed a pledge by the frozen food supermarket to remove palm oil from all own brand foods by December 2018.

In January 2019, it transpired that, unable to meet the self-imposed deadline, Iceland had instead removed their own-brand labels from 17 products. This is a good example of a ‘knee-jerk’ approach to sustainability, rather than realistic, strategic change. Iceland’s intentions may have been good but the approach was fundamentally flawed.

Other big brands like Apple, Chevron and Adidas all understand the importance of creating a culture which is driven and underpinned by sustainability; it’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a key business driver. It’s precisely this approach which needs to be adopted in event planning.

Rather than thinking about how you can make your event more sustainable by making changes to your plan, sustainability should be driving the planning and the choices that are made.

One of the critical factors in achieving this is ensuring the person or people at the top are fully committed to the shift. Sustainability isn’t a marketing tactic, it’s a business decision.

Whoever’s at the helm needs to understand and believe in the strategic value of becoming sustainable. They’re the person responsible for setting the company objectives and vision, so you need them fully on board, driving the culture.

Once you’ve created this foundation, you can begin to implement strategic changes to firstly investigate what your current impact is, and then to plan your goals.

Benchmarking and reporting

How do you know exactly where you are in terms of sustainability? How do you know where you want to be?

From social media engagement to attendee dwell time, organisers use metrics to measure the success of their events. This is how you find out what worked, what didn’t and what you need to change in the future. Sustainability needs to be treated in the same way. Like any other part of your event strategy, it’s something which needs to be measured and monitored.

Companies like Puma and Stella McCartney use EP&L (environmental profit and loss) reports to measure the impact their businesses have on the environment. These reports are transparent and public, proving the brands’ commitment to a more sustainable way of doing business.

By looking at every element of their supply chain, product design, R&D and manufacturing, brands like Stella McCartney can quantify the environmental impact of their entire business and pinpoint where changes need to be made. This process of measuring and adapting has led to Stella McCartney reducing their environmental impact per kg of raw materials by 37% since 2013.

When it comes to events, taking elements of EP&L or other types of sustainability reporting is a good way to track where you currently sit in terms of environmental impact, and, importantly, how you can make tactical changes to decrease your footprint.

The GRI is an organisation that has pioneered a standardised way for businesses to report and track their sustainability. What their approach highlights is the true breadth of sustainability and why it’s crucial to look at a wide range of factors.

While we tend to think of sustainability as being a purely environmental issue, the GRI also includes the social and economic impacts; in other words, the human cost. Things like ethical banking, diversity, fair working standards and impacts on local communities are all elements which event planners should be taking into consideration when evaluating their sustainability.

Again, it comes back to a strategic, holistic approach: What is your overall aim? Which factors do you need to measure to move towards your objective? How will you measure them? Just like all other elements of event planning, the measuring, reporting and changing of your sustainability strategy needs to be an ongoing process.

Communication

In order for sustainability to work, it needs to be lived and breathed in everything your event does. Once you’ve clarified what your goals are and you have a vision for the event, you need to communicate that effectively with your team. But you also need your suppliers, exhibitors, on-the-ground staff and PR teams on board. So, how do you do it?

The most obvious way is to simply talk to everyone involved and tell them what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. While this is important and valid, in order for people to feel engaged and invested, they need to be active, rather than passive, participants.

Making internal changes, like going paperless, having a company-wide meat-free day or incentivising staff to use public transport or cycle to work all help to create a culture of positive action when it comes to sustainability. But of course these are small, tactical moves. The key to effectively communicating a move towards creating sustainable events is to think strategically.

If your mission, vision and values have sustainability at their core, you’ve won half the battle. If it’s part of the company ethos, it should help to guide everyday behaviour and decision-making at every level of the business.

Opening up the dialogue is another way to develop this culture and engage everyone. Could you appoint a sustainable champion to lead the charge? What ideas do your team have for making your event more sustainable? What types of internal initiatives would they like to see?

If you don’t foster a work culture committed to sustainability, asking staff to get on board with a sustainable event will seem like an incongruous PR stunt. Conversely, when you empower people to make small, easy changes as a collective, you engender an authentic, active attitude towards sustainability - it becomes second nature rather than a passing trend.

Sustainability isn’t just about being responsible for your own business, rather everything it touches - including your suppliers. If you’ve eliminated plastic from your event but your supplier hasn’t, you’re inadvertently using plastic. If you’re committed to fair pay and social justice but one of your suppliers is exploiting their staff, you’re inadvertently contributing to inequality.

If suppliers don’t share the same values, can you help them see why they need to examine their approach to sustainability? To achieve sustainability, everyone you work with needs to be singing from the same hymn sheet, so it’s vital everyone buys into it. When you’re communicating the changes, telling is important, but showing is much more effective.

In it for the long haul

Once you’ve built sustainability into your company vision and set the metrics and benchmarks, it’s all about keeping it going. Just as your company changes, so too do all the external factors, so it’s crucial you keep evaluating and finding new ways to become more sustainable. Doing so isn’t something which can be fixed with a single application. It’s an ongoing, never-ending process which needs constant analysis and care.

Apart from the obvious social, economic and environmental benefits, a commitment to. sustainability can improve the way your business operates and it can even have a positive effect on your bottom line - as long as you’re willing to invest in it.

Sustainability isn’t a buzzword or a PR tactic - it’s become a fundamental aspect of how we operate, both as individuals and in business. Just like your marketing plan, employee engagement or how satisfied your customers are, sustainability takes focus, commitment and time. If you take a tokenistic approach, it won’t change anything - and it may actually damage your brand image. But when you build it into your event strategy and make it part of your company vision, sustainability can make a big difference, for the wider world, your event and your business as a whole.

Rapiergroup can help you with any part of your corporate event strategy. If you want to find out more, get in touch today.

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