The term sustainability is a lot broader than you may think. So what is it and what does that mean for sustainability in events? 

Sustainability is a buzzword. 

It’s a fact. It’s everywhere. 

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. See.. sometimes things get attention because they are the latest fad in a very superficial kind of way. But also sometimes, it is a sign of a budding collective awareness. 

Increasingly, sustainability is considered a necessity and a responsibility rather than a choice. It subscribes to the idea that what we do matters. Small and consistent efforts from everybody will leave a large imprint for the future. 

But really, what does it mean to be sustainable? Have you ever wondered? 

What is Sustainability?

When we drop the word ‘Sustainability’, it’s guaranteed to brings up images of cutlery made of avocado pips, lines of colour coded recycling bins and energy-efficient lightbulbs. But sustainability goes beyond taking care of Papatūānuka (or Mother Earth, as some might say). 

In a general sense, sustainability considers how we can meet today’s needs without compromising our children’s tomorrow. The idea of environmental sustainability (concerning the planet) falls squarely into that idea. But there is also social (concerning people) and economical (concerning profit) sustainability. This threefold of sustainability is also known as ‘The Three Pillars of Sustainability’. 

United Nations goes as far as identifying 17 sustainable development goals that range from ‘Affordable and Clean Energy’ to ‘Quality Education’ all the way to ‘Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure’. What it tells us is that it takes a wide scope with a strong focus to create a sustainable world. But also that the tentacles of sustainability are everywhere. 

Which bears the question, how does that translate to events? Is it even possible for events to be sustainable on so many levels? And if so, how?

Pillar 1: Environmental Sustainability in Events

This is what people think about when you bring up sustainability. We now know that is only a part of what entails sustainability. That said, it doesn’t make it any less important. 

Reducing Waste

Of course, you can’t discuss environmental sustainability in events without addressing waste. I mean, where do we even start? The amount of trash an event produces is often mind-boggling: coffee cups, plastic water bottles, printed brochures, sponsored promotional material, plastic bags, one-off signs and banners. The list is ongoing. 

Did you know that the average event attendee produces a whopping 1.89kg of waste per day? Fair to say it all adds up. 

Recycling, of course, is in one way to address the landfill issue. But there is so much more we can do on an environmental level that goes beyond recycling.

Carbon Footprint

See…Businesses, countries and households all have a carbon footprint. Heck, we even calculate carbon footprints of cars and concrete. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that events also have a carbon footprint. And it’s usually not a tiny one. 

A carbon footprint all has to do with carbon dioxide and the impact on climate change. When you consider the impact of events on the atmosphere, the biggest contributor is without a doubt air travel. In the past, the way to reduce the carbon footprint of an event was to choose a central event location to minimise the amount of unnecessary travel. These days, we know we can do better. Much better. 

That’s because for years there was a reluctance to involve technology in events out of fear for ‘losing the human touch’. We all know Covid-19 dealt with that swiftly: virtual events are a fact and they are here to stay. In past blogs, we’ve discussed the pros and cons of virtual events at great length and we won’t delve into this too deeply apart from saying that hybrid events do a lot more than provide you with a back-up plan in case of an alert level change.  

Pillar 2: Socially Sustainable Events

When you say social, you’re talking about people. 

Surely if an event is anything, it’s about people, about community AND about making an impact. 

But what does it mean to be socially sustainable?

Social sustainability chases the idea that we can achieve healthy lives for everybody in the longer term. It’s about the social wellbeing of the individual as well as entire groups and how to balance those two. 

Equity, cultural diversity, living wages, healthy working conditions, giving back to the local community, work-life balance, facilitating meaningful connections all dabble into the social aspect of sustainability. 

We’re lucky to be living in Aotearoa where we have a deeply engrained tradition of community support. On a more global scale, Covid-19 (again) gave us a good kick up the butt when it came to the dangers of ignoring social connection and our awareness around it. 

It’s true there is a raising sensibility around social responsibility but it’s still early days for social sustainability in events and in business in general. 

Pioneers in Social Sustainability

Luckily brave pioneers are popping up. Several months ago, we had an Oh-Ah-Ha Live with Jessica Vanda from The Tenth Letter, an events business that focusses on the social impact events can have.  

With the amount of people and the cluster of knowledge that gathers in an otherwise unusual way, events and conferences act as a unique platform to create change in the community. This can mean anything from looking at your supply chain, instigating a policy change to giving back to the community. 

It often starts with a latent awareness and a desire to make some change. Ultimately, the sky is the limit. 

Pillar 3: Financial or Economical Sustainability in Events

The phrase ‘Economic sustainability’ is mostly used to indicate that the financial figures of a business or a country etc are consistently looking good and are expected to continue to do so. But that’s only one way to look at economic sustainability and a fairly limiting one at that.   

Seen within the context of what we defined as ‘sustainability’, Economic sustainability is about responsible use of resources in a way that is also good for business. Local economy, fair trade, profit sharing, long-range planning (as opposed to short-term gain) amongst other things come into play. 

When you think of it, it’s not that hard to see that economical sustainability in events is closely interlinked with both environmental sustainability and social sustainability. 

So what does that mean for events? And is it even possible to organise a successful economically sustainable event? 

The Price of Sustainable Events

I mean, surely we all know that environmental sustainable conference comes with a hefty price tag, right? And thinking about it, aren’t socially sustainable events a bit fluffy? Wrong on both accounts!

While, of course, that may be true in some cases, it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Not all environmental and socially sustainable solutions raid your wallet. For instance, earlier we mentioned hybrid events and the impact this has on environmental sustainability. They can be, but don’t have to be any more expensive. 

But it can also be as simple as replacing all the print-work with an events app. It’s something we do fairly consistently for our events these days and the difference it makes is considerable. 

Looking at the Long-Term Plan 

When discussing economic sustainability, you can’t omit considering the longer term gain. 

That’s because, as we mentioned earlier, sustainability is HOT. Attaching your name and brand with environmentally and/or socially friendly methods may well be a strategy that gets you attention.  

It puts you on the map for delegates, investors, stakeholders or potential employees. 

Think about this:  Business, organisations and investors routinely factor sustainability in into objectives and criteria. Potential employees and stakeholders consider it more than you may think. A business or organisation that is a front-runner in sustainability is seen as a mark of progressive and responsible thinking.  Of course this is a very attractive business to work with. 

Doing the opposite on the other hand (blatantly ignoring social and environmental sustainability during your event) exposes you to unwanted criticism. 

Legacy Events

When we go back to the definition of sustainability, it included a reference to our children’s long-term future. With that in mind, the idea of economic sustainability in events is not too dissimilar to what is called a Legacy Event. 

The term is often used in relation to large-scale sport events, such as the Olympics or the Rugby World Cup. Because of the scale of these events, they create a unique opportunity to inject sustainable long-lasting benefits to the cities where these events are organised. 

Obviously, understanding the ins and outs of legacy impact is the key. Not only does it determine which events a city or country you should bid for,  but how to quantify the anticipated benefits of the investment are make or break. Getting it wrong is ultimately a very, very costly affair.

How does that apply to you and your event? 

It’s about considering the long-lasting impact your event will have on the community; its legacy. It’s a perfect way to leave a long-term mark and make you stand out in the industry. Give them something to talk about for years to come. 

Planning a Sustainable Event: Our Top Tips

So if you think it’s time to jump on to the sustainability band wagon with your events, you’re not alone. Sustainability in events is not just something that makes total sense. It’s also ear-marked as one of the top trends in events. 

But before enthusiasm gets the better of you, we have some valuable tips that will set you up for your first sustainable event. 

Top Tips

  • Align your sustainable event with the company’s strategic objectives in sustainability. Your event is not a stand-alone occurrence. Many companies and organisations have a sustainability plan, it’s not often organisations remember to tie in the events they organise. 
  • Sustainability in an event is not an afterthought. To successfully plan for it, it needs to be captured in the purpose and objectives set during the planning phase. That way it filters through all decisions. This idea goes right back to what we discussed in an earlier blog about the importance of doing your homework when planning for an event and hiring a PCO. 
  • As you no doubt got from ‘The Three Pillars of Sustainability’, there are many things you can do to make your events more sustainable. Take a long and hard look at your previous events and the impact any changes would make. Make a priority list and consider ‘the low hanging fruit’ first: maximum impact for minimal effort/budget. 
  • If you want people to embrace sustainability during your event, you need to make it easy on them. Sustainability isn’t something that will come naturally to everyone. Be patient, don’t do it all at once and make sure that the changes you make are not a massive culture shock that might put people off. 
  • Some out of the box thinking may be required. Don’t jump on trends for the sake of it. Ask yourself WHY so you don’t lose sight of the delegate experience. 
  • Consider reducing negative impacts such as waste and carbon footprint. But also seek opportunities for events to leave positive legacies that benefit communities, like volunteer projects or farm to table food.
  • (Over-)communicate about your environmentally, economically and socially sustainable choices. What changes did you make and why? It’s like in real-estate: you can’t sell a secret, so you’re going to have to make some noise about it. Delegates and sponsors need to understand why you’re making the switch. Involving them makes them feel connected.
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