Going Green in more than name

Before the Scottish referendum (September 2014) The Scottish Green Party (SGP) membership stood at just over 1000. Fast forward just over twelve months and membership is over 9000. For any membership body, whether an international professional body, national trade association or political party, this is one of those problems you would like to have. However a 900% increase in paying members in one year would start to stretch any organisation’s annual conference; especially a sustainable one.

Going Green

It was with this background that The SGP started to plan what would be their largest ever annual conference. Moving up from Napier University’s Craiglockhart Campus in 2014 to take over large chunks of the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) was the first major decision.

Finding a suitable and affordable venue for any annual conference is a challenge. For an organisation which looks to minimise the environmental impact of their annual conference finding the right venue becomes even harder especially in Scotland where organisers chose from a very small pool of large venues.

The location of the event is of course an important decision when trying to minimise the environmental impact and for the SGP Glasgow was the right choice “holding the event in Glasgow meant fewer of our members had to travel. Branches organised car pools, booked trains in advance and used public transport wherever possible.” Many attendees arrived by bicycle, including their co-covener Patrick Harvie.

Lesley Riddock at The Scottish Green Party

Lesley Riddock at The Scottish Green Party

So the attendees were playing their part. But what more could the SGP have done to limit the environmental impact?

  • Having an online option and the use of some voting technology would have certainly limited the need for some to travel.
  • A 32 page paper conference brochure seemed rather incongruous.
  • Not providing lunch or refreshments meant the SGP had no control or influence over thousands of meals noting in that rather wieldy pack “members are reminded reminded that the catering lies completely with SECC and may not meet all of our aspirations with regards to supplier, packaging and so on”.

Overall an event is only as sustainable as its venue

The SECC is “Scotland’s premier national venue for public events, concerts and conferences” and would rightly be expected to lead the way in sustainability. “The environmental impact was considered; the SECC takes measures to limit their environmental impact” said a SGP spokesperson.

I wondered what those measures were so I followed the link the SGP had sent to explain why they chose the SECC. I landed on a page which started: “SEC Ltd (SEC) is aware of the potential impact that the events staged at the (SECC) can have on the environment.” Beneath the statement was a list of eighteen things that they will do to develop more environmental policies with the “objective of gaining formal accreditation”. It is an impressive list that would at first sight fill a sustainable organiser with confidence however the list simply says things like “reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill” and “work with the Carbon Trust to assess and reduce SECC’s carbon footprint” it doesn’t have any targets, timelines or success to date.

I asked the SECC if they had any actual numerical targets for any of their measurements. I also asked if “introducing recycling wherever possible” and “reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill” were just statements; had measurements or actual targets been set for either?” They responded: “The simple fact is that the website is being relaunched in January 2016, and therefore all of the information is currently being updated.” This was a statement of fact rather than an answer to my question. I then followed a link to their Green Policies Document. It lists some more details on how the SECC is taking a Green approach. It is dated 2008.

Going Green is more than using the phrase

It is of course easy to attend a Green Party conference and expect to attend the most sustainable conference you’ve ever experienced. The same can be said of events at the largest venues. But that would be to miss the underlying challenges faced by our industry in being more sustainable. Being green in practice is hard even if you are green in name. There is no doubt that the SGP would like to run the most sustainable event possible, as would many organisations, but that challenge seemed to have been too great for 2015. There’s also little doubt that the SECC really wants to be green.

It is relatively easy to take a perfunctory approach to running a sustainable event or running a sustainable venue but doing it properly (and just defining what “properly” means) is the real challenge. Clearly running a sustainable / green event comes with significant challenges for any organisation including ethically based political parties or our largest venues.

It will be interesting to see how the UK conference industry approaches sustainability in 2016. We need our guiding lights. I would love to hear from any organisations taking a serious run at managing a sustainable event in 2016.

An edited version of this blog post appeared in Conference News in November 2015.