Sustainability at events is more than reducing paper and plastics

In April I spoke in Gothenburg at the Association World Congress. The subject was social justice issue and specifically sustainable events. My subject: Sustainability at events, is more than reducing plastics and paper use.

Gothenburg was the perfect city to speak about sustainable events. For three years in a row from 2016 to 2018, the destination won the “World’s most sustainable meeting and event destination”

That was the place, and I now think this is the time. In this post I wanted to expand on my presentation, in the hope that I can persuade more event organisers to start to think about sustainability and then to act!

Sustainability is much broader than most event professionals think

I decided early on that I wanted to avoid “RPP” reducing paper and plastics as a topic. This seems to be the default for planners when considering or talking about sustainability.

So I decided to look at other issues. And to do that I decided to look at two large and very different events.

The first event I covered was the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe Festival. This is the largest arts festival in the world. It’s grown to become a massive event.

Slide three shows one of the stages used by private companies during the festival.

Slide four shows you the view of World Heritage recognised view of Edinburgh Castle when there are no private events, in this public space.

Slide five and six show you what the “view” is like when the space is used during the festival. Can you see the difference?

sustainability issues with large events

sustainability at the Edinburgh festival goes way past the amount of paper flyers and plastic bottles used!

I wanted to make it clear that when we take our large events to destinations we have to be aware that we are setting up where other people live.

And we have to take a much more sustainable look at how we balance our event with the needs of those local communities.

I mean, what went through the head of the event organiser who thought that this was, in any way, an acceptable way to “protect” their event.

In slide seven I took a headline from a Scottish paper. “Nearly one in three Edinburgh Fringe workers are not paid” This is wholly unacceptable. Just because someone would work for you for free, does not mean you shouldn’t pay them. I posted about volunteers back in 2016.

Paying a fair and a living wage is an issue covered by sustainability.

In slide eight you can see an image of a door with a dozen key boxes. This is from a front door of a block of flats in Edinburgh. There are 18 flats in the block. 12 are rented out as temporary accommodation.

The heart and sole of communities is being ripped out by speculative use of, what should be, permanent homes.

The large events in Edinburgh swell the demand for this type of accommodation and it is causing serious harm. The bigger an event the bigger the problem. The Festival is set to grow this year and therefore so are the issues.

Slide 10 and 11 show that there are issues are not only for Scotland and Edinburgh to manage.

I wanted to show that this was not really about the Edinburgh festival, but was about the global impact of tourism and of course the role of events within that mega industry.

Slides 10 and 11 are from Barcelona. And here’s an article about the impact of tourism on Barcelona.

The example of PCMA Convening Leaders

In order to expand on my ideas around sustainability I used an event from early 2019. The PCMA Convening Leaders event which was held in Pittsburg in Jan 2019. Here are my slides.

PCMA waste food

Even when an event tries really hard it can’t tick all of the sustainability boxes.

Slide 14 shows the water flask (which I still use) that was given to all attendees as a way to reduce their use of plastic bottles.

We are seeing more events doing this (World Association Congress did this too!) and it is a great idea.

However, as you can see, the bottle arrived wrapped in plastic, surrounded by other things wrapped in plastic. My point here was that it is really hard to reduce waste EVEN when you are trying to do it.

Food. What to serve and how much to serve!

Next I covered one of the biggest wastes at our events, and surely one of the easiest to solve, food waste.

The European contingent at Convening Leaders, as a whole, could not believe that amount of waste food. It was incredible. There must have been tonnes of food after each serving (5000 people attended).

I know PCMA are looking at this and I hope I can see things have changed when I attend their next big event in LA.

I also covered using local and seasonal foods. And removing meat! This is a great way to run a sustainable menu.

I told the story about running an event in Scotland. I asked the chef for a seasonal and local menu. What he suggested was great, however it contained Coconuts. Now if you’ve ever been to Scotland…………

Online events – the sustainable sliver bullet

My last point was to help the attendees realise the potential of online events to help boost the sustainability of their events.

Physical events, by design, are not sustainable.

Online events, by design, are sustainable.

As an industry we may have the solution right in front of us. I challenged the attendees to consider having more online attendees at their big meetings instead of more physical attendees.

Sustainability is the biggest challenge the industry faces, mainly because it contains so many aspects. Just think about it. And I suppose that there’s where I think the industry should start: by just thinking about it.