Going Green: Steps to Sustainable Events
Originally published on April 18, 2022. Updated on April 19, 2023.
For many organizations, sustainable practices are no longer a request but a requirement, and this extends to their meetings and events. The push for greener events plus the necessities of the pandemic have led to a more sustainable industry overall, from individual meals replacing wasteful buffets and water stations replacing plastic bottles to outdoor events reducing energy consumption and locally sourced food reducing transportation emissions.
Additionally, while organizations are excited to return to in-person events and the benefits of being face-to-face, they also recognize the benefits of incorporating virtual and hybrid formats into their overall event strategy, both of which lead to a practically nonexistent carbon footprint. (But virtual events aren’t completely carbon neutral—more on that later.)
It is imperative that we continue to explore best practices and make all events, regardless of size or format, as sustainable as possible. To help accomplish this, we detail steps that can be taken throughout the planning process to help you go green and reduce your environmental impact.
Venue Sourcing and Contracting
To plan a truly sustainable event, start at the beginning: choosing your location. If you can, select a destination central to the majority of attendees to reduce the impact of transportation emissions. While that is not always possible, no matter where you end up, you can and should commit to a venue that shares your dedication to environmentally friendly practices. Thanks to the increasing focus on sustainability, eco-conscious properties are more plentiful than ever.
Look for venues that…
- Hold sustainability certifications, such as LEED, Green Key, or WELL.
- Use onsite renewable energy or are committed to using offsite renewable energy.
- Choose to buy greener products, including LEDs and all-natural cleaning solutions.
- Incentivize guests to limit housecleaning services to reduce water usage.
- Combat food waste by donating or composting unserved food.
- Offer sustainable, low waste, and zero waste menu options priced comparably to conventional food items.
- Divert materials from landfills through waste reduction, recycling (at both front and back of house), and more.
- Harvest rainwater for landscaping and replenish water back to its source.
- Have outdoor event space or naturally lit indoor spaces that allow for reduced energy consumption.
- Can broadcast or livestream sessions, allowing for the possibility of a hybrid event.
Many venues publicize their green initiatives, but if the information isn’t readily available, simply ask during the sourcing process, and push back on any unsatisfactory answers. After all, negotiations are about more than pricing and concessions. Maybe they don’t typically donate or compost unused food, for example, but are willing to do so for your event—they may even be encouraged to continue the practice in the future. No matter what answers are given or promises made, don’t forget to ask for contractual commitments to ensure follow through.
Travel and Transportation
Transportation may be the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions per the Environmental Protection Agency, but there are still ways to lessen the impact of your event. As part of your event strategy, evaluate which events should be fully in-person and incorporate virtual and hybrid formats when it makes business sense. While digital events aren’t entirely without environmental impact, they are still significantly more sustainable when it comes to transportation emissions.
Plan your in-person and hybrid agendas strategically. For multi-day events, avoid adding an extra day of travel before or after the event by starting in the afternoon on the first day and ending in the morning on the last day. For one-day events, confine the event to the middle of the day to allow adequate time to travel both there and back.
Between planes, trains, and automobiles, trains currently win. With reduced emissions and energy consumption, traveling by train has a lower carbon footprint overall, making it the most sustainable way for attendees to get to your event.1 It may not always be possible, but it’s worth looking into. Plus, it makes for a fun change of pace for guests!
However, the sky’s the limit for the future of sustainable air travel, and the numbers prove it.2
- Jet aircraft in service today are 80% more fuel efficient than the first jets of the 1960s.
- Alternative fuels, particularly sustainable aviation fuels, have been identified as excellent candidates for helping achieve the industry climate targets, reducing fuel’s carbon footprint by up to 80%.
- The new Airbus A380 and A220, Boeing 787, ATR-600, and Embraer E2 aircraft use less than three liters of jet fuel per 100 passenger kilometers, matching the efficiency of most modern compact cars.
Whether arriving at a train station or an airport, when taking your attendees to the final venue, shuttle buses are the way to go. A recent report3 found shuttles to be more efficient and environmentally friendly than rideshares, partly because they produce fewer emissions and reduce traffic congestion. Plan your attendees’ arrival times accordingly to maximize shuttle usage and minimize the number of trips and rideshares.
Consider the walkability of your location. Accessibility and availability of public transportation are important not only for events taking place in multiple buildings but also for attendees’ personal time between meetings. To help attendees get around, provide maps (through the event app, of course) with local points of interest and travel distances, including the time it takes to walk or bike and public transportation routes.
Food and Beverage
Sustainable food and beverage choices begin before the meal is even served. When planning your menu, use locally sourced, seasonal, and organic items, and choose vegan and vegetarian items and chicken instead of beef to lessen your water footprint. To limit disposables and single-use plastics, offer food that doesn’t require utensils, or at least ensure all utensils are reusable.
At serving time, share the food sources and sustainability details on your menus to get attendees thinking about the impact of their meal. Pre-packaged items should be served in recyclable containers, and instead of pre-filling water glasses, have glasses and pitchers available for self-service to reduce overall water usage. Water glasses are also a more sustainable choice than water bottles, although if you must use bottles, ensure they’re reusable.
After everyone has had their fill, do you part to help combat the growing global concern of food waste. Luckily, the pandemic largely did away with buffets, which are notorious for overabundance. Family-style or individual servings are less wasteful, but if you must use a buffet, ensure the venue will donate or compost any unused food. In fact, food donation or composting should be standard practice for all food and beverage service; ensure your venue offers either or, ideally, both practices and have it written into your contract to guarantee follow through.
When it comes to the management of event materials, lack of strategy and not thinking about what is left after the meeting (and what will become of it) is a huge miss. Materials range from badges and registration materials to signage and microphone batteries. Many event materials can easily be made accessible digitally, especially with the rise of mobile apps for all event types. Any materials that must be available physically should follow a review process using the simple adage of reduce, reuse, recycle.
To effectively reduce, take a deep look at your objectives and what you truly need to achieve them. Keep only your need-to-haves and either incorporate your nice-to-haves digitally or nix them altogether. Once you identify what is critical, select partners that are focused on reducing waste in production, use environmentally friendly products and methods, and have products that can be recycled post-event.
Reusing can be as simple as creating materials that can be used year over year or in a series of meetings or events, such as signage without dates, with multipurpose branding, or with removable inserts. Another tactic is to work with your venue and partners to see what customers they have before and after your event and whether materials could be reused between events to save on waste and human capital.
When it comes to recycling, it is important that you also include composting in your strategy. If a material can’t be reused or recycled but is still in good condition, consider donating it to a local charity or other organization. Centerpieces often last for more than one day and can be donated to a local nursing home, for example.
For non-HCP meetings and events where gifts or other event swag are allowed, be mindful of what gifts are chosen. Provide items attendees actually want or need to ensure they don’t end up in the trash post-event, and minimize branding to increase the likelihood of people using them in their daily life.
Consider how the gifts are given—upcycled tote bags are more eco-friendly than plastic packaging, for example—as well as the sustainability of the gifts themselves. Sustainable and vegan items can be of just as high a quality, perhaps even more so, and are better for the environment. Examples include solar-powered technology and plant-based vegan leather.
It should come as no surprise that virtual events have a lower carbon footprint than in-person events, but did you know they’re not completely carbon neutral? According to a recent study,4 a one-hour video call emits between 150 and 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide. Using that data, another study5 found that a one-day Zoom conference with 200 attendees results in about the same emissions as driving a car 3,300 miles.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t host virtual meetings or events when it’s the best format for your objective. In addition to reducing food, paper, and plastic waste, a separate study6 recently found that shifting from an in-person to virtual event reduces the carbon footprint by 94% and energy use by 90%. Even shifting from fully in-person to hybrid helps, with carbon and energy reductions up to 66%.
What can you reduce to reduce the environmental impact of virtual events even further?7
- Have attendees turn off their cameras if they are not needed on screen. This alone can save up to 96% of an attendee’s footprint.
- Encourage attendees to watch in standard definition instead of high definition to help reduce emissions from network data transfer.
- Ask presenters to compress media files before sharing with attendees—the larger the file, the more energy used to send it.
- Remind attendees to delete unneeded emails and files after the event to save storage space and the associated energy usage.
When planning your event, the environment should be just as much a concern as the event purpose and budget. As these steps show, sustainability is not an afterthought but something that can and should be incorporated into every facet of your event.
Need help planning your events or making them more sustainable? Contact us.
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1 The Conversation, 2019
2 Air Transport Action Group, 2022
3 Event Transportation Systems, 2019
4 MIT Energy Initiative, 2021
5 International Journal of Environmental Studies, 2021
6 Nature, 2021
7 University of Michigan Office of Campus Sustainability, 2021