17 Things I Wish I Knew BEFORE Planning a Sustainable Event

Working at the intersection of sustainability and events for the last several years, I’ve learned there are a few important items missing from most “green” event checklists. Tips I sure wish someone had shared with me during my Event Sustainability 101!

Event sustainability

1. Don’t Waste your Time on Insignificant Issues or Over-sell Minor Steps

Paperless events are happening naturally as technology use at events expands. In the meantime food waste, emissions and unfair labor concerns mount. We need to turn our eyes to these and other major challenges that present our biggest opportunities and risks.

2. Event sustainability is a management skill. Not just a marketing skill

Engaging stakeholders, reducing inefficiency, enhancing experiences, improving satisfaction and reducing risk: these are strategic benefits event sustainability strategies can bring to your event in addition to providing public relations opportunities.

3. Start early

Excluding sustainability from your critical event path at the outset limits the benefits sustainability strategies can deliver. And tacking on extra green event work at the last minute can frustrate and cause strain for your event team. Avoid it!

4. Never stop asking

You’re asking. I’m asking. GMIC and SEA members are asking! Five years ago we did not have major hotel chains with sustainability management programs. Now we do. That’s the difference you’re making when you ask for better, more sustainable practices on a daily basis!

5. Stop judging

Many of us worry we’re not doing enough to be “green”. So although it’s important to be diligent about verifying, be careful about leaving the impression you feel other’s efforts are insufficient. Most of us are doing our best, and want to contribute to a better world. So nurture these good intentions!

6. One person can make a difference

I’ve had the fortune of learning from many people in the sustainable event field. People who are all-star champions, advocating for a better industry in very visible ways. And those who move quietly in the background, ensuring follow-through on important actions when no one is watching. Each and all are important and make a critical difference.

7. Know what you’re buying

With the FTC Green Guides things are getting better, but green-washing is a problem in the event industry. From signage substrates to name badge systems and disposable serviceware, we need to ask for proof of claims and support those buyers who are rigorous and transparent about their product marketing.

8. Provide adequate, skilled staff and resources

While it helps to tap outside experts, the best event sustainability programs are supported from the inside out, providing adequate staff with appropriate skills supported by a plan to motivate and reward them.

9. Don’t rely on the sales department to be your sustainability expert

Please don’t misunderstand: love you guys! But Directors of Sustainability and Operations are often best prepared to answer technical sustainability questions (see #2). So please involve them!

10. Lead by example

Nothing shows you’re committed to sustainability results like snapping on a pair of rubber gloves and reaching into the trash in a business suit and heels. So don’t be afraid to do it. It may sound crazy, but some of my best event moments have come while bonding over dumpster diving!

11. Make the unseen, seen

Our challenge with events is that so much of what we do is unseen by our attendees and even ourselves. Take what is left over from events after we leave. What is discarded? Where does it go? Over the last several years I’ve toured dozens of recycling and composting plants with many event planners. Few return from the experience unaffected by the amount of waste and the complicated process of handling it, and often become empowered about what they can do to reduce landfill.

12. Verify and measure

What gets measured gets managed, and what is not measured can be difficult to evaluate. So do yourself a favour: for every sustainable event step, make sure you have a plan to measure and benchmark your success.

13. Step out of your silo

I learn a great deal from my peers in the event industry. And I also learn from people outside of this community: those who work in technology, science, education, ethics and other fields. Smart, successful, sustainable events can elevate their value by considering their integrated value with these fields, and vice versa.

14. Ask for feedback

I like to think I have the best ideas, and am anticipating needs. But let’s be serious: everyone needs a lens from the outside looking in, including your event and its sustainability effort. So ask broadly and often for feedback on how you’re doing.

15. Don’t forget to say thank you

From the top line to the front line, validate the effort of all of those contributing to your sustainability program. That includes not only your CSM, but also the people who clean up after your attendees, cook your food and can often go unseen, and under-appreciated. Trust me: you won’t regret it.

16. Stop being all Captain Fun Sponge about it

I confess I can be a bit alarmist about sustainability issues sometimes. And I know no one really likes me when I have my little black rain cloud hat on all the time. Not because they disagree necessarily, but being overly problem-focused and negative can stall any sense of progress before it starts. So remember, sustainability is a solution-oriented story, and can be a source of fun. Which leads me to my last lesson:

17. Don’t lose sight of the experience

Sustainability is often seen as adversarial to attendee satisfaction. But it doesn’t have to be. After all, it can be a delicious way to add story to food, mindfulness to your program, or fun and games to an event experience. So embrace it as a playground for innovation and inspiration. You may be surprised by the results!

In Conclusion

If there is one thing I’ve learned in 15 years of working in sustainable events, it is that there can be a dramatic gap between the theory of event sustainability, and the reality. These are a few inside lessons I wish I’d been told at the outset, and welcome you to share yours, too!

About The Author
Shawna McKinley
Shawna McKinley is a sustainability specialist who believes in the power of events to make the world a better place. She helps eventprofs take practical, smart steps through zero waste and carbon conscious choices that generate social good, business value, and happy event participants. Read more on her blog, Eventcellany.
Julius Solaris
Editor, Julius Solaris

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