The First Step to Event Sustainability Starts Here

A green event without an event sustainability policy is a bit like a road trip without a map, or a hike without a compass. Embarking on a journey without one can make you feel a little lost.

The First Step to Event Sustainability

An event sustainability policy should be the first step in planning a sustainable event, but often comes after green best practices are implemented. So creating one is a great New Years’ resolution for event professionals! In fact, the presence of a policy is arguably what elevates green events from novel experience trend to a planning strategy with a clear value proposition. So how can you take control of your event sustainability intentions to get green efforts working for you?

Why Should I Develop an Event Sustainability Policy?

Few green events have a policy to guide their actions, and often rely on checklists to implement best practice. But what are the fundamental aims of diverse best practices? An event sustainability policy attempts to answer this question, and can assist planning teams by:

1. Clarifying priority intentions so desired returns can be achieved. Last-minute green event programs can appear a bit like the tail wagging the dog, cobbled together having researched existing best practices that happen to be in place already. Such “policies” (if they can be called such) can appear a mish-mash of random acts that lack clear objectives. You wouldn’t plan your event without clear experience or economic objectives, so why should your sustainability program be any different?

2. Orienting staff and vendors in how to spend time and resources. One of the most common frustrations cited by event planners related to sustainability is that they don’t have time to pay attention to it. Vendors can be challenged where sustainability requests tend to be more emergent after contracting, rather than baked into scoping processes. Sustainability policies formalize expectations, giving clear priorities to follow at the outset.

3. Reducing risk. As the public face of sponsors and organizations, events face many reputational risks. Event sustainability policies can become a vehicle to identify and inoculate for “what if” risks, such as ethical issues, irresponsible sourcing decisions, corrupt bidding processes, labor disputes and other social and environmental issues that can cause negative public relations.

The American Wind Energy Association recently adopted an event sustainability policy to provide guidance to organizers in how to promote use of wind energy in the event supply chain. “Our goal is to embody the value We (Heart) Wind Energy in all we do, including events,” states Elesha Peterson Carr, Director, Conference Planning & Event Logistics. “We know this mandate is important to our members and it helps us be clear up front that we want vendors to deliver services that support wind energy, even if that means educating them about how to do that.”

How Do You Create an Event Sustainability Policy?

The roadmap varies depending on the nature of the event, depth of stakeholder involvement expected and available resources. Common steps in the policy journey can include:

1. Clarifying the scope. It’s important to identify at the outset what the policy will apply to. This is an exercise in boundary-setting. Does the policy cover one event? Multiple events? One department? Or an entire organization? Another important question involves distinguishing between what the policy can control, or merely influence.

2. Researching issues. A policy is great, but is it aimed at addressing the right problems? And who should define those problems? What you think are your most important sustainability challenges may not match the views of other stakeholders. Which brings us to the next point…

3. Talking to stakeholders. As an event planner you may have one perspective that suggests solid waste is your biggest event sustainability problem that should be addressed by your policy, given it is also something you have some control over. However it’s possible your event attendees have different priorities and feel strongly about food sustainability. Or that residents neighboring your event are bothered by the traffic congestion and noise. To make sure your policy addresses the right issues it’s important to talk to groups with an interest in your event about what they care about. This can be done through focus groups, surveys and evaluations.

4. Inventorying resources. It’s critically important that any event sustainability policy is filtered for available resources of time and money. This will ensure you’re equipped to achieve what you’re setting out to do, and don’t stretch yourself too thin. Part of this process involves forecasting what actions might be necessary and systems should be created to maintain the policy, and measure success against it.

5. Focusing intentions. Every event sustainability policy should clearly identify what you want to do. While it’s not necessary to get into the details of action plans and technical requirements, it’s important that over-arching statements about what you intend to achieve are made, prioritized and agreed to.

For Lorien Henson, Senior Events Marketing Manager at Hootsuite, an event sustainability policy has helped outline the environmental duty-of-care expected from internal event managers. “Our policy development process was deeply focused on preventing environmental impacts we could control, given many of our events are housed in third party experiences. The policy directs staff to buy smarter by following strict sustainability criteria that meet the primary goal of reducing solid waste. Any item we buy must currently meet two of our core criteria for source reduction and diversion of waste, and we’re aiming for three in future.”

What Should Your Event Sustainability Policy Include?

ISO 20121 provides some guidance on core elements that should be included in an event sustainability policy. The policy itself should be a succinct document that is signed by senior management.

1. Values: These are typically one-word principles or a brief statement that describe the spirit of conduct implied under the policy. Examples of values include: diversity, transparency, stewardship, leadership and inclusivity. It can help to ensure each value is clearly defined so they can be easily recognized, and modeled.

2. Issues: Policies often exist because there is a problem that needs to be identified, and solved. For example, climate change may be an issue that conference attendees care about so much that organizers are driven to act on it through energy reduction and efficiency goals. In contrast, an outdoor festival may be criticized for impacts on the natural environment, calling on the organizer to create a policy that focuses on protecting and rehabilitating the event site.

3. Goals and targets: Goals should be directed at addressing issues. They should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Most objectives are concise action statements, sometimes only two words: a verb and a noun. For example “improve health”, “reduce waste”, or “improve satisfaction”. Every goal should have a performance indicator that can be assessed, and short and long term targets should be set. For example, improving satisfaction may be gauged by an attendee rating event-to-event.

4. Commitments: Event sustainability policies should also identify any external or internal commitments. This might include requirements to comply with and exceed legal obligations, as well as any accords businesses may have signed on to, such as the UN Global Compact. At a minimum it should identify how the organization plans to report and communicate progress against the policy.

Where and When Should an Event Sustainability Policy Be Used?

Once created, the next step is to roll out and engage people in the event sustainability policy. There are some logical parts to this process:

1. Including the policy in staff orientations, trainings, reviews and incentive programs.

2. Integrating the policy with procurement so that RFPs and contract agreements reflect the policy.

3. Informing sponsors, speakers, attendees and other event participants of the policy so they are aware what to expect and how the policy affects them. This can be done through agreements, registration and confirmations.

4. Sharing progress against the policy with communications leads so that key messages can be reinforced through any public relations or reporting.

I Want to Get Started! Do You Have Any Examples?

Why yes! Here are some links to public event sustainability policies that you can refer to and we encourage you to share other examples:

• Small conference: GMIC 2012 Event Sustainability Policy
• Large congress: World Parks Congress 2014
• Large sporting event: Canada Winter Games 2015

In Conclusion

Event sustainability is a complicated topic, which only becomes more difficult with lack of intention and a clear strategy. An event sustainability policy can ground sustainable event efforts so they meet the outcomes desired by organizers, sponsors, attendees and other stakeholders.

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.
Comment Policy Comments
  • Hotel Desk

    So many great bang on topic posts coming from Event Manager Blog at the moment. I sit on the UK’s Hotel Booking Agent’s Association (HBAA) Technology, Environmental & Sustainability Committee and have just been preparing member information on Sustainability. Shawna – would it be ok if I link/ refernce to your post?

    • Shawna McKinley

      Appreciate the feedback and yes, please! Would be happy to have you link back to the content on Event Manager Blog. Thanks for your interest – and even more so for your committee time on this topic. I hope you’ll let us know how your work goes!

      • Hotel Desk

        Many thanks Shawna and now Done! Always grateful for expert opinions

  • I agree sustainability should be based on values to engage people. Otherwise it would (sadly) be ignored. People are very caught up in just getting through and they are so distracted. If you appeal to the greater good in a way that is meaningful people listen

  • Guy Bigwood

    nice article Shawna. Not sure about you but it seems many years that we have been helping people to write sustainability policies. Keep up the good fight and happy new year

  • Gary Schwake

    Well done Shawna. A thorough review of the “Why” before the “How” is always a great place to start! Our company, Virtual Event Bags, works with many events that start with the intent of eliminating waste, but then quickly realize that migrating to digital is not only sustainable, but more productive for sponsors!

Julius Solaris
Editor, Julius Solaris

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