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How to Host More Sustainable Events

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In this article, we explore how organizers can promote sustainability with their events.

As we see and experience the effects of climate change, more and more people are calling on organizers to host more environmentally friendly events.

In this article, we'll explore the effect of events on our environment — and propose ways for organizers to minimize their own environmental impact moving forward.

What’s the environmental impact of an in-person event, anyway? 

We all know that in-person events demand a substantial outlay of resources, but what’s the real footprint of a national conference? There’s no one answer, but several factors are at play: 

  • Air travel causes at least 70% of an event’s total emissions. Compared to 2005 levels, global emissions from air travel are poised to rise by 300-700 percent by  2050.
  • Event attendees have an average carbon impact of 400 pounds of CO2 a day, but that can reach up to 2,000 pounds if they need to travel a long way to your event. 
  • The average national conference attendee produces 1.89 kg (4.16 lbs) of discarded waste per day, most of which lands in a landfill. (That doesn’t account for any waste produced en route to or from the event or at off-venue social events, e.g., to-go coffee cups, snack wrappers, transit to the event venue, etc.) 
  • About 41% of typical waste at an event is landfill. Only 35% can be recycled. 3% is donated, and 21% is organic.

How to Host More Sustainable Events 

Now that we've seen how events can impact the environment, let's talk solutions. Below are some of the best ways to make your event — hybrid or in-person — more environmentally friendly.

1. Don’t abandon all hope. 

Scrolling through TikTok through videos of flooding subway stations, it might feel like it’s already too late. While it’s too late to fully avoid the consequences of climate change, any effort to alleviate the effects of climate change is better than doing nothing - or perpetuating further damage. 

If nothing else, it’s what your customers want. More than 80 percent of people across 7 major industrial countries say it is important or very important for corporations to commit to reducing their carbon emissions and becoming net-zero, according to a report by Oliver Wyman. 

And those people are putting their dollars where their principles are. In a 2019 Forbes study, “the majority of Generation Z (54 percent) stated that they were willing to spend an incremental 10 percent or more on sustainable products, with 50 percent of Millennials saying the same. This compares to 34 percent of Generation X and 23 percent of Baby Boomers. 

The customer may not always be right, but in this case? They’re worth listening to. 

2. Provide virtual or hybrid event options for attendees.

Air travel is one of the biggest contributors to climate change: A one-way flight across the Atlantic from New York City to London emits one ton of carbon dioxide per passenger — and 2,500 flights travel that route every day. 

[bad for emissions will rephrase] But corporate companies have a unique ability to reduce those emissions levels, according to a recent Vox article. “In the United States, fewer than half of travelers in 2017 took a trip by air, according to an industry survey. Globally, less than one-fifth of the population has ever buckled in for a flight.” 

We’re not telling you to host all virtual events, all the time. But be intentional about hosting in-person events. 

Thoughtfully consider how in-person programming — and only in-person programming — will benefit your audience and consider alternatives whenever possible. 

For instance, instead of hosting three 10,000-person live national conferences per year, consider hosting one in-person conference and a few smaller hybrid events or virtual events

This lowers the carbon footprint of your event portfolio, while still providing valuable content to attendees and engaging sponsors. (Virtual events also broaden your global reach, which can unlock new audiences and product ideas for your business.) 

3. Place your in-person events in central, strategic locations.

A tempting solution is to regionalize your events. Instead of hosting a few huge national events, host smaller ones throughout the country. That way, guests spend less time in the air and spend less carbon in the air. 

Right? Not necessarily: On shorter flights, up to 25 percent of the fuel used is consumed by takeoff. (It takes a lot of energy to put an aircraft 40,000 feet in the air, who knew?) And once they’re at 40,000 feet, flights gradually become more efficient. 

That means that one direct flight can be more fuel-efficient than several shorter ones, espec(The Worldwatch Institute estimates the most fuel-efficient flight length to be 2,600 miles, just more than the distance between New York and Los Angeles.) 

What does that mean for you? Focus on hosting one large national summit in major centralized hubs, rather than several events in regional outposts, each of which require multiple connecting flights to reach (sorry, Montana). Then host virtual events and hybrid events on a more regular cadence to further reduce your footprint. 

Pro-tip: Provide incentives or discounts to attendees who use public transportation or carpool to your venue. 

4. Select a sustainable in-person or hybrid event venue. 

Your event’s carbon output depends largely on your choice of venue. Does it consume electricity and energy responsibly? How much of its energy use is provided by onsite renewable energy? Does it monitor its water usage with meters and monthly reports? What percentage of its waste does it recycle or compost?  

All of these factors will influence your event’s overall sustainability. So select the most eco-friendly venue with these tips: 

Vet your venue for sustainability with the following steps: 

a. Look for an LEED certification: There are a lot of certifications and compliance standards out there, but LEED is the gold standard. A LEED certification signals that The US Green Building Council has inspected the building’s operations and agrees that they align with industry standards for sustainable best practices, including responsible waste management policies, sustainable purchasing, water efficiency, energy use, and alternative transportation options. 

PS: Want the full rundown? Check out the US Green Building Council’s Venue Selection Guide.

b. Inquire about their staffing: Ensure your venue is working with an operational strategist, who will collaborate with building managers and engineers to minimize the space’s environmental impact.

c. Ask about their long-term sustainability efforts: Looking to start a long-term relationship with a venue? Ask if they’re investing in renewable energy or undertaking any other sustainability efforts in the future.

d. Obtain footprint reports from their previous events: Look for evidence of responsibility in past reports of hosted events. These reports should be transparent and comply with major reporting practices, like the Global Reporting Initiative

e. Partner with community-oriented spaces: Climate change disproportionately impacts people in lower-income communities, so look for venues with a strong record of social responsibility, community engagement, and philanthropy. (Some examples: using their space to host blood drives and mass vaccinations, partnering with local charities, employing formerly incarcerated community members, etc.)

f. Don’t skimp on public safety measures: With the COVID-19 pandemic has come additional cleaning supplies, PPE, and the return of single-use packaging, all of which consume additional resources. But these health and safety don’t have to come at the cost of sustainability. 

There’s no getting around the need for sanitizer and PPE, but use organic cleaning supplies and wear cloth masks whenever possible. (And in your pre-event messaging, encourage guests to do the same!). 

Also rethink the need for single-use packaging and service ware. According to research by the Sustainable Event Alliance, reusable dishes and glassware can be just as hygienic, if not more so, than disposable ones. Just make sure your staff can sanitize reusable utensils quickly enough to accommodate the lunch rush. (Also proactively tell attendees about these sanitation measures to give them peace of mind.) 

5. Create an environmentally friendly menu. 

Speaking of food, a lot of it gets wasted at events (we’re looking at you, sad salad bowls). So start by asking hybrid event attendees to register for each individual meal upon registration, instead of assuming that all attendees will attend all meals. Especially if they’re traveling to your event, they may prefer checking out local cuisine after hours over your offerings. 

With this information, you can more accurately estimate your F&B budget and lower food waste. (PS: Consider donating any leftovers to a local food pantry — just make sure you have a team member drop the food off on the same day.)  

From there, focus on the menu. Select local vendors and organic products whenever possible, so you can provide a great menu (and support local business) without consuming as many resources in the process. 

6. Communicate with attendees via a mobile companion app. 

This reduces the need for print signage and agendas, both of which consume resources. These apps also come with built-in access badges and QR codes — no check-in forms and print badges required. (Our mobile hybrid event app digitizes ​​registration, check-in, on-demand badge printing, and scanning.) 

PS: Before the big day, you can share your event-wide sustainability efforts with attendees and prepare them to take part. And post-event, you can distribute feedback surveys via the app, instead of print handouts. 

7. Provide virtual swag bags to attendees.

Look, we all love those branded stress balls and notepads. But let’s be real, the swag’s destined to collect dust in your desk. 

So from a cost-benefit standpoint, eliminating physical swag is one of the easiest ways to cut down on waste. (And with many sponsorship teams working remotely, and the global supply chain still stalled, they may not be able to produce and deliver physical swag bags anyway.) 

But they may not know how to provide compelling virtual swag bags. Consider linking to a discounted product or service, or providing access to exclusive content, like a subscription-based media hub or resource center. 

This way, your sponsors aren’t producing and shipping unnecessary stuff — and they can actually track which offers people click on most often. (Who says you can’t promote sustainability and sponsor ROI at the same time?) 

Hosting virtual sponsors? Elevate your virtual sponsorship booths with our best practices

8. Incorporate sustainability into your content strategy (if applicable).

All of the previous strategies raise awareness about sustainability, but only in a fleeting sense. Attendees may briefly think “the environment is good” as they recycle their Smart Water, but they’re not inspired to learn more about the topic – or take any further action. 

But If you can incorporate sustainability into your event agenda, you can encourage guests not just to learn more about the issue, but give them actionable ways to apply learnings to their own lives. So while planning your agenda, consider how your industry can adopt sustainable practices and plan a session around it.  

During the session, use engagement features such as the chat, poll, Q&A, and upvoting to spark conversation in the event platform. Afterward, speakers can provide additional handouts — or even refer attendees to nonprofits that are actively fighting to mitigate climate change. 

9. Partner with organizations that promote sustainability. 

Sure, climate change is a hot topic. But it may not make sense to address it at your event. If that’s the case, consider hosting environmentally-focused nonprofits as sponsors or as charity partners. This allows you to discuss sustainability while also raising funds for people on the frontlines. Here’s how to do it: 

a. Host them as non-paying sponsors: In their sponsorship booths, representatives from the nonprofit can give presentations, answer audience questions, provide additional downloadable resources, and even provide pop-up offers asking for donations. 

Include their ads in your event communications and you can provide even more exposure to their cause.

b. Include their content in your media hub or on-demand video library: If you can’t integrate sustainability into your event agenda, consider recording a session with a representative from your nonprofit partner, then post it in your event’s media hub or on-demand video library. This way, guests can view it on their own time — and people who couldn’t attend can still watch it months after the big day. 

PS: Guests may not think to check out your event’s “additional content” on their own. So use push notifications to drive traffic to your on-demand library during the event — or promote the session in your post-event email. 

c. Host creative fundraisers during the event: Exposure may be valuable currency, but it doesn’t fund research or stop flooding. So during an event session, host a “chat for charity” benefiting your nonprofit partner. For each chat message submitted by attendees, donate a certain amount of money to the nonprofit organization. Tell attendees about the fundraiser and you’ll boost engagement while also supporting critical sustainability efforts.     

With that, you’ll show that you’re not just checking the boxes — you’re truly engaging with the cause and encouraging others to do the same. 

Want to learn more about how the world's most innovative companies are using online events to advance their business? BigMarker's team is here to help. Contact us at sales@bigmarker.com to book a demo and get started.

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