Events and their sustainability – where are we and what can we do?

By BluExperience | 16 październik 2023 | event

Autumn is a time of intense conferences and industry meetings for many. Every year, they are attended by more than 1.5 billion people worldwide [1]. In recent years, many of these have been events centered around the topic of sustainability, including greenhouse gas emissions or waste management. However, these meetings do not come without an environmental footprint – from suppliers to material and product consumption and finally to attendees’ travel – some sources estimate that the events industry contributes as much as 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions [2]. What aspects of organizing events have the largest environmental footprint, what measures do organizers take to reduce emissions, and what to look for when choosing an agency to organize industry events? About it in the following article.

As studies indicate, the environmental impact of event activities is significant. What scale are we talking about? The ICCA (International Congress and Convention Association), together with the GDS (Global Destination Sustainability) movement, analyzed the impact of the conference in Krakow. According to a report prepared by the ICCA Association and the GDS movement, the total carbon footprint (tCO2e) of the Krakow congress was as high as 2079.35, which converts to an impressive 3053.38 kg CO2e per participant [3]. To understand this figure, it is useful to compare it with the emissions of an average passenger car over a 2-year period. This shows how much impact event industry events can have on our environment.

Fortunately, awareness is growing

Although a sustainable approach to organizing events is not yet common practice, more and more stakeholders are taking notice. As interest around the topic of sustainability grows, so do the expectations of participants and organizers for specific services and solutions. The growing awareness among Poles about ESG was confirmed in the results of a survey conducted by Sustainable Brands’ Brands for Good and Ipsos last fall. The survey covered two thousand Poles between the ages of 16 and 74. According to the results, as many as 97 percent of Poles pay attention to issues of sustainable and responsible development [4].

What is the biggest impact in organizing events?

In terms of emissions, it is estimated that the greatest potential for reducing the carbon footprint of organized events and conferences typically lies in the transportation of participants and materials to and during the conference itself. The analysis, conducted by the ICCA Association in conjunction with the GDS movement, found that more than 88% of the carbon footprint of the 2022 Krakow Conference was emissions specifically from travel. However, events in recent years in particular, including the COVID pandemic, have shown how much socio-relational value comes from live meetings and interactions. Therefore, it is worth considering how, when organizing an event or conference, to avoid or offset its negative impact on the environment.

What can be done to avoid or minimize this?

Offering the option of hybrid or remote participation in an event not only brings logistical convenience, but also saves emissions from transporting participants and avoids waste generated during events. Another solution is, for example, traveling to conferences by train instead of by plane, for instance, using what’s known as. car sharing, or adequate infrastructure for getting around during the conference itself, including the provision of city bikes.

Event events also involve high consumption of electricity, needed for, among other things, lighting, sound system, cooling or heating and other technical needs. Often events also use power generators that run on fossil fuels, further increasing emissions. An alternative is to order mobile energy storage that is charged with energy from the grid, by definition less carbon-intensive than diesel generators.

Less obvious, but also important, is the impact of the selection of the very products and items used at conferences and how they will be managed after the event. There are many sustainable solutions for catering and food offerings: forgoing exotic fruits or flowers in favor of local produce, expanding vegetarian and vegan offerings, but also eliminating single-use items and packaging in favor of reusable tableware items, or even making sure to manage unsold meals through apps like Too Good To Go and Foodsi. This will make the event more attractive for participants and organizers, as well as for the environment, reducing waste.

Speaking of waste, it is worth noting that it is generated from the preparation of the event until its completion and demolition. Waste becomes not only the ever-popular gadgets and advertising materials often handed out at events, but also elements of stands and equipment in halls and convention centers. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly popular practice to abandon paper or plastic advertising materials in favor of their digital replacements, through the use of, for example, QR codes to present a company’s advertising materials. Once the event is over, decorative or even construction items don’t have to become waste – they can be used, for example, by organizations such as the Brda Foundation, which uses materials from renovations and demolitions to support their reconstruction work in Ukraine.

It should not be forgotten that the topic of sustainability also includes social issues. This is where social enterprises, prioritizing community activities, can come to our aid. Support for social enterprises may include, but is not limited to: purchasing products and services from these enterprises, supporting their activities, or organizing charitable activities as part of an event. It is also worth remembering the issues of gender equality and diversity. Action in this area means, for example, actively inviting women and minority representatives to participate as speakers and participants.

Inspiration – sustainable concerts

Concerts can be an interesting inspiration for the event industry. In recent years, artists such as Coldplay, Justin Timberlake and even Dawid Podsiadlo [5] have taken their environmental impact into account when planning and organizing their performances, investing in reducing emissions or waste, among other things. British band Coldplay even declares that they have managed to reduce concert-related emissions by as much as 50%. How did they accomplish this? Just by addressing the above issues – from renewable energy sources, to limited flights, to avoiding waste at the concerts themselves, and many other pro-environmental measures.

So how do you organize more sustainable events?

First of all, it is worthwhile to approach strategically the environmental impact of the event. Already at the planning and agency selection stage, it is worth setting ambitious goals in terms of, among other things: reducing emissions, waste, and increasing community involvement. The areas and solutions mentioned in the article are just some of the innovations that can make the event we organize not only more environmentally friendly, but also competitive in the industry and attractive to participants, partners or sponsors.

To write the above article, we asked Ms. Antonina Konarzewska – Specialist and enthusiast of plastics and waste minimization, with diverse experience (WWF, IKEA) and scientific background (University of Bremen, Houston, Warsaw).

Thank you!

[1] Events Industry Council. Global Economic Significance of Business Events (2018)

Together with 6 top agencies in Poland, IQS research agency and portal we are preparing the third edition of the report on event marketing: “Event marketing 2023 / 2024. The impact of sustainability on the meetings industry.”

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