On average, events create 2.5 pounds of landfill-bound waste, per person, per day. The good news: there are more sustainable ways to host a conference.
For many, “back to normal” means one thing: gathering in person again. During the coronavirus pandemic, the lack of in-person interaction disrupted our lives. Conferences and events went virtual, and Zoom hang-outs replaced get-togethers.
But conferences are back on the rise. In January of 2022, a survey found that 50% of companies plan to host one or more in-person events this year. And this time around, businesses have vowed to make them more sustainable. According to another survey, 58–67% of event professionals are very likely to address sustainability in their 2022 event planning.
With planning and foresight, businesses can host conferences and design events with minimal environmental impact. Start with a plan to account for scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. Be intentional and considerate with your location and event space. Find ways to reduce waste and offset unavoidable impacts. A good conference plan and aligned stakeholders will help you accomplish your sustainability goals and minimize your event’s carbon footprint.
Your eco-friendly conference’s location matters
Consider a central location for your attendees, which will reduce carbon emissions associated with air travel. If the majority of your employees and conference attendees are in New York, don’t pick Chicago or Los Angeles for your next offsite.
Once you’ve found the perfect city, look for a venue that champions sustainability. For example, the Denver Convention Center—which has rooftop solar panels that generate approximately 350,000 kWh per year—is LEED (O+M) Gold-certified, and has a dedicated space for unused conference materials to recycle back into the local community.
Customer demand for sustainable facilities has spurred significant improvement across convention centers. Here are a handful of additional convention centers that champion sustainability.
But if a big convention center isn’t right for your next event, here are some questions to keep in mind when looking for your next event venue:
• Does the building have on-site accommodations (which reduces emissions from hotel-to-venue travel)?
• Is this building accessible via public transportation?
• Does the building have a green certification like LEED or Green Key?
• What energy efficiency practices—like LED lighting, renewable energy, occupancy sensors, or demand-controlled ventilation—have in place?
• Does the facility have a qualified waste hauler to handle recycling and composting?
• Does the facility support zero-waste or waste reduction options like limited disposables?
• Is the building or the organization running the building carbon neutral?
• Do they employ low-impact landscaping practices (e.g., native, drought-resistant plants)? Do they support pollinators?
• Are electric charging stations or bike storage available or nearby?
These questions can help you select a sustainable venue option. When it’s time to put pen to paper, add sustainability standards in your contracts that include energy consumption and waste generation data for your event so the venue knows your expectations and can commit to your sustainable conference and green event standards.
Minimizing waste for a high sustainability ROI
Events have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to waste. A five-day event with 1,200 people can create a staggering 15,000+ pounds of waste—that’s the weight of a school bus.
Sustainability experts often encourage individuals to reduce, reuse, and recycle and the principles apply to conferences, too. The first step to a more sustainable event is to reduce overall waste. Consider a paperless event, where all information is in an app, emails, or a community dashboard. Ditch bottled water and single-use plastic and paper cups for reusable cutlery, metal water bottles, glasses, and reusable coffee mugs.
Use your swag bag as an opportunity to promote and provide reusable products. Invest in a bag made of sustainable materials that are durable and will outlive the conference or event. Inside the bag, pick products that are eco-friendly and reusable post-event. Share the bag’s contents ahead of time and make swag available by opt-in only—that way, only the people who really want the swag bags get one. And for the inevitable extras, have a plan in place to donate to a community non-profit.
50% of the waste created by Americans each year is recyclable, and food waste is the most common material landfilled and incinerated in the U.S. While your first effort should be to correctly portion to limit leftover food, it’s imperative to have a compost, trash, and recycling plan for your conference.
Minimize your conference’s food waste by:
• Hiring an outside waste management contractor for specialty streams if your venue doesn’t provide compost and recycling. These vendors can provide collection bins, signage, and removal services for divertable materials.
• Donate acceptable food items to the community, like unopened snacks and prepared meals that haven’t been consumed. Sealed bags of chips, ripe bananas, or untouched sandwiches shouldn’t go to waste in a landfill.
• Allow attendees to select their meals to avoid additional waste.
• Package food in reusable or compostable containers.
• Select a local and seasonal food vendor if not provided by your venue.
• Provide vegetarian and plant-based options for a few meals. Keep in mind, 7–18% of global methane emissions come from livestock, so offering vegetarian meals, especially at scale, matters. Plus, meals are a great way to communicate your dedication to sustainability at your event!
While a zero- or low-waste event may seem intimidating at first, it is possible and can come with recognition. For example, the 2014 Common Wealth Games in Glasgow achieved a large-scale zero-waste event. They secured an ISO 20121 sustainability standard using recycled furniture, 2012 Olympic equipment, and compostable materials during the event. A little extra coordination and planning can avoid a lot of unnecessary waste.
T-shirts, partners, and event planners: Other investments worth considering
The sustainability practices of your event partners—and exhibitors—are integral to the success of your sustainable event. Be sure you choose each partner wisely. If you work with an event planner, find one with a history of hosting sustainable events. Look for food and drink vendors with high sustainability standards. When purchasing products like flowers, tea, produce, or snacks, look for Fair Trade Certified items. The more sustainable the purveyors, the better.
Sometimes a venue can accommodate everyone attending a conference. If this isn’t the case for your event, consider investing in a shuttle (or an electric shuttle). Moving groups is much more sustainable than individual rides.
If you have a staff, consider what you ask them to wear. Could they wear something from their closet, rather than having to source a new t-shirt or uniform? And, if you need a t-shirt or staffing outfit, can you find items made of 100% organic cotton? Or hemp? Do your best to avoid fast fashion that contributes to our microplastic problem.
Personal touches for sustainable event management
The little things stick in the minds of conference and event attendees after the presentations end. Here are some ways to create a memorable, sustainable experience:
• Partner with an e-bike program to encourage conference-goers to explore the city via bike.
• Create a welcome email (or packet from seed paper) highlighting sustainable restaurants and cafes.
• Include sustainable sightseeing spots to generate revenue to the city’s sustainability initiatives.
• Plant a tree for each attendee or offset emissions from the event. You can add this cost to the ticket price and communicate it to attendees.
• Create an impact report for after the event. This creates transparency and trust. If it’s an annual event, include your sustainable vision for the years to come.
• Create space for sustainability professionals in your industry to speak at the conference.
Implementing event ideas like these can increase morale, improve your organization’s reputation, and create press and social media opportunities around your unique, sustainable conference, all while supporting the health of the planet.
Carbon offsetting – a must-have for sustainable conferences and events
In a perfect world, a zero-waste, carbon-positive conference could take place without offsetting. We don’t live in that world yet. When budgeting for a conference, set aside funds for carbon offsets.
Don’t want to foot the bill for offsetting your conference emissions? Think of the brand opportunities for your partners and sponsors. Have event sponsors help offset the event’s carbon emissions—they’ll receive increased visibility with conference attendees.
Sustainable conferences are good for business, and the planet
Together with an aligned team, you can create a sustainable event. But the work doesn’t stop there. You’ll also want to measure and manage your conference emissions and sustainability metrics to reduce your environmental impact. You can even receive accreditation from third parties like the Events Industry Council Sustainable Event Standard.