Opinion: It's time for associations to own their conference footprint

Leadership /  / 
Green train Incentivising delegates to use the train could make a huge difference Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

Associations are, ultimately, responsible for the carbon emissions produced by their meetings. 

Yet, when it comes to doing something about them, too many focus almost entirely on the supply chain - relying on host cities, venues, caterers etc. to provide evidence of how they are reducing their emissions.

Of course, we need clients to put pressure on suppliers if the meetings sector is to make any headway towards a sustainable, net-zero future. And if these demands can be written into an RFP (request for proposal) and made contractual then so much the better. 

But the results of a recent survey by Northstar Meetings Group – sponsored by Copenhagen Convention Bureau – suggest that, for some associations at least, this 'action by proxy' is the limit of their push towards event sustainability. 

The numbers are depressing for those of us who believe in the message of ‘purpose over profit’ that associations espouse. And for those who can see how associations improve society through cultural exchange and the spread of knowledge and best practice.

Of all the different 'organisation types' who plan meetings, the survey showed that associations were least likely to have a sustainability policy that covered events (38%) and least likely to employ a sustainability officer (19%). This matters because, according to the survey, those with a policy and a sustainability officer were more likely to be taking sustainable action elsewhere.

In both these instances, associations compared unfavourably to their corporate cousins. Shareholder pressure and brand management are no doubt huge motivating factors for business, but that doesn’t let associations off the hook. Take another statistic: 62 per cent of associations said they had made no net-zero commitment, compared to a similar percentage of corporates who had.

Elsewhere more than half (51%) of associations were prepared to implement additional sustainability measures only 'if cost-effective' while more than one-in-five (21%) were happy to 'go with whatever measures the venue has in place'. 

Associations might argue that meetings and events are only part of what they do – but for most it is a big part, and, for those with international delegates, easily the most carbon-intensive activity they will pursue.

Some associations might argue that they don’t have the internal resources or budgets to focus on sustainability, but these arguments become feebler with every passing year.

Other associations might argue that their resources are better spent encouraging their members to act more sustainably, and, for sure, this is where most could make the biggest societal impact. But industries need their representative bodies to practise what they preach. Associations should be a beacon of best practice to which their members turn for inspiration.

So, what can associations do, beyond heaping pressure on the supply chain?

The first thing they can do is take ownership of the problem.

This means looking at where most (estimates range from 70-90%) of the carbon related to an international meeting comes from – air travel.

When associations shrug their shoulders and say, ‘there’s nothing we can do about delegates flying to our meetings’ what they mean is ‘there’s nothing we can do without disrupting our business model’.

But is this true? Aren’t there simple steps associations can take to drastically reduce their events-related emissions?

For example, those who hold their flagship international congress every year could cut their emissions in half (roughly) by making every other event a virtual experience – or by just making their annual congress biennial. If that puts too much strain on finances, associations could replace every other international meeting in the calendar with smaller, regional events which require little, if any, air travel. More ambitious associations could experiment with multi-hub conference models, which according to this article in Nature, can lead to massive falls in event-related carbon emissions. Associations could not only ‘encourage’ but incentivise train travel to their meetings and events.

Some associations are already doing these things.

But, if the results of our survey are any indication, there are still far too many who think sustainability is ‘somebody else’s problem’ – something they can pass onto their suppliers.

After the IPCC issued its grim final warning to humanity this week, it could not be any clearer that finding a sustainable way to work, live, and play on this planet is a challenge we must all face. It's everyone's problem.

*Is your association experimenting with meeting frequency, location, or format to reduce your carbon footprint? I'd love to hear about it. Contact me at jlancaster@ntmllc.com 

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.


Latest Magazine

Looking to the Future in Dubai
Looking to the Future in Dubai
A Meetings & Incentive Travel sponsored supplement
Read More