Sustainable events

Why it's time to listen to your delegates

grayscale photo of woman and man

All photos Unsplash

Photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash

When it comes to making our meetings and events more sustainable, are we (event planners/in-house congress organisers etc.) guilty of talking too much among ourselves?

The question is not meant to suggest that industry-led efforts to develop sustainable event pledges, standards and research aren’t worthwhile. Time will tell if they improve the sector’s ability to bring emissions down and contribute to sustainable development goals.

But addressing the need to transition to sustainable events purely through the lens of ‘event planning’ runs the risk of ignoring our most important constituents – the delegates.

From an association perspective this can be extended to members, many of whom are starting to agitate for more sustainable meeting solutions – with mixed results.

Meeting and event sector efforts to reduce event carbon emissions and waste over the last two decades have been notoriously slow to deliver measurable results.

This begs some important questions: is the event sector falling victim to groupthink about sustainability solutions? Are organisers overlooking what audiences expect and emergent policy and regulation will dictate? And will that create liabilities for organisations in future?

 Are we setting our targets too low in the misguided belief that our delegates ‘won’t put up with’ meat-free menus, restricted travel options, etc.? Have we asked our delegates?

These questions are of increasing importance as delegates return to in-person and members begin to question how serious organisations are in terms of effecting meaningful change.

ice cliff near on body of water
landscape and aerial photography of icebergs on body of water during daytime
ice cliff near on body of water
landscape and aerial photography of icebergs on body of water during daytime

The following should act as a warning that we ignore our ‘customers’ (delegates/members) at our peril:

  • Members of the European Astronomical Society sustainability advisory committee have gone public with frustration about inaction to make the EAS meeting inclusive and sustainable. 
  • Early career researchers in environmental psychology have argued that travel-intensive conferences damage the environment and credibility of the discipline, conflict with the intrinsic values and motivations of the discipline, and are inequitable. 
  • Environment, ecology and conservation biologists are being encouraged to show leadership in embracing virtual conferences post-pandemic.
  • The Leadership and Learning for Sustainability Lab at McGill University is currently working to re-imagine the inclusive, engaging, and equitable low-carbon conference.

In addition, over the last two months social media has seen an alarming number of threads written by individuals expressing concern conference organisers are not giving adequate attention to equity and climate change. All from people working outside of the event sector. All in spite of how the event sector has been working for years to promote sustainability.

silhouette of three people sitting on cliff under foggy weather
woman wearing gray jacket
silhouette of three people sitting on cliff under foggy weather
woman wearing gray jacket

The stories I’m reading range from expressions of trauma, to extreme frustration over exclusion and accessibility, disbelief at lack of online options, critiques of low ambition by organisers, statements of empowerment and personal commitments to cut carbon, proposed solutions to improve events and provision of tools to help others find their voice in asking for events that meet their needs.

One mathematician has even calculated a quality of life rule of thumb for themselves to estimate the amount of harm flying long-distance to attend a conference might have.

I highlight these testimonials not to shame organisers who care very much about sustainability goals and are trying hard to achieve them with fewer resources than ever. 

But it must be asked: 

  • Do the examples above show that the event sector is guilty of low ambition and is defining sustainability using outdated, in-person paradigm-preserving criteria? 
  • Are meeting planners paying attention to sustainability research and changes in climate policy and regulation that will impact future events? 
  • Are planners soliciting and heeding feedback from delegates who are questioning the environmental cost and privilege that can be perpetuated by some events? 

For many years event professionals have felt trepidation to act on sustainability issues out of fear participants would not support efforts, and that event success would be negatively impacted. However, if the examples above are any indication, it appears that participants are primed and even asking for disruptive changes that address climate change and equity.

There’s never been a better time to stop, listen and act.

About the author:

Shawna McKinley planned her first event during the 1994 Commonwealth Games when atmospheric carbon dioxide was 356 PPM. With levels now exceeding 415 PPM she works to help organizers lower the carbon cost of their events and ensure they leave a positive climate legacy. Shawna is an AMI Expert Contributor.