The new decade started with disturbing pictures of burnt koalas and headlines of their ‘imminent extinction’. Climate change has played a role in this catastrophic and unprecedented early fire season, and the meeting industry can take the lead in tackling this universal issue.
Sustainability in event planning is a strong trend and it will become the norm in future. Sustainability is often defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. In other words, future generations should also be able to have a chance to meet with koalas in nature, not only in natural history museums. It is important to point out here that the data on the status of koala populations in Australia is ongoing—we do know that the species was already in danger prior to the fires. The sad news surrounding koalas has at least put a much-needed focus on an animal that might still have a chance if we make changes now.
The four pillars of sustainability
Sustainability has four main pillars: environmental, economic, social and cultural.
Environmental initiatives in the meeting industry are not new. Organisers of COP 15, the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, took various steps to reduce the carbon footprint of the event, which attracted 33,000 delegates to the Danish capital.
Water bottles were eliminated, locally-sourced vegetarian food was offered, participants received free tickets for public transportation, and flights were offset. Advice on how to reduce the carbon footprint of events can be easily found in the Internet. Here in Finland, we have also a digital calculator to measure the impacts of our events. These calculations are not 100 percent precise, but they quickly give a clear picture on which parts of the event are most harmful so planners can easily adapt; for example, catering plays a very important role.
The economic factor of events is obvious. The event business is one of the largest economic sectors in the world with direct spending of over $1bn annually (Events Industry Council 2018). Can you imagine what a difference we could make with that purchasing power? When we source from socially responsible actors, work with companies who pay decent salaries or those that make a real change. One of my clients had their conference bags made in organic cotton by a female co-operative in the developing world. An order of 6,000 bags made a difference for that co-op.
“The event business is one of the largest economic sectors in the world with its direct spending of over $1 billion annually (Events Industry Council 2018). Can you imagine what a difference we can do with that purchasing power? When we source from socially responsible actors, work with companies who pay decent salaries for the employees or those that make a real change.”
Many events leave a strong social legacy in the destination where they are organized. The social aspect of sustainability is the area where an event planner can give space for her/his creativity. Charity runs have been organized in connection with events for decades. Some events choose a local NGO, to whom they collect funds or encourage participants to bring gifts from their destinations to be donated. Marginalized groups can be included to participate in the event. At an MPI conference in Rome in 2018, charming youngsters with cerebral palsy were sharply dressed in their tuxedos and they showed us the way to lecture halls. I have never felt like more of a VIP in my life!
The cultural pillar is often forgotten. Here, you could use as a guideline, ‘be cautious and respectful’. Never present any group in a stereotypical way. Respect all other ways of thinking, dressing and acting; theme parties or cultural presentations in the wrong setting can bring you more harm than positive exposure. Remember the words of Winston Churchill and act like a pig: ‘I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals’.
A very nice way to take all aspects of sustainability in your event is to include the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in event planning and start reporting how your event addresses these challenges locally. Don’t be afraid, use all 17 goals—even when your event probably only impacted some of them. Start following them and you will see that your imagination on sustainability matters will reach completely new levels.
The sustainable pressure for our common blue globe is terrifying. There is urgency for action, but there is also a moment for hope. Even the koalas might still have a chance.