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Sustainable meetings: what’s stopping associations?

Ever wondered why associations are not leading the way in sustainable event practices? After all, writes Jwana Ribeiro da Silva, association members meet for various purposes beyond the pursuit of profit. Their common interests and aspirations integrate a host of other aspects that will, in turn, shape the organisation’s mission and be reflected in its agenda. As forces of good, one would expect associations to be leading the way when it comes to creating a positive impact on people and the environment.

But too many associations fail to communicate their concern for societal improvement and environmental protection at the meetings they organise. The events management industry is failing to significantly reduce their environmental impact alongside the associations that have yet to implement sustainable policies. We wanted to understand where this inconsistency comes from and identify ways to promote sustainability amongst associations.

We reached out to 10 European and international associations which successfully integrated sustainable event practices into their conferences. And this is what we found:

Members’ personal values

The primary driver of event greening is undoubtedly the personal values of members and staff. Study participants talked about the importance of sustainability in their private lives. If they feel their organisation is not doing enough to address the issue, they might experience frustration.

Desire to educate

The association members and professionals who we interviewed strive to raise awareness amongst internal and external stakeholders. In line with the core values of their organisations, namely knowledge sharing, education, and social progress, they whole-heartedly communicate their actions and sustainable objectives to members, attendees, sponsors, partners and providers.

A sense of purpose

For some, sustainability is a matter of purpose and must be integrated into all activities undertaken. These organisations will choose to invest in sustainable practices regardless of who notices their efforts. Not because they respond to members’ demands or use corporate social responsibility as a strategy, but because they consider it the correct way forward.

WHAT ARE THE OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME?

  1. Lack of information and awareness

There is still some misunderstanding around the notion of sustainability. The three pillars of this motif are Planet, Profit and People. However, this last social aspect is too often neglected. Our study participants mentioned plenty of event practices they engage in to reduce the meetings’ impact on the environment, such as eliminating printed signage and programmes, using individual bottles and cups, recycling and reusing whenever possible. However, the only social action reported was the donation of food surplus and leftovers.

Our recommendations:

  • Remember also to consider the societal impact of your meetings.
  • Build a positive event legacy. There are numerous possibilities for you to build economic, social and environmental benefits to the host community, during and after an event. By raising your participants’ awareness of the reality of local territories and actors, you are also designing a unique attendee experience that will be remembered. This can be done by organising donations or creating volunteering opportunities for attendees to help local charities. Favouring local sourcing (like material and food) also is another powerful way for event organisers to highlight local producers.
  • Keep in mind that smaller societies also have the power to make a significant impact on the host communities. Overall, events are never too small to practice sustainability.

  1. Lack of support from leadership

One of the first barriers to the adoption of sustainable practices is the lack of support from high-level decision-makers who would have the capacity to initiate change. Association board members eventually have the final say on decisive aspects such as the format of the event, destination, venue, etc.

Our recommendations:

  • Build a clear sustainable event policy. Write down all sustainable actions you are already implementing, set a vision and commit to doing a bit more each year. Issuing an official statement gives credibility and coherence to your greening efforts and binds your organisation to a consistent level of commitment.
  • Create a measurable overview of your event’s performance. A way for raising board members’ awareness on the importance and potential benefits of greening events is to calculate the impact of sustainable practices implemented. Developing a set of metrics and reporting about the outcomes certainly requires extra time and knowledge but it will reveal the savings induced by optimising resources and highlight the long-term benefits for the association.
  1. Fear of participants’ resistance to change

Associations sometimes hesitate over promoting sustainable practices among attendees because they fear a lack of interest or reduced membership, even though there is no evidence that this is a potential risk. Event greening is a global trend, meaning that attendees are observing more often. After a transition period and a few adjustments, they will eventually adapt.

Our recommendations:

  • Ask your participants! Start to collect attendees’ feedback on your sustainable actions consistently. This can mean making a few calls or simply adding two or three questions to the event satisfaction survey.
  • Engage participants prior to the event. Be sure to exceed their expectations by letting them know what to expect at the event. Provide options for the attendees during registration on whether or not they would like to receive a printed programme or a conference bag.
  • Communicate about sustainable actions implemented. Focus should be placed towards communicating how money is saved through event greening (digital signage, vegetarian lunches, recycled event furniture, etc.) and how it is re-invested into the conference. This is to reassure attendees that the value of their experience at the event is maintained.
  • Informing is good; educating is better. Events are wonderful opportunities for associations to help participants understand the ‘why’ and the benefits of sustainability.

 

  1. Lack of time and money

Lack of time and money is often perceived as a barrier to sustainability. However, associations that are more committed to sustainability understand that it is not necessarily more expensive to be more sustainable. They would continue to support sustainability even when there is a cost difference, such as spending more which will lead to a much bigger impact.

Our recommendations:

  • Keep in mind that some of the benefits of event sustainability are only appreciable in the long run, such as image enhancement and organisation awareness.
  • Calculate your savings. Organisations often fail to evaluate the savings induced by better optimisation of resources and socially responsible policies such as less printing, replacing plastic bottles with water fountains, eliminating single-use tableware, reducing food portions, promoting car sharing, and so much more!
  1. Lack of control over partners and suppliers

Committing to more sustainable meetings requires organisers to source appropriate suppliers and to reach out to sponsors and partners who have the capacity to meet their requirements (in terms of energy tracking, environmental performance, recycling policies, diversity training, etc.). Depending on the chosen destination, this can be a serious challenge, especially outside of Europe. Amongst the first 20 Green Destinations of the 2017 Global Destination Sustainability Index ranking, only two were non-European.

Our recommendations:

  • Start by asking your suppliers what they can do, and base your decisions on their responses.
  • Include sustainability in your RFP (Request for Proposal). Try to contractually require a certain level of sustainability from your partners.
  • Look for green certifications. It is recommended that non-profits look for partners and providers which comply to international and national standards such as the ISO 2012:1, fairpflichtet (Sustainability Code of the German-speaking events), American Society for Testing and Materials, etc. A growing demand for these standards will bring more event industry practitioners to adopt improved management system standards and will contribute to the emergence of sustainable practices in the sector.

 

WHO ARE YOUR PARTNERS FOR CHANGE?

  1. PCOs

Contracting the professional services of a PCO (Professional Conference Organisation) is an attractive and efficient way to get innovative ideas, high levels of expertise, staffing and other useful resources to bring more sustainability in your events.

  1. Association staff members

Staff members have a prominent role in fostering event sustainability. When event managers are not behind sustainable innovation, the task of synchronising effort still falls on them.

  1. Other association members

Other association members can also drive sustainable innovation. Make sure to systematise surveys or conduct interviews to collect members’ feedback and their suggestions for improvement of your greening actions.

  1. Benchmarking

Sustainability is now one of the major socio-technological trends affecting the events sector. You may want to get inspired by what similar organisations have already implemented.

  1. Reaching out to Event Associations

Event Associations such as PCMA (the Professional Convention Management Association) and MPI (Meeting Professionals International) provide a large amount of online educational resources for meeting industry stakeholders.

  1. Governmental entities

Some convention bureaus and city governments actively promote sustainable practices to event organisers. Policymakers who understand the economic impact of events on their local economy increasingly count on events also to trigger local social and environmental change.

WHY MAKING YOUR EVENTS MORE SUSTAINABLE IS SO IMPORTANT

To make a change, the priority is to focus on the organisation and execution of events. Firstly, because meetings and conferences create significant amounts of waste, and secondly because they are the moments when almost all stakeholders interact face-to-face. Hence, there is a double interest in greening events being: reducing events negative impact on the environment and society and inspire participants and other stakeholders involved to make sustainable decisions for themselves. Events create the best circumstances for which associations can express their interest and concern for sustainability improvements to their most salient stakeholders and the general public.

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About the author:

Jwana Ribeiro da Silva is Junior Manager – Association Management, at K.I.T Group