How Conference Organizers Can Reduce Their Eco-Footprint

As the fall conference season kicks off, I find myself thinking about the environmental footprint of meetings, conferences and trade shows. If you’ve ever attended or organized a conference or trade show, you know that the environmental impact can be huge and wide ranging. For instance, some estimate that for the average trade show, more than 200 trees are used for paper products. Then, factor in emissions caused by air and auto travel, energy and water use in hotel rooms and the event itself, leftover food, and the average amount of waste that even the most conscientious travel produces – water bottles, napkins, notepads… etc. In short, it’s a lot.

As sustainability marketers, when organizing events we need to ensure that we’re practicing what we preach and that we aren’t just promoting sustainability as an initiative – we need to be living it.

Luckily, there are a number of resources from organizations such as the EPA and the Convention Industry’s Green Meetings Task Force that help both event planners and attendees reduce their environmental impact. As the Convention Industry Council notes, implementing sustainable practices in conference organization is not just good for the welfare of the environment, it saves money. They cite an example where an organizer saved nearly $1,000 by asking attendees to reuse their name badge holders rather than provide new ones at each event. 

Below, are some tips for sustainable event planning: 

1. Start Planning Early: Begin to have sustainability conversations with event organizers, planners and those involved in procurement early in the planning and development process. With enough planning, it is possible to integrate sustainability into multiple event touchpoints – from material design, vendor selection, and communication to attendees. 

2. Empower Your Attendees: Your attendees are your most powerful advocates for a more sustainable event and their participation is critical in your success. Communicate to your attendees early and often not only the steps you are taking to reduce the environmental footprint of the event, but additionally what they can do to take part. If possible, during the event, conduct a survey of your attendees to gauge their support – if positive, this will be a powerful proof point for the event’s organizers to continue to “green” their events. 

3. Think Outside the Lines: Your jurisdiction as a conference organizer extends beyond the borders of the physical meeting space: it begins in the homes of each attendee. Air and auto travel are a significant source of carbon emissions, and while you can’t change the fact that your attendees need to travel, you can help them to offset the impact. Consider where your attendees are coming from. Can you encourage ride-sharing or carpooling? Encourage your attendees to donate to offset their carbon emissions for their flights and incentivize it, perhaps recognizing it during the event, or offering a prize. 

The more that you can involve your attendees in the “greening” of your event, the better. As an organizer, you are navigating a fine line between reducing the environmental impact of your event, while also ensuring that your attendees have a positive experience. Unfortunately, so many expect and look forward to the materiality of events – from swag bags, giveaways, buffet bars and handouts. A more sustainable event doesn’t mean that you can’t make the event enjoyable for your attendees, but it does require planning to make strategic decisions that will eliminate waste. In the long run, you are ensuring the health of the planet, and likely will save costs and enhance the experience of your attendees. 

Let me know in the comments or at @Brigid_Milligan what your strategies have been to “green” an event.

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