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Why sustainable events are a movement, not a message

Ask any event management professional what drives them and they’re likely to say it’s the participant experience – how we can make people feel in the moment. But as an industry, we are routinely tasked to build and break things without necessarily leaving an enduring legacy. While the pandemic has forced businesses to move events online for longer than any of us could have anticipated, this global watershed moment has the potential to be a real catalyst for positive, long-term change when it comes to sustainability.

At TTA, we were taking strides towards making sustainability a core strategic pillar well before the world pressed pause on in-person events, and we don’t believe it will be feasible or desirable to revert to previous levels of travel, energy and resource consumption once physical gatherings are back in play. That’s why we joined isla, a non-profit, independent body dedicated to supporting the event industry’s transition to a more sustainable future through action and measurable practice.

isla: an action-driven network for sustainable events

As isla’s co-founder, Anna Abdelnoor, explains, the organisation was born out of a genuine desire to do better, while acknowledging the skills and resource gaps that exist. “The specific project that pushed me down this path involved working with graphics. We were buying an unbelievable volume of polyester fabric for printing, with no plan for where it would end up. It’s not like the fashion industry, where there is greater awareness and support for the circular economy in the form of textile recycling programmes, so I spent a lot of time trying to find solutions for what to do with this fabric. But what I kept coming back to was, wouldn’t it be better to design events differently so we didn’t use so much fabric in the first place?

The lack of any events industry umbrella body to drive the sustainability agenda spurred Anna to join forces with fellow event professional, Ben Quarrell, and establish isla with a focus on three core areas: zero waste, 100% renewables and carbon emission reduction. As an action-oriented network, isla’s mission is to enable knowledge-sharing, standardise method and measurement, anticipate new demands from clients, and accelerate the pace of change across the events landscape. As a movement for the industry, by the industry, isla’s member agencies, brands, organisers and suppliers work collaboratively, rather than pitting ourselves against one another, with a shared vision to increase accountability and quantify sustainability efforts for the greater good. It’s the antithesis of “greenwashing” which simply glosses over inconvenient truths.

As Anna rightly observes, “If you’re an agency or supplier, clients expect you to be an expert on sustainability – they want you to propose sustainable solutions and sometimes that can be a matter of employing common sense. But responding to many of the more complex questions and requirements can be challenging; event professionals are experts in logistics or technology or experience design, not sustainability – at least, not yet. There’s a clear appetite for more support for the industry and more solutions, and common barriers can be overcome by working together rather than all doing our own thing. That’s why one of the key resources isla offers members is training on how to embed sustainability into project planning, and set meaningful KPIs.

A mission to educate, facilitate and reform

The training provided by isla consists of three core modules. The first – “Sustainability 101: The Essentials” – is dedicated to climate literacy, demystifying the often confusing language around sustainability and how each term relates to the triple bottom line of environmental, social and economic impact. The second – “Defining sustainability for you and your stakeholders” – explores the performance indicators that can be used to measure an event’s sustainability. The last – “Embedding sustainability with project planning” – shows how to ingrain these KPIs into a project from its inception, spanning design, logistics, production, the live experience, breakdown and reporting on outcomes.

Having completed the first training module last November, the TTA team participated in the second session in early February. This took the form of a workshop, during which we were given a dummy brief and challenged to deliver a carbon-neutral proposal. This useful exercise brought home that there is a lot we can do right now, relatively quickly, easily and cost-effectively, that would have a demonstrable impact on reducing waste and emissions. I was pleased to note that this framework echoed the approach our Sustainability Committee had instinctively been taking, interrogating both our internal operations and our client- and supplier-facing processes to identify where we could potentially reduce, reuse, recycle or rethink. However, we’re already setting our sights further ahead, with our Sustainability Committee developing internal and external objectives to increase the breadth and longevity of impact across every aspect of our business and our client base.  

We’re already looking forward to our third training session, which will deliver the tools and skills needed to assess the potential impact of an event’s production – across build, waste and recycling, travel and transportation, catering, and procurement. This knowledge and best practice will enable us to engage confidently with clients and suppliers to set sustainability targets, deliver on these aims and audit our combined impact post-event. 

I’ve also been invited to join isla’s working group to develop a sustainability scorecard – not so much a measurement tool but more of a checklist of the “what”, “who” and “how” of sustainable event capability, akin to the way businesses demonstrate health and safety compliance.

Putting it into practice

It is no easy feat to tread lightly on the earth: even a virtual event generates greenhouse gases behind the scenes. For example, a recent study – “The overlooked environmental footprint of increasing internet use” – conducted by researchers at Purdue, Yale and MIT, found that a single hour of videoconferencing can emit between 150g and 1kg of carbon dioxide depending on whether your camera is standard def or HD. However, when you consider the average European passenger vehicle emits around 120g of CO2 per kilometre, and that the energy efficiency of data centres and networks is roughly doubling every couple of years, there are compelling reasons to maintain our use of technologies appropriately as part of the event mix.

When physical and hybrid events can resume we will, as always, approach every brief consultatively, taking into account the needs and values of all stakeholders, and looking beyond the obvious to embed environmentally and socially responsible practices wherever possible. While the most pressing priority is to find ways to reduce negative impacts or harm to people and planet, our ultimate ambition is for events to leave a beneficial legacy for the communities and localities in which they are staged.

Of course, we don’t operate in a vacuum: much of what we do will be driven or influenced by our clients’ policies, objectives, budgets and constraints. However, many of our forward-thinking clients have aggressive targets to become Zero Carbon within a few short years, or plan to manage outsourced suppliers in accordance with the ISO 14000 family of environmental management standards. No doubt more will follow suit as momentum gathers. Anna adds, “We encourage clients and stakeholders to get involved with isla, to facilitate the cross-industry collaboration that is key to accelerating our transition and achieving the change we need at scale.

At TTA, we’re eager to not only join but lead the conversation around how to integrate sustainability into every element of the event lifecycle and take a more measured, scientific approach to demonstrating progress for ourselves and our clients.

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