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October 5, 2008

GREEN MILE:Are we really going far enough?

Green issues are creating headlines across every industry sector, but is the meetings and events industry really doing what it can to help drive this agenda forward and bring sustainability into everything it does? Pete Roythorne investigates.

Sustainability is a key issue in the modern meetings and events arena, but what can we do and what are people already doing to drive this issue forward? Meetings and events face stiff challenges if they are trying to go green and the three Rs are the mantra of most organisers these days: reduce, reuse, recycle.

“Obviously the first two are far more important as although it is better to recycle than to scrap waste there is still an amount of energy required to recycle,” says Rory Sloan, head of production at experiential agency RPM.

“Reduce and reuse can come about from how we think about events – do we need to give out glossy brochures when email details or giving a memory stick may be less wasteful?

"We can look to make stands easy to rebrand so that they can be used for future events, even if logos or brand identities change. We have a stand we build repeatedly for Carte d’Or which has the same basic structure, but can be recovered each time to represent different flavours and messaging.”


Sheepdrove: One conference centre that has
sustainability at its very heart


Julian Pullan, UK managing director for events agency Jack Morton Worldwide, agrees, saying:  “As an industry, we must improve our impact on the environment and there are various guidelines to assist in this. Every aspect of the event should be considered in order to reduce consumption. Transportation is a key issue – much can be gained by working with local suppliers, thereby reducing its impact.”

Pullan also believes it's essential to work closely with the venue and its suppliers and ensure that they and any other sub-contractors also have an environmental policy. 

Switching off

“For example,” he says, “by ensuring any equipment is well maintained emissions can be kept to a minimum and even something as simple as turning off equipment when not in use can make a big difference. 

“Equally, the less travel required for attendees, the better environmentally. It's not always possible to pick a venue that's local for everyone, but group travel in higher-occupancy vehicles should be considered and also use of vehicles which run on more environmentally friendly fuels.”  

Pullan goes on to highlight other areas where environmental impact can be significantly reduced, such as print management.

“There are many ways to do this without compromising the quality of the event,” he explains. “For example, the use of digital print on short runs is a low impact and cost-effective alternative to conventional lithographic printing.  Aside from re-using existing printed materials where possible and minimising the amount required for the event, working to standard paper sizes will also remove waste caused by trimming. 

“We should also consider the use of coatings, plastic laminates, foils, adhesives, labels and non-vegetable inks - there are alternatives available. For example, for the recent Marks & Spencer annual genaral meeting rather than use plastic we printed the security badges on PLA Corn eco cards. PLA corn material is an annually renewable resource - unlike oil which takes millions of years to regenerate.”

Jonathan Byrne, commercial director at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre (QEIICC), says that in order for events to be truly sustainable, venues must purchase wisely and only what is needed.

“But as this is not always possible, recycling is the next best thing,” he adds. “Recycling in the UK already saves the equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions of taking 3.5 million cars off our roads. The QEIICC already recycles at least 50% of all waste generated in the Centre and aims to recycle 75% by 2020. As this includes waste from all events, it also helps our clients meet their sustainable event aims.

Shop smart

“More and more clients are shopping smarter, eating healthier and enjoying an abundance of fresh, locally grown products and as a result are expecting similar from their venues. Source Fairtrade tea and coffee and organic biscuits for all events, use local suppliers and seasonable foods wherever possible and use reusable linens, crockery and cutlery as standard. Other useful suggestions include using jugs of filtered water as an alternative to bottled mineral water and offering clients advice on seasonal menus and local sourced food menus.”

Despite what’s on offer, is the industry really doing enough or are we simply paying lip service to green issues?

Russell Downing, centre manager at Sheepdrove Eco Conference Centre, thinks we still have a long way to go.

“There has been a huge amount of press coverage and awareness raising campaigns, much of which is positive, but there is also plenty of green-washing taking place from companies just wanting a ‘slice of the cake’,” he says. “Too many businesses have seen an opportunity to make some extra money and made small changes to appear green. It may be working in the short term but it isn't a long-term solution.

“There needs to be far greater regulation so that those organisations who are investing in the correct areas receive recognition and reward. Conversely, those claiming to be sustainable and green, who aren't in fact putting in the effort, should be penalised. Examples could be tax breaks for those genuinely acting in a sustainable way. Also, organisers should be made responsible for post show/event stand material. At the more extreme end, we could even ban the use of non-recyclable materials.”

RPM’s Sloan things changes are taking place, but not necessarily quickly enough.

“There have been some great environmentally friendly innovations that have appeared within the industry, but until they are fully adopted they will carry a slight premium in terms of costs," he says. "At that point it is down to clients to make a decision on which option they want to go for. 

"The more the environmentally friendly options are chosen the more the costs will fall into line with existing products. The chances are any down turn in the economy will delay things further, but I imagine things will move on at a much greater pace as we come out the other side.”

Technology holds the key
Byrne believes we are on the right track and technology will help to drive change for the better.

“Interpersonal communication remains the main reason for events taking place; therefore the emphasis needs to be on operating as sustainably as possible rather than reducing the number, frequency or format of events,” he says. “New products and ways of operating an event are going to have the most impact.

"The adoption of LED lighting over the past few years has enabled event planners to reduce their energy consumption. So we all need to welcome and embrace technological developments and new ideas with sustainability implications.  All the other sustainable options already in place, such as recycling and carbon offsetting, will become second nature rather than exceptional innovations.”

Sustainability isn't a simple issue and as the industry commits further to the cause there are some tough choices ahead for both organisers and clients.

As Pullan explains: “In some cases, renewable alternatives can be secured, but their source may be on another continent. So which is more important – the use of a renewable source or the minimising of air miles? Or the product may be from a renewable source, but are its manufacturers providing an appropriate level of care to their staff?”

Sustainability is inseparably linked to wider corporate social responsibility issues – this is the challenge looking ahead for our industry.

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