With the possible environmental impact of the events industry becoming ever more of a talking point across the globe, Sound & Stage explores the movement known as event greening.
When the last visitor finally makes a dawdling exit and the doors close on any big event, there is often a lot more left behind than simply memories.
While the physical waste is usually tackled quickly by an onslaught of cleaning staff, brandishing their brooms and bin bags like weapons of mass reconstruction, a large (or even small-scale) event can impact the environment in more ways than one.
From the sustainability of the food on offer at the buffet table to sourcing equipment from local suppliers, ensuring that an event has minimal environmental impact often goes a lot deeper than sending the invites by email and placing one or two recycling bins on site.
However, awareness of the issue seems to be half the battle. And, sadly, this seems to be particularly applicable within the Middle East, where environmental concerns often seem to fall behind other priorities for many events.
While it may be nice for the VIPs to have only the very best three-ply bathroom paper or for the table centrepieces to contain freshly-cut, exotic flowers, there are certain areas where a little consideration can make a big difference.
This is where the movement known as ‘event greening’ comes into play.
Sustainable event management — as it is officially labelled — refers to the careful planning of events that have a particular concern for environmental, economic and social issues.
Meegan Jones, chairperson of the Sustainable Event Alliance, technical director of GreenShoot Pacific and the SEMS Tool, and author of Sustainable Event Management: A Practical Guide, explains: “I see a common misunderstanding, not just in the Middle East, but in almost every region of the world, where novice but enthusiastic ‘event greeners’ think that ‘green’ is the single solution — that sustainability equals environment. This narrow focus leaves a massive amount of sustainability management out of the picture.”
Jones continues: “Sustainability cuts across all three, and sometimes four, pillars — environmental, social, cultural and economic. If you read sustainable development plans for the UAE or Qatar you will see that all these pillars of sustainability are addressed. Event organisers should understand this broader definition of sustainability and how it applies to the event industry and their management of operational and legacy impacts.
Like all industries we must ensure the decisions we make — both in purchasing and in event logistics — have minimal negative and maximum positive impact across all aspects of sustainability.”
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While it may only now be breaking ground in our region, event greening is by no means a new idea. In 1992, approximately 50 waste management specialists gathered at an event in Maryland, USA. After arriving by public transport, they were reminded by the hotel to conserve energy by switching off lights when not in use.
After being given a reusable name tag holder, they were asked to insert their own business card into it, before receiving the workshop materials that had been printed double-sided on recycled paper using either soy or vegetable ink.
Food and drink were both served using reusable tableware, while any food waste left over after dining was — at the organiser’s request — discarded by the guests themselves into a composting bin.
Considering, after all, that this event was a conference regarding the issue of waste management, it comes as no surprise that such a high level of attention was paid to the details. But the overall message on sustainability is clear to see.
For example, how many times have you contracted in caterers that arrive in a van full to the brim with disposable plates and cutlery? Unless there are adequate recycling amenities on site, the majority of this will simply end up as landfill. Minus one point on the green score chart for your event.
And, if you think back to the last event you visited, organised, or worked at, we can’t imagine that we’d be putting our necks too far out on the line to assume that most people probably drove there without even a second thought? You can strike off another green point straight away there, then.
But, before we slide too far down the negative scale of this imaginary event greening scoreboard, there are simple ways that — as an industry — we can all make an effort to be a little more conscious.
Sustainability manager at The Change Initiative, Edurne Gil de San Vicente, suggests that looking into the basic logistics of an event can be one of the first steps in improving sustainability, and advises that organisers should: “Take into consideration venues accredited for saving water and energy consumption, if any.
Location is also important, as it will have a direct impact on transportation issues. Support less carbon intensive transportation options by sponsoring metro/bus tickets and facilitating carpooling among participants. This requires a logistic effort but can have a remarkable positive impact.”
Fortunately, there are those in the region who are making an effort to be more environmentally aware when it comes to the events industry. Sue Pengelly, entertainment expert from Seventy2, believes that small touches can not only improve the sustainability of an event itself, but encourage those in attendance to take on board the initiative.
She says: “I try to give a green solution for the giveaways as then the guests can take home a strong message. Invites on seeded paper always work as the guest can plant the invite and have a pot full of beautiful flowers to enjoy post event.”
For an example of sustainable event management on the grandest scale, however, we need look no further than the upcoming Dubai World Expo 2020. Under the theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, the Expo will have three subcategories — one of which is sustainability. And, according to the initial bid to host the event, Expo 2020 will be “a monument to the Green Economy, a landmark in sustainable development, and will contribute to the BIE legacy as one of the most sustainable Expos in history.”
Jones believes that events of such high profile confirm how the Middle East is making strides within the field of event sustainability.
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“When sustainable event management is taken up by various regions, it generally corresponds with how sustainability and sustainable development is being treated more broadly in that region,” she says.
“The Middle East is experiencing an escalation of sustainable development focus, and issues such as green building, renewable energy innovation and, importantly, human rights issues are being addressed seriously. With the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and Expo 2020 Dubai, we will see many of the important sustainability issues related to event management being pushed into the spotlight. These events will act as remarkable catalysts to push the event industry in the Middle East to be in line with global best practice standards.”
The sustainable approach of the Expo was outlined during the launch of 2013’s State of Energy Report by the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy, in partnership with UNDP, late last year. Speaking at the occasion, H.E. Helal Al Marri, Director General of Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, CEO of Dubai World Trade Centre and a member of the Higher Committee for Dubai Expo 2020, said: “Sustainability has informed every aspect of Dubai Expo 2020: from our overarching philosophy to the physical design of the site and infrastructure.
We will deploy the most innovative solutions for environmental management and energy generation, as demonstrated by our aim of producing 50 per cent of the Expo’s operational energy requirements from renewable sources on site.”
But, even if your event isn’t quite on the same scale as the World Expo, there are still options to help reduce the environmental impact it has. Jones explains: “For those events just starting out on their sustainability journey, some of the easy and first steps would be to control the impacts of their purchasing and the management of their waste.”
She continues: “One of the biggest issues is food waste. This is something the venues will need to control and may not be in the control of the event organiser. However, the organiser can consider the request they put on caterers and if they are asking for more food than is necessary. Caterers will want to please the client, so the event organiser should make sure they know that pleasing them means not having huge volumes of wasted food.”
As we all know, the most important factor in the planning of any event is usually the client’s budget. This is where greener options can often hit the biggest obstacle, as mentioning certain environmental ‘buzzwords’ can see the client dismiss suggestions as too costly or less straightforward than traditional methods.
Ajay Bhojwani, managing director, MCI Middle East, explains: “The biggest challenge is the cost associated with making an event sustainable. Sometimes acquiring sustainable products can cost more than regular products, especially in the Middle East. In addition, using technology for green gains can make it difficult for attendees who are not very tech savvy, so the choice can lead to some negative feedback from participants.
However, if adapted and integrated well, greening an event can lead to reduced costs and making the experience more seamless and comfortable. The key to this will be communication — advising participants from the beginning what they can expect at the event and what initiatives are being taken to support the environment.”
Pengelly agrees, saying: “Budgets are still a challenge to all sectors so they tend to gravitate towards the less expensive option. It is more costly if done properly — however the message given to end users, shareholders and stakeholders has a far reaching effect on the way they perceive the brand, so they will be much more loyal for the fact the brand cares about the planet and the community.”
So, while there may be a difference in price or a little more attention to detail required, once the figures have been worked out and the possible gains investigated, most ways of greening an event could turn out to be fruitful for everyone involved — even planet Earth.
As Jones puts it: “All organisations, whether for profit or not, should be considering the role they play in contributing to sustainable development, and the event industry is no exception. Many years ago we started to see events talk about being ‘green’ and basic environmental issues being considered such as recycling.
Things have moved on significantly in the world of sustainable events and our industry has an important role to play, to not only ensure events are operating responsibly and sustainably from an environmental and socio-economic point of view, but to offer a platform for advancing ideas and take up of sustainable development concepts.”
“The main barrier to overcome is habits,” agrees Gil de San Vicente. “Events are organised in standardised ways and it is often a challenge to think out of the box. Organisers have to adjust their thinking and planning decisions towards sustainability and, all along, this will require them to overcome some misconceptions. Like Albert Einstein said: ‘The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking’.”
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Sue Pengelly shares seven top tips for sustainable event management:
1-MC2’s EcoFlex Exhibit Programme consists of recyclable open frames made from 65 per cent recycled aluminium. The interlocking panels weigh 15 per cent less than traditional panels, but are strong enough to build double-decker configurations.
2-Opt for plants, not flowers, for centrepieces.
3-Use solar lighting for outdoor events.
4-Send out seeded paper invites from www.gogreen.ae.
5-Encourage carpooling and refillable water bottles.
6-Try to take reusable aluminium frames for backdrops and banners or fabric frames.
7-Opt for green gifts for the guests, or perhaps allocate a percentage of the event budget to a sustainability charity.
The Sustainable Event Alliance is an industry guild for event organisers, venues and suppliers that are dedicated to implementing sustainable best practice in the event industry. Members sign a membership charter, access resources on event sustainability and use the SEA membership logo. The Alliance also runs a global news service for sustainable events news.
Take the initiative
Located on Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai, The Change Initiative consists of a retail space offering sustainable alternatives and eco-friendly supplies, The Taste Initiative café, and a B2B section dedicated to sustainable solutions. The first floor of the LEED Platinum certified building has allocated rental spaces to host events, and The Taste Initiative offers a range of menus to cater both in-house and external events.