Event Sustainability: Make it Count
Event Sustainability: Make it Count
By Shawna McKinley
Trying to green your events? Here’s how to get started
Why green meetings? Is it to save money, reduce impacts or make the world a better place? We pursue sustainable events for different reasons, but no matter the reason there is a purpose: by acting we hope to achieve something. If that is the case, how will we know we are successful? The fact is, we won’t know until we start measuring the impact of our actions.
Meeting professionals are constantly working to show their value. Measuring event sustainability shows how meetings contribute to corporate responsibility, the health of communities and the planet. Follow these tips to help you track your results and show how green measures add value.
Know the scope. Are you tracking one event or multiple events? Are you only measuring during your event dates, or do you want to consider the pre- and post-event period? Before you measure, it is important to set boundaries on what you will measure. Most events measure the dates attendees are present. Some include move-in and move-out. Others, like Oracle OpenWorld, are more inclusive, considering pre-event and post-event processes.
Be clear about the intention. Measurements without objectives are like a trip without a destination: the journey can be interesting, but often lacking direction. Being clear about what you want to achieve through green practices is the first step to unlocking what needs to be measured. Two common objectives for event sustainability are reducing energy use and waste. Other non-environmental but sustainable intentions may be engaging stakeholders or reducing costs. Emerging sustainable event standards like BS 8901 place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of setting objectives that can be measured.
Match intention to indicators. For each objective you set, identify an indicator you can track. Energy use may be measured a variety of ways, including tracking utility use at venues and hotels, fuel use in shuttles and travel miles of attendees. Greenbuild has been able to track indicators for venue energy use for three years, and in 2009 demonstrated a 50% and 23% reduction in venue energy use over 2008 and 2007 respectively. This data helps USGBC planners now know how seasonality, climate and use of LEED-certified buildings can impact event energy. Weight of materials donated, recycled and put into landfills is commonly used as indicators for waste. Tracking this kind of data in partnership with San Francisco’s Moscone Center helped Intel’s Developer Forum demonstrate a 59% diversion in waste from landfill.
Know what matters most. Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Simplicity is important. Credibility is important. Sharing that you’ve offset your conference or saved trees by buying recycled paper is interesting, but what does this really mean? In a world where more and more people question the integrity of green efforts, it is critically important to seek understandable and meaningful metrics that directly relate to your objectives. Never lose sight of the purpose of event data: it is to help us make better decisions and improve value. For a long time I thought tracking percentages of local and organic food provided at events by weight was an appropriate metric to demonstrate the sustainability of menus. Recently we tracked food miles for functions at an event providing a 59% local menu and found some functions used food that travelled more than 13,000 miles. Breaking down and analyzing the menu this way has shed new light on specific and new ways to reduce our impact further by selecting different ingredients.
Contract. Meeting planners can track some indicators internally, but rely on vendors to provide much of the data measured. Wherever possible, contract with suppliers to deliver any metrics required. Some planners even go as far as to stipulate in contracts they will withhold final payments until sustainability metrics are received from suppliers.
Think comparatively. Measurement is most valuable where it enables comparisons across events and over time. To be meaningful, event tracking must weather changes in event attendance and location changes. Comparative event data has context: it pays attention to baselines and uses raw data. For example, to claim a comparative metric such as a 20% reduction in paper use, you need to know how many sheets of paper you use now, and compare it to what you used as a baseline. It can also be helpful to show data in per participant numbers, so that even as your attendance changes you can show a consistent metric. For example, the Unitarian Universalist Association accounts for changes in attendance numbers at general assembly by using an indicator of trash produced per attendee. Between 2009 and 2008 trash produced at the event was reduced from 6.1 lbs to 1.4 lbs of trash per person per day.
Question everything. It’s important to encourage your partners to collect and share data, but it’s equally important to ask critical questions about data received. Measurement of event sustainability is still in its infancy. We are all learning. Honest mistakes can easily be made. Asking questions about the accuracy of data and any assumptions made protects you and your vendors against the risk of criticism.
Be honest. There is no perfect, complete and universally accepted way to measure event sustainability. Some offset programs apply certain factors to emissions, some do not. Some caterers calculate local based on point of processing, others use the point of harvest. Sometimes it is only possible to go so deep with data. It is, therefore, important to disclose and be transparent about assumptions that are made, and any outside sources that influence calculations.
Green meetings are an investment of time and money. As financial investors we would never neglect to measure the return on our investment. Tracking the costs and benefits of investment in event sustainability is equally important. Make your efforts count and learn more by attending the 2010 GMIC Sustainable Meetings Conference in Denver, Colo.
Shawna McKinley is the project manager for MeetGreen. MeetGreen is a member of the GMIC and works with progressive global organizations to integrate sustainable practices and produce conferences and events that deliver targeted business results. For more information please call +1 503–252–5458 or visit meetgreen.com.