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Pathways to Sustainability

by Simon Parker

EN guest editor Simon Parker speaks to event professionals from Informa, EIA and two new startups about the issue of sustainability 

While it is great to see sustainability gaining traction across our industry, it still appears to be something that needs greater focus. Momentum is undoubtedly building and I have managed to get the views from Kerrie Kemp, Informa (pictured), the EIA (Event Industry Alliance) and two new startups aimed at driving change in this area; Wastebuild and Reset Connect. Wastebuild, a zero waste, zero carbon events organisation is run by Frazer Chapman and Reset Connect is an organisation set up by Maya Mhatre, Duncan Reid and Thi Dinh, aimed at “building a community of businesses driving sustainable change”. 

On the topic of how the industry has responded there is a broad consensus that momentum has increased. Kerrie says, “there has been a noticeable shift in the industry’s focus recently”. She puts this down to the fact that “we have all had the chance to take a breath and really consider how we would like ‘a return to events’ post-pandemic to look like”.

The guys at Reset Connect are a little less optimistic: “a handful of companies have embraced it, embedded it into their strategy and are making strides – the majority, certainly in the UK do not see it as a priority,” says Maya.  

This view is echoed by Frazer, who thinks that while there are a few select companies that are making progress, “until we have genuine industry-wide consensus and commitment from venues to suppliers and everyone in between it will just be re-arranging the deck chairs.”

Collaboration is key…

So, the EIA, an organisation responsible for bringing together our supply chain, could be the body to take the initiative. They agree that while progress has been made, we still have a long way to go: “Organisations such as the EIA are key as collaboration is crucial to success. By creating frameworks such as the Commitments we are providing guidance on where to start and what to focus on.” They clearly advocate a united and centrally directed approach enabling common solutions rather than divergent strategies.  

I think the reason why there has been a siloed approach is because the term ‘sustainability’ means different things to different people and therefore strategies differ depending on what aspect you are trying to deal with. That said there is a widely held view that the pandemic has made consumers, in Maya’s words, “re-evaluate their values and establish a deeper connection with the natural world.” She adds, “there is a rare opportunity to reset and build back better. Sustainability needs to be part of the wider business strategy and become normal practice to ensure we have a resilient, future-proofed industry.”

The EIA has identified the key areas around carbon and waste, wellbeing, diversity and inclusion as well as the events industry’s potential to make a significant impact in the industries and communities that our events serve. Frazer adds, “we have to understand the environmental impact of an individual event (and the industry) today.  If we don’t know that we can’t possibly work out a plan to reach net zero.  There is also the issue of terminology and transparency, what does ‘net zero’ or circular, or sustainable actually mean?  At the moment different things to different people.”

The EIA has an established cross-association sustainability working group and together with UFI, AIPC and ICCA are currently engaging with a few key players (including Informa & the UN) on climate action and sustainability with a net-zero industry pledge imminent. Strategically there is a view that we need to set our own agenda and shape our business and industry’s future the way we want to rather than being forced to comply and the sooner we take action, the more manageable and controlled the transition is and the quicker we will see revenue, customer and loyalty benefits.

We need to establish what the baseline is and set targets

So I guess if we are setting targets to influence future performance we need to establish what the baseline is. To have targets we need to know how we are currently performing which is no mean feat and then there is the question of what targets to set over how long of a time period. There seems to be some coalescence around the idea of zero waste and zero carbon but also more short-term targets that can be applied to individual shows like only using ‘sustainable’ venues and suppliers.

Maya says, “we would encourage businesses to calculate and measure their current impact. This will set the baseline for their business and it will help them to identify the areas that they can make the biggest impact/improve on efficiencies before taking action.

“These tend to be switching to a renewable energy provider; switching to an ESG pension fund; reducing waste; reducing non-business-essential travel; encouraging behaviour change in staff as well as attendees and having a sustainability champion or team to drive the initiatives. And always ask the question, do we need to have/produce this? Is there a more sustainable option? Can we do this digitally? We need to work with suppliers to come up with solutions and set measurable, ambitious but achievable targets.”

Informa have long been regarded as a trailblazer in this area. Kerrie says, “I feel that all the events industry should have targets, and an obvious one from me would be for everyone to pledge to join our Better Stands Program to eradicate single-use disposable stands from our industry once and for all.”

Kerrie adds, “This is a huge personal and professional passion of mine, the project team continues to grow and evolve and we have lots of exciting things planned in the coming months to continue our evolution and push to meet (and hopefully beat) our targets! Data shows that exhibitor waste is the single biggest element of any event waste footprint, at over 60% of the waste generated, so the sooner we as an industry can remove this and work towards more sustainable stand build materials & practices the better.”

Faster Forward

Informa also has a ‘Faster Forward’ strategy which was launched in 2020 and sets out the key priorities for the next five years. They aim to become carbon neutral and to have halved the amount of waste generated by their events by 2025 as well as hitting a range of other targets including:

  • Become zero waste and net-zero carbon by 2030 or earlier
  • Embed sustainability inside 100% of their brands by 2025
  • Help and promote the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
  • Enable one million disconnected people to access networks and knowledge by 2025

Kerrie says, “it is about embedding the environmental conversation into everything we do and ensuring this isn’t just a conversation that happens with ‘ops’. We need to work with our communities and support them to be zero waste and zero carbon with advice and guidance.”

With any change and especially with the change needed to make this happen there will be challenges. Kerrie points to the “perception around cost for sustainable materials and practices” which has long been a blocker for making more sustainable decisions within our industry. She thinks that “most people now understand that sustainability can actually create financial savings in the long term”.

In Frazer’s opinion, the cost argument can be mitigated by “incorporating environmental decisions from the outset rather than six weeks ahead of the event”. Reset Connect believes that there is still  “a lack of urgency, that someone else will do it and that being more sustainable will mean more costs”.

Kerrie returns to the aims of Better Stands: “a lack of coordination between different parties is a real issue. For some events there are lots of ‘regulations’ to meet and others there are none, therefore things like Better Stands can be viewed as a barrier rather than the key to long-term change and sustainable best practice. We must all unite in our goals and targets to be able to effect real, long-term change that will stick.”

The EIA has also identified the fragmented nature of our industry as a problem: “As with most industries we are made up of many different players, all with different parts to the puzzle and all at different stages in their sustainability ‘journeys’. That and the ‘it’s how we have always done it’ mentality are significant barriers.” That said they feel that “one desirable outcome of the Covid disruption may be that more people within the industry are open to more bold ideas of how things could be done differently, delivering a better and more sustainable experience for our customers.”

So, while there is increased momentum on the issue of sustainability there is a real need to approach this collaboratively. Now that the cost argument has been debunked, we need a greater sense of urgency, targets and an industry-wide commitment to significant change. Given what the industry has been through, we do have a fantastic opportunity to re-set and rebuild with sustainable working practices at the heart of what we do.     

Reset Connect is planning a session on Sustainable Events, titled, ‘Building Back Better: a Net-Zero Events Industry’, with a fantastic panel on 30 June, 10.30-11.30. To register for free please visit here.

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