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Event Sustainability: The Evolution of A Wasteful Industry

A trade show is a community that lasts only about three days.

Have you ever stopped to consider the wastefulness of events, trade shows, and conferences? Most people don’t.

I grew up around trade shows. The first one I attended was COMDEX in Toronto when I was fourteen years old, dressed in a suit that was way too big for me. Our family business used to exhibit at trade shows all over the world, so I came into the scene early. We also ran our a conference, so I saw multiple sides of the business; as an attendee, an exhibitor, and as an organizer. There’s a conference for pretty much anything you can think of. And they are all fundamentally the same. 

When we selected a venue, there were multiple considerations: whether the show was close to the airport, what amenities were nearby, how expensive these amenities were for attendees, how many square feet the exhibition space was, where the nearest Kinko’s was… all pretty logistical stuff. 

Something was rarely discussed, however. Waste and recycling plans for these conferences was not a part of the conversation. These plans were usually left to the convention center to handle in whichever way they saw fit. 

Luckily, times have changed. 

The Wasteful Nature of Conferences and Events

Conferences are by nature extremely wasteful. Consider that you’re setting up a small community for three days or more, placing everyone into an environment where they are beholden to what’s on offer from convention center coffee shops and local restaurants. Everything is designed to be single-use, fairweather, stop-through. Temporary.

At the entrance to the conferences where we’d exhibit, there were often rows of publication bins, where attendees could pick up trade magazines related to the industry. At the end of the conference, if there were stacks of magazines left over, they’d be recycled, hopefully. But often they’d just be thrown out if the venue didn’t have an appropriate method for routing those materials to a recycling facility. I remember seeing forklifts piling unused boxes of publications into big grey trash bins, along with all of the other convention center trash. Thousands of publications. 

Then, in the exhibition area, as the trade show set up, there would be thousands of yards of plastic wrap, scrap wood, polystyrene forms… an astounding amount of material. If you’ve never witnessed a pre-trade show setup, you should—it’s fascinating. It’s akin to the creation of a movie set. A veritable city is constructed within the walls of the exhibition space. At the end of an event, everything is torn down again. More often than not, most of this material would go to landfill afterwards. 

Not to mention all of the pamphlets, brochures, branded clothing, pens, USB sticks, glossy business cards, etc. Exhibitors would actively avoid having to ship anything back to their home office from the event, to save cost and hassle. Most of the time, this promotional material was branded as part of the event, and any leftovers were “useless” and discarded. 

And then, amazingly, it all happens again. The show strikes, and then right behind it, the convention center sets up for the next event. 

What happens to all of the material being hastily shoved into massive rolling dumpster bins?

At the time, I remember wondering what happened to all of the material that was being hastily shoved into massive rolling dumpster bins to prepare for the next show. I asked some of the decoration company representatives that would deal with the convention center, and normally, there was no real plan for any of that waste. Looking back on it, I’m just stunned by the lack of environmental consideration. 

Things have changed since the nineties when my family was doing conferences, and admittedly, I’ve been out of that circuit for quite a few years. Recently there has been more of a push towards sustainable events, likely because people recognized the need to mitigate the environmental impact brought about by this industry. And not a moment too soon. 


Standardization for Event Sustainability 

While researching changes in the industry, I was happy to learn about organizations like Strategin Solutions, a Canadian consulting firm that specializes in working with events to integrate sustainability into their operations. 

As a result of Strategin’s early work in event sustainability, the Founder and CEO of Strategin, Ginny Stratton, was awarded the opportunity to participate in the technical committees that created and launched the Canadian national standard, CSA Z2010, in 2010 and the international standard, ISO 20121, in 2012. 

These standards are designed to provide organizers, venues and suppliers alike with a holistic framework for integrating environmental, social and economic considerations into the entire event planning and management process. They help event planners to minimize waste and resource consumption, reduce climate change impacts, make environmentally and socially conscious purchasing decisions, engage attendees in sustainability initiatives, and (hopefully) create lasting impacts in the event’s host community.

Executing agencies and consulting firms similar to Strategin Solutions have also arisen in the past few years, such as Meet Green, Greener Events, and Sustainable Events Ltd. These organizations implement strategic plans for trade organizations to follow that keep them more accountable and in line with the established event sustainability standards.   

However, to this day, regulations in most locations across Canada still do not mandate that events implement sustainability standards, or take responsibility for their environmental, social and economic impacts. It is often the personal convictions of senior management of an event organization that believes that their business should be doing better and operating in a way that respects the environment and society, as opposed to continually creating waste and using resources without thinking about the impacts.


Progress in Event Sustainability

The good news is that many venues are actively seeking to operate in compliance with event sustainability standards. By contracting a venue with sustainability policies and practices in place, the sustainability performance of an event is going to be greatly enhanced. 

Venues that have adopted sustainability policies are thinking of innovative ways to use their physical facilities to be more sustainable

There’s also a more comprehensive framework for awards and incentives for coordinating more sustainable events. High profile events such as Oracle OpenWorld, the Volvo Ocean Race, have made significant strides to incorporate zero-waste strategies into their planning process. In the case of the Volvo Ocean Race, the organizers have not only ensured a zero-waste policy for their event, but they have also thought of ways to conduct ocean waste research as part of their program. So in their case, they are giving back to the planet through having done some creative planning. 

There are also firms such as MCI Global that have developed a sustainability index that offers events a sustainability measurement “grade” for destinations, called the Global Destination Sustainability Index. This serves as an assessment tool to help event organizers determine the most environmentally conscious destinations when they are in the planning stages for their events.

Because of the foundational work done to establish benchmarks for sustainable practices, we are moving closer to the emergence of mandated environmental impact standards for events. Even though the process is slow-moving, it’s far beyond where it was 20 years ago. And now with the increased momentum behind environmental stewardship on the whole, conferences and venues alike will hopefully continue to improve processes and increase the efficacy of their sustainability programs.

Next time you’re attending an event or conference, try to take note of how they are routing their waste. Does it seem as though they have undergone a proper Environmental Impact Assessment? Is waste diversion and recycling streaming part of the event’s priorities? Are they promoting their adherence to event sustainability standards? Are exhibitors acknowledging the importance of minimizing waste? 

After being “out of the game” for a few years, I was encouraged to see the progress and the amount of momentum there is for standardizing sustainability for conferences and events. If we all continue to do our part to ensure there are appropriate checks and balances, with the ultimate goal of every event leaving nary a trace of waste, then the world with undoubtedly be better for it. 

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