Seven years ago we published a comprehensive report on the State of Green meetings and events. We talked recycling, composting, paper-free events, refillable water bottles and innovations in solar and kinetic energy to power experiences. We launched a monthly series called Green Lights where we explored specific innovations in the “greening” of events. Then, gradually, the green pitches stopped rolling in. That spin, it seemed, spun out. And we wondered as we looked back at that issue: what happened to green events?
We discovered that “green” isn’t an add-on anymore. Green is an expectation from consumers, employees and clients (millennials, especially). Oh, and sustainability is the more appropriate term for it. Today, event marketers are taking a holistic approach to the issue, examining the entire life cycle of an event, from the city and venue down to the suppliers and vendors, and how the trickle-down effect of even slight shifts in thinking can have an impact on the event footprint, the local economy and the world.
The Wellness Factor
Paul Salinger, vp-marketing at Oracle, describes it as a “triple bottom line” approach of “people, planet and profits.” Oracle has had a rigorous sustainability auditing process in place for years and recently achieved a 90-percent waste diversion rate at Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco—a consistent presence in a historically green-minded city, which he says is one of the reasons they were able to achieve it.
“Wellness is a strong piece, this whole idea of attendee health and well being, and it could be anything from really strong food and beverage menus that focus on low sugar and serving healthy brain food kind of meals, to getting people out and walking more, giving them more breaks and more options to get out in the fresh air,” Salinger says.
The trickle-down effect: healthier food options typically mean procuring locally sourced foods, which means less trucking and carbon emissions. And more fresh air for attendees can dictate fewer or eco-friendly transportation options, like walking or biking. Generally speaking, healthy people equal a healthy event equal a healthy planet.
Salinger says the reason we may not hear of “green” as much is because the practice is so ingrained in companies with corporate social responsibility initiatives driving all of their operations, not just their events. “People that are very serious about it are now taking it to the next level and looking at things like, can we get to zero waste?” he says.
Having achieved a near-perfect diversion rate, Oracle, among initiatives including a $1 million pledge to The Nature Conservancy for reforestation, has a new goal. In 2014, the brand enacted a plan to achieve carbon neutrality in five years. The company continues to promote its voluntary carbon offset fund for emissions reduction projects, where attendees can make a contribution to offset the environmental impact of their travel, transportation and hotel stay. “… That’s honestly the biggest factor in terms of carbon emissions and the one that we can’t really control,” Salinger says.
3,000: The number of pounds of food wasted per second in the United States, according to the 2015 Green Venue Survey
Sustainability Has a Voice
More examples of the evolution of sustainability can be seen in plans for Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco. Neill Duffy, sustainability adviser to the host committee, says the goal is to produce a “net positive” game. “Net positive means actively looking for ways to use Super Bowl 50 as a platform to do good for the benefit of the entire Bay Area—socially, environmentally and economically,” he says.
The committee’s goal is to make this the “most shared, most participatory and most giving” game yet. It is looking at low-emissions transportation options to move people through the city and sustainable temporary power solutions. There will be strategies in place to minimize food and water waste, as well as philanthropic tie-ins that benefit local organizations.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about what sustainability means to us, because it’s one of those words that means different things to different people—recognizing where we have control, the areas we don’t have control and the areas where we have influence,” he says. “Super Bowl is a pretty complex environment as you know, there’s the NFL host committee, the partners, sponsors, you’ve got broadcasters and local authorities; there are a lot of stakeholders involved.”
Duffy says there are guidelines for stakeholders, partners, activating brands and vendors. And it being Northern California, folks are embracing it. The hope, he says, is that with a million people expected to participate in the fan village leading up to the event, and 300,000 of those expected to be out-of-town visitors, that the “legacy” component of the plan shines through and that folks will take what they see back to their own markets, and raise the level of expectation of how things are done at home.
Social Media is Saving Trees
On a granular level, it’s all the “shifts” that are impacting the way event marketers activate their experiences. One of the first items Kenya Hardaway, vp-integrated promotions at FX, looks at when developing a consumer event program are what she calls “negative impact items” like paper collateral that winds up on the ground and in the trash. Her team focuses instead on social media moments that help tell a story and spread the messaging digitally.
“We look to create sharable moments through the content design of the event, the fabrication, the décor,” Hardaway says. “We include a hashtag each time and let the shares communicate and spread the information.”
At San Diego Comic-Con the brand activated a sunscreen station for the series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and rather than hand out small, wasteful bottles of travel sized sunscreen, it set up a lively station with economy-sized bottles where consumers had to make daily stops in order to take advantage of it. The result: less trash and more opportunities to re-engage with consumers on-site.
One area where Hardaway thinks the industry could make a difference: the RFP process. She would like to see sustainability included in initial conversations with potential agency partners.
“We ask the questions all the time, ‘Can this be recycled? Can this be re-used? Is there a better option?’ and I believe this is an opportunity for someone to augment their services to address this demand, and that this could be a huge selling point,” Hardaway says. “We love when we work with agencies that say, ‘We already have a process in place for excess food,’ or ‘here’s how we’re going to recycle these materials.’ I love when agencies are proactive.”
1.2: Number of tons of carbon dioxide emissions that business travelers account for while in flight
The Nastiest Problem
Perhaps the biggest hurtle to clear in tackling sustainability in the industry is communication—and that starts with the perpetual myth that green costs more green. Jeff Chase, vp-sustainability at Freeman, says that’s no longer an excuse. The cost of green materials has come down, he says, and most vendors are tracking fuel, electric use and waste so they can supply reports and generate baselines. The other part of the communication equation is getting stakeholders—anyone who touches an event or show—into the same room to discuss the brand’s goals for sustainability before, during and after a show.
“We work so hard on the front end of show planning and making sure where every sign is going to be and every counter is to be placed, but we don’t worry about the backend; we walk away and leave it for someone else to work out,” Chase says. “If we take that extra time to plan the out-of-show, the complete lifecycle of the show, not just stop in the middle, but do the final closeout of the show, we can divert waste and be at an 80- to 90-percent diversion rate on every show. If everyone is doing their part and knows what matters, then we can knock it out of the park.”