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Event profs ‘know better than policymakers’ how to drive sustainable innovation

Event professionals know the business “better than anybody else” so should drive innovation for a sustainable future without waiting for policymakers, according to an industry expert.

Ellie Ashton-Melia, community lead for isla, told ExpoPlatform that our sector mustn’t “shy away” from the issue even though it can be complicated

She believes sustainability will soon become “intrinsic” to how businesses will shape up in future.

Her comments come as global leaders gather in Glasgow, UK, for final few days of Cop26 to discuss plans for tackling climate change.

Ellie said: “There’s been some extremely bold ambitions that have been set out by governments and businesses to drastically reduce our emissions in line with global goals for net-zero by 2050.

“Unfortunately since the Paris Agreement they’ve  actually fallen short in delivering strategies to achieve a lot of these targets.

“We rapidly need to take action which is going to fundamentally affect businesses and society at large. 

“Largescale change comes from policymaking – I’m hoping that out of Cop26 we start to see this legislation and policy put in place.

“Within our industry, we need to make sure that we’re adapting and innovating ahead of that policy and legislation being implemented and enforced. 

“We know our industry better than anybody else, so we should have the solutions and innovation to drive that change.”

isla works with agencies, brands, organisers and suppliers to give practical guidance and support on environmental issues.

A sustainable event places emphasis on three areas: society, the environment, and the economy – “or as we call it people, planet, profit”.

The aim is to create a lasting balance which makes all of these components a priority when planning a show.

In doing this you can bring in a wider audience, improve your brand identity and reduce the carbon footprint of your event.

Almost half of people in China, the US and the UK are doing their best to live sustainably, according to a poll.

Findings from the Statista survey show 46% of respondents in these countries were doing all they can, 48% believed they could do more while only 6% were not bothering.

This illustrates the weight of responsibility people are placing on themselves to secure a future for all by living sustainably.

Ellie added: “Sustainability is quickly becoming the number one challenge in the eyes of businesses across the industry.

“Because of conscious consumers waking up to the climate crisis, they’re actually demanding businesses to step up. 

“This means that event teams are now under pressure to incorporate sustainability into their deliveries and their business operations as well.”

A total of 44% of Millennials and 49% of Gen Zs told a Deloitte survey this year they have made choices in the last two years over where and the type of work they will do based on their personal ethics.

About 15% of those said they had left their jobs or started new careers after reflecting on the pandemic and their values.

But it’s not just in their professional lives that their values hold more weight than previous generations – it’s when buying too.

Figures from NeilsenIQ show 90% of Millennials are willing to pay more for a sustainable product, 53% would switch brands to go greener and 75% said they would change their habits to reduce their impact on the environment.

That compares to 61%, 34% and 34% respectively for Baby Boomers – which is still a large proportion for each.

The global events industry highlighted its commitment to a net zero emissions future at the conference in Glasgow on Tuesday.

High-profile figures from our sector were to be live at a session in the city to deliver the pledge and highlight broad support from businesses.

Among these were CEO of UFI Kai Hattendorf, CEO of Informa Markets Charlie McCurdy and Bob Priest-Heck, CEO of Freeman, among many more.

This Net Zero Carbon Events initiative was facilitated by the Joint Meetings Industry Council and supported by the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

There are already more than 150 businesses from across the sector who are registered supporters, with a range of members from the supply chain involved in developing the pledge and executing the plans.

Signatories to the pledge commit to:

  • Before the end of 2023, publish their organisation’s pathway to achieve net zero by 2050 at the latest, with an interim target in line with the Paris Agreement’s requirement to reduce global GHG emissions by 50% by 2030
  • Collaborate with partners, suppliers and customers to drive change across the value chain
  • Measure and track Scope 1, 2 and 3 GHG emissions according to industry best practice
  • Report on progress at least every two years.

A typical in-person show creates a massive amount of excess and tonnes of emissions over the course of a few days.

This can be through leftover food, goody bags, single-use plastics, delegate and team travel, transportation, energy used at the venue, resources to build the event, magazines and many more.

Research from MeetGreen shows the average conference attendee produces 1.89kg of waste per day – that’s 5,670kg created by a 1,000-person event over three days.

Ellie believes the first step in tackling this is through accurately measuring the impact of event’s emissions and waste – as well as setting reduction plans. 

Initiatives like this Net Zero Carbon Events pledge as the beginning of a “journey” in this process.

She said: “To really drastically reduce the global carbon emissions and waste, it’s now become a critical business activity.

“We’re finding both within our action-driven network and the wider industry the demand  to start tracking and compliant reporting these things.

“That’s really important to be able to understand  the true impact of our events and our business operations in order to make that change, because we can’t manage what we don’t measure. 

“For businesses to do good and be good they need to reimagine their purpose and priorities. 

“Businesses need to be responsible in pursuing profit and performance, so ultimately, they should come when all the needs of people and the planet are met. 

“I think we are going to see very soon a real shift in how sustainability is going to become a really intrinsic part of the way businesses are running, as we start embracing different environmental sustainability practices and we’ve become more knowledgeable in the area.

“We’re kind of at the beginning of something – and it’s a journey.”

It is the journey element of in-person shows which contribute the biggest amount of carbon to an event, figures show.

Findings by MeetGreen estimate air transport makes up about 70% of the emissions created by a largescale professional gathering.

A further 10% is through car journeys, 8% on guest room energy, 4% on venue energy, 4% by train travel, 3% on food and 1% on freight.

The organisation estimates one two-day event avoided producing almost 1.8 million kg of CO2 emission to just over 8,420kg by switching to fully virtual format.

That’s less than one percentage of the original figure.

Ellie sees virtual options as offering some alternative where appropriate so that carbon waste can be reduced.

It is also estimated that moving 10% of attendees online – made up of those who travel the furthest – could cut emission by almost 90%, according to University of Freiburg research.

Ellie added: “Digital provides a huge opportunity.

“The amount of waste produced by the delegate  travelling to the venue, the food they consume at the event, the graphics and the production that is involved to bring that in-person event to life versus a delegate being sat in the comfort of their  home on a virtual event. 

“I think the shift towards a hybrid model should be a focus.

“You can reach really broad audiences, we’re no longer bound by our venues – so we can now reach 1000s virtually, while limiting the number of in-person attendees. 

“So it’s about an increase in overall audience reach, but also reducing your overall impact –  that’s how we need to start looking at events when we get a briefing.”

Part of this could be done through creating more localised boutique events.

These formats can target pre-qualified buyers to go to a show which is designed to their wants and needs.

This means a higher quality of attendee even though there will be fewer people there.

Meanwhile, long distance prospective customers could be given an online hosted buyer experience.

Ellie has faith that tools like these strengthen our industry’s ability to adapt to the change needed to make a success of a more sustainable future and resilient events industry.

She said: “In the pandemic, overnight businesses changed their operations.

“They innovated, they changed the way they delivered events.

“That’s something we can learn from – the fact that we can evolve and change so rapidly. 

“That gives us a lot of hope if we apply that same attitude to the climate crisis challenge.”

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