by Shawna McKinley…
When I grew up I wanted to be a park ranger. What could be cooler than being in nature, teaching kids about pond ecology to bears? Somewhere along the way I took a summer job as a community event planner and the rest, as they say, is history! Today I specialize in a pretty unique area: sustainable event management. I work with organizations to understand and reduce their event footprint, consider ways they can provide positive community benefits and ensure events deliver quality, high-return experiences.
My advice? Include sustainability in your event skill-set. Why? Sustainability is no longer just the forte of those passionate about the planet and community service. It is emerging as a core competence for professionals in all sectors. It is a fundamental business practice.
So what sustainability basics should event professionals know? It can help to understand impacts events can have in terms of waste, energy and water. It can also help to know the business case for reducing impacts, and where cost savings are possible. But you don’t need to be an environmental specialist, or social services expert to plan a sustainable event. Being mindful of six simple things can get you started on the right path:
Think simplicity. There is a reason environmental citizenship often gets summed up in the mantra of the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The environmental hierarchy works; we get it without needing a degree in environmental science. My mentor Nancy Zavada sums sustainability up another way: “Be a Good Human” which to me acknowledges sustainability is about how we treat the planet as well as each other. If you start from a place of minimizing harm you’ll be off on the right foot to planning a sustainable event.
Be intentional. You can choose to control your sustainable event, or let it control you. Skilled event professionals set deliberate and specific objectives about everything from registration to ticket sales, sponsorship and attendee evaluations. Why would sustainability be any different? If you want to ‘go green’ state your intentions in a few clear and measurable objectives and stick to them. Common event sustainability objectives can relate to things like reducing travel, minimizing waste onsite or saving money from sustainable actions.
Set boundaries. There are many important environmental and social issues related to events: waste, labor issues, climate impacts. Trying to address too many will burn you out, so prioritize and be reasonable. What can you influence and control? What issue is most important? Pick something, even if it is just one thing. The most important thing is to start.
Patience and progress, not perfection. Sustainability is a journey – be in it for the long haul. Sometimes you’ll take steps forward, other times backwards. Be prepared to make tradeoffs. For example it’s tough to afford 100% local, organic and seasonal food for events, even if you can find it. Some venues will not be able to recycle or source renewable energy. Expect everyone to have an opinion about what you should and shouldn’t do to hold a green event, and that their advice will be conflicting! I’ve come to accept that knowledge is transitory and imperfect at best. New and better information comes available every day that will make you question if you did the right thing at your last sustainable event. All you can do is research as best you can, seek the advice of others, make a decision and learn from it. This provides another lesson…
Involve. Include your suppliers. Seek advice from others. Join a CSR network. Accept you won’t always have all the answers, but there are many out there who are passionate about helping and learning with you. A team of sustainability champions can accomplish much more than one person, so gather yours together and get started!
Don’t judge. Meet people where they are. Most of us are decidedly penitent about the environment, feeling guilty for the abuse we sometimes cause the planet. If you take an adversarial approach your partners will likely only get defensive. It is much more productive to have an open conversation about what everyone can bring to the event to support a sustainability ethic. Securing commitment for event sustainability will not happen overnight, but it will happen if people are encouraged and feel rewarded for participating.
If you’re interested in learning more contact me, or look to organizations like the Green Meeting Industry Council www.greenmeetings.info for help. Those of us in the field could use the support and energy of new event professionals passionate about sustainability to help us make events even better!
:: ABOUT SHAWNA ::
Shawna McKinley grew up on Vancouver Island and lives in Vancouver.
She is the Director of Sustainability for MeetGreen where she helps companies, associations and meeting suppliers improve their events through sustainable practices.