When sustainability is not sustainable

Talk of climate change is not going anywhere.  Companies around the world are all wanting to be seen to be doing their bit for sustainability.  Does your organisation have a sustainability policy?  Try looking at where the CSR team used to be, chances are they are the same people.  And chances are these people sit in comms or PR, or some sort of external facing strategy team – what does that tell you?  Are these sustainability principles, as a lot of them say “embedded in the DNA of the organisation” or is it more a nice to have, tick the box – “look, we are sustainable” – the end?

It’s not embedded in your DNA

The likelihood is, it is very much the latter and any sustainable policies are very much to give the impression organisations are doing the right thing, rather than it impacting the employees, processes or day to day operations of the firm. One key area this is true is in marketing and more specifically events.  Corporate companies can churn out thousands of events every year – London alone hosted over 1 million business events last year.  That is just London.  That is just in one year.  That is insane.  So, so what?  Events by their very nature are not permanent.  They are a moment in time.  As soon as you have finished setting up, it feels like your breaking it all down again and onto the next one.  And was that event even necessary? 

Could this event have been a webinar?

Marketing now has such a wide range of tactics – majority of them far more cost effective and successful at generating leads.  Events are notorious for being expensive with very little return?  So why do we do them?  Because nothing will ever replace the need for face to face interaction and the magic of human connection.  But can we reduce our list of 1000 events to a couple of hundred, but make them really good?  Make them educational.  Make them entertaining.  Make them inspiring.  Make them memorable.  But most of all, make them sustainable.  Yes.  Yes you can.

Did they really just give me a plastic bottle of water?

I recently attended a sustainability event – that’s right an event about sustainability.  Well these guys must have this sustainability stuff locked down right?  Wrong.  The sessions were centered on the sustainable development goals or how to get stakeholder buy in.  Great.  The speakers were from reputable eco or green firms.  Excellent.  The exhibitors were showcasing the latest in waste management.  All good stuff.  So where did it go wrong?

It started on arrival – plastic badges and lanyards.  Ouch.  Printed on demand so saving for those who don’t turn up, but are they recycling any of these?  What are they even made of? The girl on the desk didn’t know, she was too focused on giving me a glossy printed brochure.  Oh joy. 

Next stop ‘Would you like a bag?’ – a tote bag full of more printed flyers, pens and other unnecessary tat.  Is that a plastic bottle of water?!  I politely decline.

To the coffee station – compostable cups.  Interesting.  Sound good but are they?  The lid and base are already 2 different materials and what’s wrong with telling people to bring their own reusable coffee cups, or supplying china cups and saucers?  I mull over this whilst reviewing the event guide – confusing agenda and would appear everything is split across different floors.  I think they need an app.

No!  I don’t want a pen – or a brochure!

I wander the exhibitor floor.   Everything from eco gifts to digital signage, waste management to embroidery.  So far, so good.  What’s that?  A printer specialising in single use pull up banners?  Their stand covered in vinyl.  Wow. They try to give us another glossy brochure – its 2 inches thick.  No thank you.  “Do you do any sustainable branding?  Any recycled materials?”  “Oh yes”, he answers, “but they’re not in the brochure, nobody wants those, they’re too expensive.”  Sir – they will forever be too expensive if nobody is able to buy them.  The stands are littered with plastic giveaways, pens and sweets.  The lunch sandwiches are wrapped in cling film.  All single use plastic.  All very non sustainable.  All very stressful.

How can an event centered on sustainability be so unsustainable? 

I was shocked.  But there are positives.  People are starting to wake up to the ideas and concepts of being more sustainable.  Being mindful and more aware of the impact they are having.  This time the event focused on the content, next time they can work with me and we can look at the customer experience.  It is important to not just talk about sustainability but actually live and breathe it.  And whilst every event will not be perfect, it’s a step in the right direction.

Sustainability as a concept is huge, confusing and impossible to think about as one thing on your ever increasing to do list.  Look at baby steps, what can you try at this event?  Next event – try something else.  Experiment. The world is changing.  The event industry is changing.  And all for the better and you need to get on board.

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