How to Get Serious About Event Sustainability, According to Green Events Champion Shawna McKinley

March 15, 2022

It is no longer possible to deny the fact that climate change is happening all around us. With each passing year, we are seeing the environmental impacts of a warming planet becoming more evident, and though many of us may be doing our part to lessen our environmental impacts, we simply cannot reduce, reuse or recycle our way out of this global predicament. 

Like it or not, we also know that the events industry generates massive amounts of carbon and waste. While event-related organizations, venues and businesses have made promising strides toward a greener future, such as developing comprehensive sustainability programs, building greener convention centers and aligning with industry-wide campaigns such as the Net Zero Carbon Events pledge and global initiatives such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, there is much work yet to be done. 

To help address this urgent issue, Corporate Event News consulted with green events and sustainability consultant Shawna McKinley, principal of Clear Current Consulting, to get her thoughts on how the industry can take its sustainability progress to the next level—right now.  

Why should event organizers be taking the sustainability movement more seriously, and why is making meaningful changes now so crucial for our industry’s survival? 

Consider a recent study published in Nature Communications that suggests “the annual carbon footprint for the global event industry is of the same order of magnitude as the yearly GHG emissions of the entire United States (U.S.), responsible for more than 10% of global CO2 emissions. (This study focuses on conference events that exhibited a wide range of impact, not trade shows specifically.)” Eighty percent of the world economy is now working toward net zero carbon commitments. Many aim to halve carbon impact by 2030, so event and travel emissions are facing more scrutiny than ever before. There is no future for events that fail to adapt to this shift. 

Many event industry organizations are showing their willingness to address the face-to-face industry’s impact on the climate, as evidenced by the recent Net Zero Carbon Events Pledge. While good intentions are nice, how can platforms such as this be truly effective in creating meaningful, long-term change? 

Sector-wide pledge initiatives can help catalyze widespread action, which is good. However, the level of ambition and the quality and speed of actions that follow send strong signals about how seriously the issue is being taken. It’s important to lead with science in mind, accept that carbon budgets are limited and call for deep, short-term reductions within the next eight years. This will require most to do more than the sustainability checklist they’re used to. The temptation to heavily rely on offsets will be strong. 

Because of this, I think it’s critical that platforms recruit and provide space for knowledgeable, brave and dedicated souls who are willing to raise the sector’s ambition, and push for transformation. These leaders must not be willing to compromise on lowest common denominator goals when participants disagree on the target or the path to get there, or when people grow weary and find it difficult to maintain commitments. Because all of those things are inevitable!

What are some simple and affordable yet meaningful changes that event planners can make to actually move their eventsand the industrytoward a zero-waste, zero-carbon future (beyond the typical “solutions” such as going paperless and recycling)?

1.     Measure your carbon impact. Robust carbon measurement is easy and affordable with the help of software or a consultant. And, if you have time and would prefer not to pay, you can access many do-it-yourself tools online with a bit of research.

2.     Develop a sustainable travel policy. Make emissions impact a criteria for travel approval. When flying is necessary, use flight search tools (like Google Flights) that filter for the carbon impact of different itineraries. Develop incentives to reduce emissions when traveling, like enabling fare and room class upgrades for staff who agree to eat plant-based on trips, or use trains instead of short-haul flights.

3.     Practice circular design in exhibit production. Audit the materials you use in order to eliminate waste and pollution, keep materials in circulation and regenerate nature. Lightweight, reusable and modular designs that use fewer petroleum-based virgin plastics is preferred. Renting from existing exhibit contractor inventory and avoiding a lot of customization reduces waste.

4.     Inform yourself of the embodied carbon impact of the products you buy. The carbon footprint of exhibit construction materials varies widely. For example, 82% fewer emissions are generated by floor signs made of paper fiber compared to foam and are also easily recyclable.

5.     Proposing ways to reduce freight. Reducing shipping, especially air freight, using lighter materials and scheduling shipments to take advantage of consolidation all help curb climate pollution. And don’t hesitate to ask your shipping logistics provider about their plans to transition to fuel-efficient, low-emitting vehicles. While we are in the early days of this shift, it is starting to happen.


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