How To Make Sustainability a Priority Again, According to Green Events Expert Julia Spangler

April 14, 2021

For event professionals who are passionate about sustainability, this past year has raised some concerns about the future of green events. As the trade show and meetings industry begins to recover, and with event budgets tighter than ever, will anyone care enough about sustainability to help the cause or will green practices end up on the bottom rung of importance? And with many events using chemical cleaning agents to keep participants safe from possible virus spread, how do eco-minded event planners reconcile this not-always-green operating procedure with creating an environmentally friendly event? 

To help answer these burning questions, TSNN turned to Julia Spangler, green events consultant and owner of Ecosystem Events, to get her recommendations for how planners can continue to further the industry’s progress toward a greener future, post-pandemic. 

Where do you see sustainability ranking in importance once live events get going again?

I encourage planners to continue to prioritize sustainability as much or even more than they did pre-pandemic. Numerous surveys have shown that Americans and citizens around the globe continue to be concerned about the environment and climate change, even amid the pandemic. In some cases, their level of concern about the environment has even grown during the pandemic. These are the attitudes your attendees will be carrying with them when events resume, so you need to be prepared to meet their expectations not only for health and safety, but also for a sustainable event.

How can event planners move forward with sustainability when it may not be a priority for many stakeholders at this time?

Getting buy-in for sustainability is something planners have always had to contend with, and I think the strategies will remain the same post-pandemic. 

First, share survey results with your decision-makers, such as these from Resources for the Future, that show how strongly your audience cares about protecting the environment and halting climate change. 

Second, if data doesn’t garner support, focus on sustainable practices that are cost-saving. Leaders rarely object to neutral design changes that help the bottom line. 

Finally, measure the results of the sustainable changes you are able to make with your current level of support. Once you demonstrate your success (and how much your attendees and stakeholders liked the changes), it will be easier to win support for further sustainable initiatives. 

Is it possible to call an event “green” if chemicals are being used as part of its health and safety cleaning practices?

I’m not an expert on chemistry, but I do know that the word “chemicals” sometimes gets thrown around as if all chemicals are inherently harmful, which is untrue. We rely on a variety of chemical substances and reactions in our everyday lives for activities from cleaning to baking. 

However, there are certainly some chemical substances that are more harmful than others. The EPA maintains two labeling programs, Safer Choice and Design for the Environment, to help consumers choose cleaning and disinfecting products that are less harmful to human health and the environment. You can learn more about these programs and search product lists on the EPA website.

How can health and safety practices work with, rather than against, sustainability at events?

It’s a common misconception that health and safety guidelines somehow impede sustainability efforts. There is actually very little overlap between sanitation best practices and sustainable best practices. While events may be temporarily generating some additional waste from cleaning supplies and PPE, event planners are still able to implement best practices for reducing food waste, recycling, reusing event supplies, requesting renewable energy (if locally available) and many other sustainable practices. 

I also want to emphasize that planners don’t need to rely on single-use packaging to serve food and beverages safely — reusable dishes and glassware can be just as safe or safer. The Sustainable Event Alliance released a comprehensive guide in October 2020 to help planners confidently and safely choose reusable food and beverage serviceware, both now and post-pandemic.

Many of us are excited about the prospect of getting on a plane and traveling to events, yet many event participants may not be aware of how deleterious air travel is on the environment. Can you explain this to our readers?

Air travel is often the biggest component of an event’s carbon footprint, especially for national and international gatherings. Air travel generally emits significantly more greenhouse gases than other forms of transportation, making it a major contributor to climate change. Fuel efficiency is improving, but not at a rate that keeps up with increasing numbers of flights. With pent-up demand for vacations and business travel, I think we’ll see a quick rebound in the number of flights taken post-pandemic, which of course means a return of those related greenhouse gas emissions.

Do you think groups should consider virtual events as a way to increase their sustainability efforts?

I think planners should continue to keep hybrid and virtual events in their toolbox, both as a way to make events more accessible to audiences that are less able to travel, as well as to reduce their events’ carbon footprint. Another model to keep in mind is planning events at multiple regional hubs that can be connected with hybrid event technology. Choosing hubs that are conveniently located for the majority of attendees can significantly reduce an event’s carbon footprint while also maintaining an in-person experience.

What are your tips for “restarting” green practices at events, particularly those with even tighter budgets than before the pandemic?

If your budget is tight, focus on reducing waste through your event design — which usually leads to buying less and saving money. Is there room to improve the accuracy of your F&B order quantities? A great place to start is to ask your attendees to register for each individual meal function, instead of assuming that all attendees will attend all meals. 

Also remember to design your event materials for reuse at multiple events. For example, order a set of signboards with generic branding and a plastic sleeve. Use paper print-outs to use the same signboards for guest instructions, arrows, session information and more. One set of signboards can last for several events, cutting down on your printing bill and event waste.


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