What is a sustainable event?

Before discussing how to plan a sustainable event, let’s consider what makes it more, or less, sustainable. It helps to look at this from the perspective of people attending. Let’s start by considering your personal experiences at an industry, community or family event…

Have you ever had any of the following thoughts while at an event?

“Look at all that wasted food!”

“Oh no, they gave me yet another plastic bag with freebies. That’ll go straight in the bin.”

“Why aren’t there any recycling bins around when you need one?”

“All those refundable bottles and cans could be worth a bit. What a waste to see them in the bin.”

“I wish I could refill my own bottle instead of using plastic bottled water.”

“Those flowers look exotic; I wonder where they came from?”

“I’d rather have come by public transport but the location meant I had to drive instead.”

“It’s very brightly lit – I wouldn’t want their energy bill!”

“Hundreds of balloons were released – I wonder where they’ll end up?”

If one or more of those thoughts have crossed your mind, you’re not alone. Such thoughts indicate the need for events to be more sustainable. Why not take some of these aspects on board when you’re the one planning an event?

Illustration of webinar and face-to-face event

Build sustainability into your decisions

Through informed decisions, you can minimise negative environmental and social impacts, and maybe even create positive ones! Not only will this help the planet, but it will make for a more rewarding experience for all (and may well cost less too).

Sustainable event planning involves making an effort to cut carbon emissions, reduce waste, preserve natural resources, and support communities.

 

Done well, it’s about creating economic, environmental and social value from the available time, people and budget.

It doesn’t matter whether your event is for work, home or the community. Any event can be planned with sustainability in mind, from a workshop, conference, trade show, webinar or sports event, to a Christmas party, community gathering, children’s party or wedding. Here’s how to go about it.

Set sustainability goals for your event

First, commit to having a go at running a sustainable event, and set clear, aspirational goals. For example, you may decide to aim for an event that has one or more of the following attributes (click for definitions/info):

Waste recycling illustration

Understand your event’s carbon footprint

CO2 calcuatorAll events, even online ones, generate carbon. CO2 is emitted when we use computers and audiovisual equipment. Carbon is also generated via actions like travelling to an event, running AV equipment and heating or cooling food.

For a guide to carbon-neutral best practices and formal certification, see the Australian Government Carbon Neutral Standard for Events.

The event type will affect its carbon footprint, as an international conference is quite different to a local workshop or wedding. However, similar factors affect their carbon footprint and overall sustainability. For example, here are some facts about weddings…

wedding ringsThe top four contributors to a wedding’s carbon footprint are travel, number of guests, food (especially meat) and imported flowers. (Source: ABC News)

A wedding can produce nearly 20kg of plastic waste and generate around 14.5 tonnes of carbon. Balloons, confetti, exotic flowers and decorations typically found at weddings are harmful to the environment too. (Source: 77 Diamonds: Sustainable Weddings)

To work out which aspects of an event increase or decrease carbon, try free online tools such as:

Define and measure sustainability targets

Once you have some general goals, define specific targets related to these. Depending on the event type, your targets might include recycling a certain percentage of waste, using only local suppliers, keeping energy use below a certain amount, contributing X hours to a community project, and so on.

Think about how you can measure these targets, and set up systems to do that. For instance, the venue may have systems to measure waste and energy, and the caterer can report on how much food was left over. Or you might simply take before/after photographs, do a count of full vs empty bins, and ask attendees to tell you how far they travelled.

Review factors that impact sustainability

For a face-to-face event, the decision-making areas with the most impact on sustainability typically include:

  • Event type, timing and content: The type/style of event, number of attendees, duration, timing, agenda, speakers, and activities.
  • Venue: Location, facilities, energy, lighting, heating/cooling, cleaning, layout, equipment, sustainability systems.
  • Transport and logistics: Travel to/from the event, accommodation, transport of goods/equipment.
  • Catering: Food/drink, utensils, non-meat options, seasonal/local produce, food waste, water/energy.
  • Marketing and communication: Booking, guest communications, promotion/gifts, decor/props, social inclusiveness.

Online events involve some, but not all, of those impact areas. For each area, see the top tips below. You can read more about each of these in the Green Street Guide to Planning Sustainable Events.

Top tips for planning sustainable events

1. Event type, timing and content

  • Where appropriate, hold events online or in hybrid mode (mix of online and face-to-face).
  • For in-person events, limit attendee numbers and be flexible about the dress code. For example, a formal event or wedding with 200 guests will have a much higher carbon footprint than a small, informal ceremony (see Mindfully Wed for great eco-wedding ideas).
  • If the date is flexible, choose a time of year that will require less energy for heating/cooling, and when transport and accommodation are readily available.
  • When selecting a date, duration and timeslot, consider the needs of attendees with dependants or other responsibilities.
  • Aim for diversity when selecting speakers, entertainers, or staff. Plan and design inclusive, ethical event content and activities that require minimal energy or resources.
  • Try to integrate activities that enhance nature (e.g. tree planting) or support the community (e.g. promote local artists).

2. Choosing a venue

Look for venues that…

  • Are in an accessible location with good transport links.
  • Provide spaces/rooms that are the right size and layout to suit the event type and number of attendees.
  • Have a sustainability policy, procedures, and some form of sustainability certification (see further info links below).
  • Use renewable energy sources and energy/water efficiency measures.
  • Provide waste recycling and composting facilities.
  • Follow eco-friendly cleaning practices and provide non-chemical composting toilets when mobile facilities are needed.
  • Have access to versatile, nature-friendly outdoor spaces.

3. Transport & logistics

  • Arrange group transport options like buses or car-pooling.
  • Promote public transport by providing clear info and guidance.
  • Encourage active transport by providing route info and facilities.
  • Organise deliveries and venue visits efficiently to minimise vehicle trips.
  • Choose local services and suppliers wherever possible.

4. Catering

  • Choose a caterer with sustainable policies and practices
  • Avoid plastic and non-compostable eating implements and containers
  • Offer local, organic, seasonal food with a majority of non-meat options
  • Provide water refilling stations instead of plastic bottles
  • Minimise food waste through effective planning, partnerships with food charities, and composting
  • Have clearly labelled bins for food waste and recyclables.

Illustration of food and drink catering

5. Décor, promotion and communication

  • Opt for digital communication instead of paper, where appropriate.
  • Avoid single-use props, décor and clothing (hire, reuse or upcycle instead).
  • Find alternatives to items that are bad for the environment (balloons, confetti, plastic banners and non-recyclable items).
  • Provide useful sustainably produced freebies and gifts (see Promotion Products for practical, eco-friendly goods).
  • Offer attendees experiences with environmental or social benefits (such as projects with local schools or community groups).
  • Share sustainability goals, challenges, successes and learning points.

In summary…

When planning an event, decisions about event content, style, timing, size, venue, catering, transport, waste, decor, speakers and various other factors have an impact on sustainability.

By considering and planning for these factors as per the tips above, you can cut carbon, minimise waste, save the Earth’s resources, build social value and spend your event budget wisely. Here’s to your next (sustainable) event!

Illustration of wine glasses

 


This article is an abridged version of the Green Street Guide to Planning Sustainable Events, freely available to all signed-in members.


 

Further information

Related Green Street resources