All conferences, regardless of their topic, are inherently unsustainable. International events with attendees and speakers from around the world often leave an enormous carbon footprint before they even begin, mostly due to guests’ air travel. And, when the events do begin, their operations often consume enormous amounts of energy and produce massive quantities of waste.
Take the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen as an example. Despite its noble mission to decrease the effects of climate change and promote sustainability, according to estimates gathered by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the conference actually generated a larger carbon footprint than any previous climate summit: 42,000 tons of carbon mostly due to air travel.
The event had to also provide several units of temporary housing, which wasted energy due to poor insulation and the use of oil heaters. Furthermore, most of the conference’s power was derived from coal, one of the world’s least sustainable energy sources.
Overcoming these environmental challenges is not easy, but can demonstrate a conference’s commitment to responsible action (and save on several key costs).
Irene Rompa, a sustainability consultant for ROI Community, suggests six ways for organizations and event-organizers to “green” their conferences:
1. Make sustainability a priority from day one. If you plan an event as a “green” event from the outset, you’ll have maximum flexibility in terms of materials and cost to make your event sustainable. If you neglect to make an event “green” from its conception, efforts to make it sustainable will often be cosmetic, low-impact, and high-cost.
2. Take the “reductionist” approach and always ask: what can be reduced, re-used, recycled? Don’t waste money on goodie bags whose contents have little value to attendees. Consider spending these resources on a sustainable project, such as planting trees, or conserving them by handing out “green” gifts or organizing a gift exchange at the event.
3. Reduce your plastic waste. Replace single-use plastic water bottles with reusable cups or bottles with your event’s logo on it. As plastic waste decreases, so too will your conference’s costs. Furthermore, reusable bottles provide free advertising for your organization and demonstrate its commitment to environmental sustainability.
4. Make your event’s food sustainable. Food is a key element of a conference to make sustainable. Consider having food provided in bulk to avoid wasted material from individually-wrapped meals, and using food waste productively by giving it to a local farm for compost. Providing mostly (or only) vegetables, and local/seasonal options makes the food “greener,” healthier and cheaper.
5. Look at each factor in the logistics of the event to make environmentally friendly changes. When printing banners, posters or materials with the organization’s logo on it, consider leaving off the exact dates of the conference or printing them separately. These changes will ensure that those materials can be re-used later. Picking a venue where attendees can stay that is close to public transportation makes additional means of transportation unnecessary, reducing costs and Carbon emissions.
6. Communicate what you’re doing with your attendees. Explaining to your attendees what you are doing to achieve your sustainable goals is very helpful. Because, let’s not forget, gathering many people in one place creates unique opportunities for setting examples, sharing knowledge and inspiring guests to think and act more “sustainably” in their daily lives.
One recent conference that implemented several of these ideas was the ROI Community Global Summit for Young Jewish Innovators, held last month in Jerusalem.
I and other conference organizers decided to focus especially on ways to reduce and neutralize the carbon emissions from attendees’ flights – by far the biggest polluter.
So to offset the emissions, we donated solar panels for water heating to 51 poor Israeli families in order to replace their diesel boilers, cut down their carbon emissions by 95 percent and lower their energy bills. In the end, over ten years, this donation will balance out the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by attendees’ transportation and automatically meant ROI Summit left a ‘green legacy’ by giving back to the community.
The thousands of individuals attending conferences every year provide organizations with an extraordinary opportunity. Sustainable technology has improved to the point where organizers can make a significant impact by implementing “green” strategies at their events to reduce monetary and environmental costs and assume leadership in the international community.
This guest post is by Beto Maya, the Director of Gatherings and Recruitment for ROI Community, an international network of over 800 Jewish social entrepreneurs and innovators in more than 40 countries. Beto is responsible for ROI’s summit selection, programming, and regional gatherings.
Image of green roundtable from Shutterstock