Earth Day 2022: Fostering experiential sustainability in three (not so easy) steps

Photo by Vivien Killilea / Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

Happy Earth Day, but don’t get too comfortable. Put that green-frosted cupcake down! Events and experiences might be one of the least sustainable industries out there. Attendees take planes, trains and automobiles to get on site. Cases of branded water bottles sit unopened. Carefully curated gifts and favors are left behind. Sets are built and then put out to pasture. And single-use plastic products abound.

Let’s start with an inconvenient truth. The US must cut carbon emissions by 2 billion tons each year until 2050 if we’re going to slow down the onslaught of climate change. And we’re not going to get there by throwing out half the buffet.

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A lack of motivation to act on climate change exists everywhere, but we’re often guilty because of the short-term lens through which we view our projects. Producing a diverse, creativity-driven experience can take anywhere from one month to one year to pull off. And while that seems like eons to those in planning mode five days a week, it’s certainly not long enough for us to consider whether that beach in Miami where we’d like to host an immersive dinner, will be completely eroded by party night.

But, it’s not all bad news, and there are clear actions we can all take to do better. Here are three extremely important but not so easy steps experiential pros can take today — Earth Day, of all days — to improve the event industry’s sustainability.

1) KNOW VIRTUAL’S POSITIVE IMPACT ON CLIMATE

One of the most positive impacts of the pandemic was the reset for the climate. In fact, according to a 2020 study from Caltech using NASA satellite data:

  • Limitations on travel and other economic sectors drastically decreased air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions within just a few weeks
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions fell by 5.4% (roughly 2 billion tons)
  • Methane emissions dropped an estimated 10%

All this to say, when we were stuck at home watching The Sopranos for the third time, we weren’t out disturbing the environment and warming the planet.

Obviously, virtual events are one of the best options for organizers that are seeking to minimize their carbon footprint. The International Journal of Environmental Studies actually studied a global virtual conference’s climate impact last year and found that “if the conference had been held in person, flights alone would have generated 66x the emissions as the entire virtual conference.” Add ground transportation, hotels, food, and venue energy, and it’s clear how virtual events cut down on carbon emissions.

But virtual events alone won’t save the planet. The same study found that:

  • 64% of the conference’s emissions came from network data transfer
  • 19% came from the pre-conference planning meetings
  • 11% came from computer use during the conference.”

We can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Even hybrid events make a positive impact. The University of Cambridge found, “Hybrid conferences, particularly if those participants from far away join the event online, combined with the promotion of land-based travel for those attending in person — even if this means longer travel times — could be a feasible compromise to reduce emissions by almost 90%.”

As IRL events come back in full force, it’s time to focus on the positive impact the industry can have outside of virtual and hybrid, too.

2) BEWARE OF GREENWASHING

The term, coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, was originally a response to the hospitality industry’s “save the towel” movement in hotels. Spoiler alert, reusing towels two day in a row didn’t do much. Today, greenwashing often looks like brands falsely reporting the carbon footprint of e-commerce shipping, or the waste created by physical products and their packaging. But it also involves much more seemingly trivial actions like adding clever eco-friendly branding to their website without enacting any real change.

To be blunt, don’t work with polluters. When vetting event sponsors, consider their impact and commitment to sustainability:

  • Are their products and business practices environmentally friendly?
  • Have they been embroiled in scandals involving illegal dumping or environmental contamination?
  • Can you find any information on their commitment to going green or their carbon footprint?

Then, include a sustainability preference clause in your event contracts and RFPs. Explicitly detail your requirements from the onset of negotiations and make sure that your suppliers and vendors back up any sustainability claims they make. Again, claiming without proof is just greenwashing. Gen Z will come for you. And they will destroy you.

3) GET OUTSIDE HELP AND EXPERTISE

Hey! You are not an environmental scientist! You did not know this would be expected of you! Whether you go big by hiring an external consultant or start with some research of your own, just know your baseline first. Track and compare your carbon footprint to previous events with a simple algorithm. Divide the total emissions by the number of participants to compare emissions intensity from event to event. If the number exhibits a downward trend, the event is becoming more carbon-efficient.

Knowledge is power, and knowing the quantifiable impact of your events on the environment can help you take concrete actions to mitigate that impact. Implement carbon calculators like:

Once you have the data, then comes the hard part. You actually have to do something about it. This is where the experts come in, and yes, there are actually sustainable event management agencies you can hire to strategize and execute more eco-friendly experiences. These agencies analyze your current emissions and review budgets to identify the biggest energy savings.

Be honest with clients, vendors, talent and attendees about your sustainability goals. Get them excited about your green initiatives with details on the important role everyone plays in making a positive impact. Share the emissions numbers from your last event as the number to target or best. Having a tangible number to “beat” can actually produce results, because “we want to be more environmentally friendly” truly means nothing.

Now take action. There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” I can’t think of a more fitting metaphor.

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