Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Falling off the Sustainability Tightrope


So, it turns out, there's a problem with Fair Trade.

Not only that, but you know that "Don't print this email" tag? The one you put in your footer because you want to educate people about not printing? Well, that causes over 2000 MT of CO2 emissions.

Oh and that biodiesel bus you were booking for your event? Well think again. It might be biting the hand that feeds, contributing to rising food prices around the globe.

Seriously, keeping up with the ongoing debate about what is good, better and best in the field of event sustainability is enough to send you around the bend, or at least into a state of paralysis. Reaching for most up-to-date information, stretching to anticipate outcomes, balancing conflicting issues....event sustainability sometimes feels like walking a tightrope, where falling off means judgement and shame about being wrong or doing harm.

Faced with that kind of risk you might ask: why bother with event sustainability?

Bother because sometime, somewhere you started down the path because something about the potential difference you could make mattered to you.

Bother because nothing is ever known with 100% certainty, and odds are tomorrow we will know more than we did today because you kept trying.

Bother because continuing to question assumptions and the way things are is the only way to make sure we are on the right path, or change that path in a better direction.

Bother because trying and failing is a part of being human; it is how we learn and improve.

Bother because you have a responsibility to yourself and your community to do the best that you know how at any moment in time.

Bother because it is unreasonable for you or anyone else to expect perfection today, or perfection undiminished by the march of time.

Bother because you and the actions that stem from you are enough, important and essential.

So go ahead, let yourself slip on the high-wire a little. Splash down into the swamp of sustainability dilemmas and make the best decisions you can, even if they're not perfect. I for one will be down there to catch you.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Short Film Friday! When Nature Throws you Lemons

Sean Stiegemeier makes lemonade. Last Saturday's eruption of Grimsvotn sent many travelers into a panic that it would cause a return to last year's aviation bottleneck caused by its volcanic cousin, Eyjafjallajokull. Costs to the aviation industry from the 2010 eruption's ash cloud are estimated at $1.7 billion US. A good reminder that in a global village we're all potentially vulnerable to the grumblings of an ever changing planet.

(This week's film is best appreciated fullscreen, with speakers on high!)


Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull - May 1st and 2nd, 2010 from Sean Stiegemeier on Vimeo.

Monday, 23 May 2011

I Blame Star Trek

What is it about us that makes us think we can Star Trek our way out of the negative impacts of lifestyle conveniences? I read an article the other day about how microbes may make it possible for us to compost virtually everything, including polystyrene. Yes, polystyrene!

Now I like Star Trek as much as the next Trekkie, and I think it is fascinating how the show has been prophetic about everything from MRI scans to iPads and wireless communicators. But should we be relying entirely on technology and science fiction solutions to back us out of the problem of too much landfill waste?

I think not, Number One.

Now I'll admit: tiny bugs that chomp trash are pretty cool. An invention that will no doubt make it easier to be okay with using more disposable conveniences. But one can't help but ask: what's the catch, and can we not do better to solve the root problem? And more importantly: would this be the solution they would use on the Starship Enterprise? Let's ponder this for a moment.


Ever notice there are no trash cans on the Enterprise? Captain Picard asks for an "Earl Grey, hot" and it just materializes - tea cup and all - from a hole in the wall. So, what happens to that cup afterwards? Maybe Captain Picard's tea cup reverse materializes back into that hole in the wall and is magically re-constituted into a Romulan ale stein Guinan serves up in Ten Forward. Or maybe Picard places the cup in the Enterprise's garbage chute a la the original Star Wars where it gets smashed up into cubes of garbage that are jettisoned into space.

Although there are hints of cool technology everywhere on Star Trek, they seem to brush over the more mundane topics, like how they handle trash and sewage on the ships and space stations. Although, had Ed Begley Jr. done more than a guest cameo on Voyager we might have had the answer to these green mysteries that keep a tree-hugging Trekkie up at night!

What's clear though is you don't see a lot of disposables hanging around the bridge. No one drinking from a polystyrene cup. You also don't see the Enterprise jettison a trail of litter or effluent as it warps off toward a new galaxy. So it appears the Star Trek version of the future had the wisdom to close-loop its living.

So when the cool microbe-eating bug solutions get voted out in favor of more practical steps to eliminate packaging and disposables don't blame me: blame Star Trek.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Short Film Friday! How a MRF Works

Ever wonder what happens after your recyclables leave your event or venue? They often go to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF.) Here's a short video from Recycle More North Carolina about how a MRF works.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Things that make me go "hmmm...."


In the wake of CERES' annual conference there have been some rumblings of revolutionizing sustainability reporting. From Hannah Jones of Nike to a world first reporting announcement from Puma, there are signs it won't be business as usual for corporate reporting anymore: financially, environmentally or socially.

According to the Guardian article about Puma's new approach to reporting, which values environmental costs in their profit and loss sheets:
The methodology for the new P&L was developed by PwC and Trucost, based on a value per tonne of CO2 at £57 and an average water value of £0.69 per m3.
So, let's say, hypothetically, that we were to apply the same prices to the estimated environmental impact of an event attendee. And report on it in the way Puma is proposing. If an event attendee produces roughly 135 kg of CO2 per day, and uses 300 L of water per day, that amounts to £24, or $39 US in environmental costs per participant over a 3 day event.

Given that, if we were required to report environmental costs on a P&L statement for event marketing or association meetings is it conceivable we should add $39,000 to costs for our 1,000 person event? $390,000 for 10,000 attendees? Over $1 million for 30,000?

Regardless of the numbers, how would adding the environmental cost of events as a budget line item shift our psychology about managing our impact? Acquiring sponsors? Setting registration fees? Purchasing materials? Considering hybrid or virtual formats? Calculating ROI?

If the future of reporting is really coming, are event managers ready?

Note: Footprint data is an approximation and for illustration only. It is based on a sample of conference tradeshow footprints in North America, incorporating air and ground travel, venue and hotel use. Figures have not been subject to peer review.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Eight Ways to Stop Trashing Food at Events

Last week the UN Food & Agriculture Organization released a report stating one-third of food goes to waste. The equivalent of 1.3 billion tons, or the weight of 3,400 Golden Gate Bridges. In the US this amounts to 253 lbs of food wasted per person every year, according to Valerie Jaffee of the NRDC.

Man. Depressing.

The food waste issue is particularly relevant for events. Audits of actual events reveal approximately 18% of event waste is organic material: food. The number is even higher when you factor in packaging and service ware. So what can we do to turn the tide? After all, it's not only nourishment that we're tossing out, it's money, too.

Avoid pre-plating and pre-pouring. Once food is plated and it leaves the kitchen it can't be donated. So unless you're absolutely certain every single banquet chair will be taken, don't pre-plate. In addition pre-poured ice water and ice tea must be poured down the drain if not consumed, so consider having wait staff pour this once guests are seated. 

Eliminate or request minimal edible garnishes. Food decoration may look nice, but if it's not likely to be eaten, maybe you can do without it. If you feel compelled to garnish for presentation reasons make sure it will be an appropriate edible ending to the course, rather than something that is left over.

Practice portion control. Although none of us want guests to go hungry, leaving them stuffed can be detrimental to the experiences we want to create, too. So check in with your chef about portion size, and discuss if it needs to be adjusted to prevent waste.

Double-check serving size of sides. I once worked with an event planner who eliminated $150,000 from her food and beverage costs by asking the caterer to do something I'd never thought of before: adjusting the serving size of buffet sides. She noted over 2 successive events at the same venue that there were consistently higher quantities of side salads and starches left over, while mains were gone. So she asked the caterer to adjust for this, cutting food waste and costs.

Be on top of guarantees and make them as accurate as possible. A no-brainer, really, but worth underlining! Analyzing previous event patterns and harnessing your registration system to have special meal requests and opt-in/out for meals may help. It saves money and reduces food waste.

Provide sauces, jams, sugar, cream and other condiments in bulk. Single-serving foods contribute to wasted food and packaging. It's also often cheaper and more attractive to provide it in bulk.

Choose a venue that has a food donation program in place. Contrary to common myth, it is possible to donate perishable food. So select a venue or caterer that works to divert un-served food to the needy. PCMA's Network for the Needy offers links to US and Canadian food banks. 

Choose a venue that has composting. If you're feeding people at your event it's inevitable you'll have food to throw away. So choose a venue that provides a landfill alternative for your prep food waste, table scraps and service ware (if used). Composting can reduce your event waste stream anywhere from 10 - 40%. If you're being charged for waste that's a big difference!

Would welcome other examples where you've been able to reduce food waste at your events!

Friday, 13 May 2011

Short Film Friday!: On Empathy, Civilization and Sustainability

Bestselling author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society. From RSA Animate.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Fair Trade for Events - A Quick Prezi

World Fair Trade Day is May 14. How can your event benefit?


Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Is your event an Episode? Or an Experience?

Is your event an episode? Or is it an on-going service?

I recently had a light-bulb moment in a highly unlikely place: the pages of a video game magazine. This month Develop's online magazine features an article discussing how Valve, developer of some of the most renowned video games of all time, has switched from 'episodic' game content to 'games as service' model.

What does it mean, and what on earth is the relevance for sustainable events?

Well for those of you familiar with video games, episodic content can be thought of like an old fashioned game cartridge, something you plug into an existing platform or console, whether it's a Wii, PS3 or X-Box 360. A typical cartridge might provide 20 hours of game play. You beat it, then it's done. Finished. Head on to something else. At least until the the next game is released which may be a year or two away.

It's a lot like a traditional event model, really. An episode is staged in someone else's city or venue, lasting 24-36 hours, then it's done. Finished. Head on to something or somewhere else. At least until next year.

But while some companies continue to bank on episode games, the video game model is changing for Valve and some game companies at the leading edge of this industry. Companies are taking control over their development and distribution platforms to create, mold and refine them to respond to customer demands on an on-going basis in a much quicker fashion than ever before. Developers are integrating bridges that connect players and keep game-play interesting while they develop multiple, smaller patches of content, rather than wrapping up new content only in new episodes that are fewer and far between.

What lessons can this phenomenon provide about event sustainability in today's world? I invite you to add to a few I see:
  • Planners need to expand beyond programming event episodes. The on-site event experience can no longer be the be-all and end-all of our experience, and the organizations they represent. The services we provide in the white space between events have become more important than ever in expanding value. There is more pressure to connect the dots between our events.
  • Planners need to assert control over their event platforms, to become developers, not just users. But how? The event web site should no longer be a means for just sharing information about the on-site experience.   It must move beyond that to provide tools that engage participants pre-, during and post-event. And not just in ways that ramp up excitement for being face to face. Technology is what you make it, so think outside the box, rather than relying on options that are available right now. Re-imagine what your online event platform could be, and how it integrates with on-site programming.
  • It's okay to give up some control to attendees, providing a space where they are can influence the narrative. When launching their latest game, Portal 2, Valve did something that would likely scare any event organizer: they offered fans a chance to push up the game launch date. How could we adapt this philosophy to events? Granted influencing event dates might be problematic, but what if we democratized the process to build excitement about and engagement in our events? Enabled participants to vote for event locales? Session content? Learning formats? Vote on award-winning event-related projects? Structure their participation as a game?
  • Event destinations need to provide non-traditional platforms and experiences that embrace technology if they expect to retain the interest of today's planner and their event participants. This means inventorying and presenting new space and technology alternatives. It means ensuring event spaces in development are as adaptable as possible and integrate planner perspectives in the design phase, including integration of remote participants. As generations transition, more and more people are not just accepting of online content and experiences, they expect them. And not just as a 'nice to have', but a fundamental part of the experience. How does your destination enable this to reduce its risk of becoming obsolete?
It's a brave new world. Other industries that are evolving technologies that better respond to shifting customer expectations. Are events and destinations taking full advantage of the possibilities?

Friday, 6 May 2011

Short Film Friday: 3 x 3 x 3

Would you be able to live in a 3m x 3m x 3m space? A 10 foot cube? Take a tour of this Eco-house with Dr. Mike Page from the University of Hertfordshire. Cozy...and conceivable?


A tour of the Cube from Mike Page on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Beyond the Automobile: Bike-able Destination Cities

Cities around the world are doing whatever they can to improve the feel, the attractiveness and the economic competitiveness of their cities. And that means investing in sustainable forms of transportation. And that increasingly means investing in a high quality cycling network.

Janette Sadik-Kahn, Commissioner, NYC DOT

Last year the City of Vancouver expanded cycling routes through downtown. I'm not a biker myself, but have to admit, it has made walking through downtown a little more pleasant. And watching drivers inching through the newly separated lanes downtown certainly makes me more eager to take transit than drive.

So it got me thinking: If a good cycling network is a hallmark of a more sustainable city, where does my hometown stack up? Not even on the radar! Several destinations rank highly for bike-friendly infrastructure:

Bike Friendly Cities
Graphic via: Motorcycle Insurance
Using data from Bicycling Magazine based on criteria put forward by the League of American Bicyclists

Some information about these destinations c/o Matador Trips:
  • Amsterdam: 40% of city traffic moves on two wheels.
  • Berlin: 400,000 people bike instead of drive.
  • Copenhagen: 30% of the workforce bikes to work.
  • Portland, Oregon: 260 miles of bike paths and a 9% bike-commuter rate make this city the bike-capital of the USA.
Street Films has put together a great video series about Moving Beyond the Automobile, exploring solutions to help us get out of our cars and build more livable cities through smarter transportation. For ideas to make your destination bike-friendly check out their Bicycling video.

And don't think biking is important? Think again... With the EU aiming for car-free cities by 2050 bikes and transit are emerging as even more important people-movers.