Monday, 31 December 2012

A most unlikely sustainable event destination

I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so fuckin' heroic. ― George Carlin
Settling in to write my last post of 2012 I realise there are some amazing event sustainability stories I could go on about. The launch of event sustainability standards. Big examples of more sustainable events from the London Olympics and beyond. Exciting developments related to hybrid events. Record-setting waste reduction and diversion rates by treasured colleagues. Awards won. Inspiring onsite event experiences.

There have also been a few lows: frustration and cynicism that the event industry is not willing to confront and work on those issues that are the greatest impediments to sustainability. Waste production, carbon emissions, and labour issues being primary among them.

But as the year closes, one experience--captured in the image above--comes to the forefront for me.

Not all event sustainability has to be "epic" event sustainability. In fact, it can be the seemingly small steps that are the most rewarding, and those people enabling inches of progress in difficult situations who make me want to stand up and cheer.

And so it is that São Paulo, Brazil has emerged as the most unlikely "sustainable destination" I will ever love. Why? Because like the curls of ferns sprouting from the graffiti-encrusted walls of Vila Madalena, champions for event sustainability are taking it upon themselves to help this city provide more sustainable events.

I know what you're thinking: how can a city known for urban sprawl, high crime rates and some of the worst traffic and most polluted environments in the world ever aspire to the sustainability credentials of a Copenhagen, Melbourne or San Francisco?

One important reason: the people.

There are several I could mention, and likely will introduce in future posts, but today I will focus on one:  Antônio Hermes de Sousa.

Hermes de Sousa shows off a beautiful table made by NUA students using window frames and tropical hardwood reclaimed from torn down buildings in São Paulo
Hermes is the founder of the Instituto Nova União da Arte-NUA, an art and community development institute located in a neighbourhood of São Paulo where once stood a dump. I came to NUA looking for a simple solution to a common event waste problem: what to do with left-over vinyl banners from a large corporate event. I came away inspired by a person who, in spite of circumstances, is using his two hands and a simple idea to make his community better.

The Mission, Vision and Values of NUA

The Mission of NUA is posted on the wall of its dining room: to contribute to community development through art, culture, sport and income generation. Its Values: the preservation of life, mutual respect, freedom of expression, openness and co-operation.

Hermes created NUA as an after-school arts, crafts and dance program serving 180 school children in 2001. The project has since expanded to include an "Art Delivery" program that encourages students to design and share art with their community, a recycling cooperative that collects waste to earn money to support various programs, and discussion forums that involve citizens in planning to improve the surrounding neighbourhood. Many of these programs help keep local youth from the life of crime that Hermes himself fell into when he first migrated to São Paulo.

Endyara Mendonça tests out an Art Delivery installation at NUA
Amongst these community-minded projects is  Filó Cabruêra, the destination for our event banners. This program trains people to design, sew and market high quality materials made from discarded event canvas.

Custom-designed bags line the walls at Filó Cabruêra
Designers experiment with unique designs for wallets, bags and cases

Filó Cabruêra employs 70 women who learn to design, sew and market their products
Quality in production is of utmost importance at NUA, which makes bags to order or takes waste materials for resale
While the workers at Filó Cabruêra are likely transforming our event canvas into lovely wallets and bags as I type, I recall a serious instruction Hermes gave to me following my request for permission to share the story of his community service projects. He asked I not use the word "transformation" when I speak of NUA and the impact its programs have had on the surrounding community (which you have to see to believe). His reason: it implies he and his team are making the community into something other than it already was, rather than merely helping it and its residents achieve their fullest potential.

Perhaps there is wisdom in that for us in the event industry: that in the New Year we will dwell less on the transformative disruption and uncertainty new technology, a potential recession and diminishing resources bring, but rather embrace these forces to help us evolve the experiences we create to their fullest potential.

Special thanks to Paul Salinger of Oracle and Endyara Mendonça, Modesto Junior and the team at Rio360 for enabling the site visit to NUA, and to Hermes and his team for their inspiring story.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Sustainability nemesis: Thine name is Breakfast Bar


Oh sustainability nemesis. Thine name is "Breakfast Bar".
Damn thee and thine horsemen of the planetary apocalypse!
A thousand plagues of locusts would cling and die
To the plastic armour thou hast clinging to thine apples.
Thine deep, red, waxy, non-local, pesticide-laden apples.
Made redder by the unholy white aura of an army of polystyrene plates,
And bowls, and coffee lids! My plastic-laden cup runneth over!
Thine convenience it tempts me, but thine wasteful creamers
Repel me with the wrath of a million plastic stir sticks!
Vile mistress! Where are thine bulk cereal containers?
Thine jugs of organic, anti-biotic and hormone-free milk?
Churned with the hands of bare-footed, fairly-compensated, local virgins?
No kitchen facilities thou say? Fie! Fie thy excuses!
For I see one, hidden behind thee, and in thine suite down the hall.
And even without a fairest and fully-staffed kitchen,
Hast thou common self not learned of compostable disposables?
Thine corporate policies sang of lush, green, organic pastures.
Now about to contract-wed thou appear wasteful and fallen short of expectations.
Such sweetness before me, but in such small, individual packages!
Out Nemesis! Out I say! Feel the vengeance of my contract clause!
May its power compel you to align front line service
With boardroom ideas of being a champion for sustainability.

Monday, 3 December 2012

On the time I closed my eyes to open them

Over the last several years I've trained hundreds of onsite event staff and volunteers to recycle and sort complicated event waste. I think I've had every question then along comes another round of "Stump the Recycler" and I'm reminded I still have a lot to learn....

This year's Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly threw me another challenge: how to train a visually-impaired volunteer to participate as a recycling monitor? 

I confess, when I first saw the note on my volunteer list beside Wesley's name I thought about asking if he could be assigned to another team. How could he recognise the tiny triangles, numbers, colours and labels that tell us how to recycle? It would be a major contamination risk, I thought. UUA, however, has very proactive programs to engage people with accessibility needs equally in their General Assembly. They even have an event staff person onsite devoted to this specific function. Passing my volunteer to another event team was just not an option.

I had to learn to improve my training to enable more equal access. And Wesley was a great teacher. He was very approachable when I admitted I was not adequately prepared to accommodate his needs but wanted to know how I could make it work so he had an enjoyable, empowering and equal experience on our team. Although we could definitely still improve, some of the measures that helped make our onsite waste program more accessible included:

  • Seeing with your fingers. While Wesley may not be able to discern a non-compostable white plate from a beige compostable one by sight, he is great at thinking by 'feel', or in textures. Coated paper that might be recycled feels different than rough napkins and eco-plates that can be composted. This was a great tip Wesley taught us to help sighted volunteers learn, too.
  • Focusing on a method of enquiry, not a method of visual identification. Hour after hour Wesley would have people walk up to him and hold up a plastic up and they would ask: "Where does this go?". Wesley would smile and ask back "Where did you buy it?" which would allow him to know if it was recyclable or may be acceptable as compost. Giving people a series of questions to ask rather than instructions based on what they see can help. It also makes people aware of how where they buy can impact how they dispose, which can lead to different and better choices in future.
  • Ensuring consistency. Wesley did a great job on his first shift. There was hardly any contamination in his bins. The next day, however, was not as good, and many compostable cups were mis-filed in the recycling stream. I gently asked Wes if he might need a refresher as we picked through them together. He was surprised there was a problem as he'd been putting the same cups in the same bin as the day previous. And indeed he had been, but our service crew had switched the position of the bins on him overnight when they had been emptied. The order of his sorting was disrupted as he'd been using the sequence of bins to help him sort, rather than the signs. Our fault!
  • Being bold and distinct. In addition to texture, Wesley taught us about things like using bright colours and distinct shapes. Bright coloured signs were a better way to colour-code bins than white signs with coloured letters. Long necked bottles could be recycled. Some non-neck bottles couldn't be. Clean square plates were recyclable. Round ones were compost. Touch and feel boards at stations became a great reference and education point for all attendees. 
 Wes (pictured above) was a great volunteer, as were of all of our green angels. In fact, together they helped UUA's General Assembly reach an all-time record 87% diversion from landfill (see 2012 post-event report for more information). But he gets a special set of wings for improving our training and program in ways that not only made it more accessible to him, but for everyone.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The 5% Solution to my Bridget Jones Funk

I'm in a Bridget Jones kind of funk. Not over a Daniel Cleaver. Or a Mr. Darcy. No, it is World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim who last week caused the thought to cross my mind that it might be a relief if the world was to actually end December 21, 2012. At least that would mean I didn't have to think through the depressing reality of the World Bank's recent projection of what a world four degrees warmer would actually look like.


Grab the ice cream. Pull the covers over my head. Give up. Closed for business. Enjoy the sparkle-less twilight of a climate change reality where we all might be hosed anyway!

Then, in a mope that would make Scarlett O'Hara envious, I came across a rather hopeful article by Andrew Winston. One that caused me to peek out from under the comforter and wonder if there's a reason to be more hopeful.


In the article Winston suggests an important and I think feasible target: 5% carbon reduction per year. Not so impossible, surely? But to know for sure, what would it require for your event, or event company?

Understanding your carbon footprint. An event's largest carbon impact is typically associated with transportation. But other things matter too: building energy use for meeting space and guest rooms, audio visual equipment, waste production and purchased materials like catering, registration supplies and collateral. Virtually every item we use at an event has an emissions impact. So be clear what your energy and material inputs are and what the emissions output might be. If you're getting started and don't feel you have the knowledge, a carbon accounting or sustainability consultant can help you. Or you might see if you can take advantage of free carbon calculators online. Maybe you even have a sustainability department within your company that can help you. Taking a complete and thorough inventory at the start will help you realise more reductions in future.

Measuring a baseline carbon footprint. Once you've understood how carbon applies to your event, or event company, start to measure. For an event pick an appropriate scope, considering all the factors in step one that might apply. For an event company consider a specific timeline you'll want to capture and compare. An annual baseline - or 12 month cycle of activity - could be a good starting point. Your business travel footprint is likely important if you're an event company, particularly your air emissions.
MeetGreen has been measuring their carbon footprint from air travel since 2009. Although a slight up-tick in emissions was noted last year, the overall reduction in carbon impact since 2009 has been 16%, evidence the 5% per year solution is possible for one business.

Identifying opportunities to reduce. There's many ways to do this.Your big wins will come by looking at things like reducing air travel and eliminating material use and waste. I know what you're thinking: what's left? Remember....we're looking at 5%. Could you grow new remote audiences and divert 5% of your current attendees to a paid, virtual event package? If you take 20 trips per year could you eliminate one?  Would regionalising a global event help? Could you reduce ground shuttles needed by choosing walkable, cities, venues and hotels? Can you eliminate bottled water and individually packaged items? Can you reduce wet food waste by sharpening order quantities or donating left-overs? Are there local suppliers for the goods you might be shipping longer distances? These are all ideas to put on the 5% solution list.


Committing to follow through on real strategies. It can be helpful to sort your options by short and long-term actions. Make sure to assign responsibility. Stake a claim to what you will do visibly so it's clear you're serious, and expect people to contribute, either through employee reviews or in supplier contracts. Also consider incentives to reward progress. Cultivating a clear commitment that engages your event or company stakeholders will hold you accountable on those days where - like me this week - you want to pull up the covers and forget about it.

Measuring progress to continue improving. Put a feedback mechanism in place. This could be a simple online form for your team to record air travel. Or you might consider a partnership with a carbon offset company that calculates how your event baseline is changing, and provides you with opportunities to offset emissions you can't avoid.
In 2010 Hilton reported a 7.8% reduction in carbon output through their Lightstay program.
So when you feel over-whelmed by the doom and gloom of the climate crisis think: 5% Solution. It may not only be the path to weight loss, but also smarter, innovative business practices that reduce risks and costs.


Thursday, 15 November 2012

Invitation to the Chef's Table

"When you pass a homeless person, have you ever wondered what happened to them? What series of events unfolded to push them out on the street? We hear hundreds of reasons why people end up on the street and "I choose to" has never been one of them."

The Calgary Drop-In and Rehabilitation Centre works to provide solutions to homelessness every day. In fact today, "The DI" provided 3000 meals to those in need who are working to rebuild their lives.

Seven kilometres distant, people attending an event at the Westin Calgary enjoy the luxury of a meticulously prepared banquet in the Grand Ballroom. With its polished silver, well-suited servers and decorated tables, it appears to be a world apart from the realities of The DI. Yet people at both locations sit down at the same Chef's Table, united by a unique local partnership that since January 2012 has shared 7300 high quality, nutritious meals with Calgary's most in need.

Didier Luneau, General Manager at the Westin Calgary, is the driving force behind the program which collects and redistributes meals to local shelters. I first learnt of Didier's work through Sandra Wood, Annual Meeting Manager at the Canadian Medical Association. She and Didier are looking for a few good hotels in Western Canada to help grow the effort in both Calgary and Vancouver.

"Every year 150,000 people use a food bank in Calgary, and visits are rising since the recession. This program provides a dependable and safe way to get food to those who need it." ~ Didier Luneau
Prior to joining the team in Calgary, Luneau participated in La Tablée des Chefs in Montreal, which is also contributing to facilitate new partnerships in the West. The program furnishes containers and delivery services to hotels that have left-over food who would like to donate it to charities within their city.

The premise is simple: Hotels and restaurants prepare a profile online and commit to a schedule of food pick-ups throughout the year. Chef's Table agents deliver the containers, food labels, training and promotional materials to the chefs. The local food shelter creates their profile and is linked with the chef, after which quality food is picked up and redistributed according to the agreed to schedule. Each pick-up costs $50, including all materials.


Luneau describes how the program helps address a difficult food waste issue for the property: "To ensure happy guests at an event we typically prepare 3-5% more food than we need. This program ensures when we don't serve that overage that high quality, nutritious food is redistributed. It also provides a measurable benefit to our planner clients, who are often concerned about reducing food waste."

Paul Hastie, Manager, Occupational Health And Safety/Food Services at The DI comments on how the Centre has benefited from the program: “As a non-profit agency we rely a great deal on donations. This is especially true in our kitchen. The Westin provides us with excellent, quality food on a weekly basis that we can use for a variety of meal options."

But what about the push back that donating food is unsafe? "The 'cold chain' food-safe handling technique is always maintained to ensure food remains at a safe temperature," Hastie replies. Luneau also cites provincial law that protects hotels and restaurants from donating food in good faith.

"It takes very little time for our staff to set aside and refrigerate food that hasn't left the kitchen once they're trained in proper procedures. And they're happy to do it; it makes them feel good. Furthermore the convenience of the equipment and scheduled delivery makes it easy. The most common push-back we hear is lack of storage space, but most properties can work to determine a delivery schedule that overcomes this, perhaps opting for twice weekly pick-ups instead of one."

Now that the program has been piloted by the Westin Calgary, the next step is bringing more hotels and restaurants on board to make it self-sufficient. 40 participants would help to shift the program to a financially sustainable model.

This is where planners like Sandra Wood, myself and yourself come in.

"Planners are very receptive when we tell them we're doing this. What we need is more planners to ask their hotels and venues if they are participating in food donation. And if they're not, ask them to consider Chef's Table as a solution," Didier states. "Signing up 40 members within the next year would be fantastic, and we need help to do that."

Luneau's team at the Westin Calgary is available to provide advice and information on participating in the program in Calgary (please leave a comment if you'd like to be put in touch with Didier). Properties in Vancouver are welcome to contact Jean Francois Archambault, Catherine Bagdian and Nathalie Pomerleau at the Montreal program.

So, Vancouver and Calgary: faced with a ready-made opportunity to help those who may not have a choice themselves, what choice will you make?

Photo: Calgary Drop-In and Rehabilitation Centre

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A seriously simple sustainable event practice

Look closely.


You're seeing some good sustainable catering steps forward: bulk cream and reusable mugs.

But you may also be witnessing a missed opportunity.

It's helpful many hotels and venues are becoming increasingly attuned to putting out reusable mugs. Yet at the same time they often provide back-up to go cups, just in case attendees need them. What impact could we have if we eliminated the "just-in-case-to-go" cups from standard break service?

A potentially huge one! Why? Many attendees will reach for the to go cup even if they're staying and could use a mug. This is because it can often look like it holds a bit more and attendees may not feel certain they can take a mug into a session space, even though they're staying on property and stewarding staff refresh rooms.  In some instances to go cups may even hold more and encourage higher beverage consumption, which can impact budgets.

So what say you? Should the to-go cup remain a choice? Would you be inconvenienced if the option disappeared? Have you already eliminated it? Any complaints? Any savings? Sound off!

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Tap #water stations prove how much is saved by ditching the bottle

Oracle OpenWorld’s unique approach to water stations is a compelling case study in water conservation for events. Since 2007 Oracle has gradually moved away from individually bottled water, to initially use five-gallon water bubblers and now exclusively uses water stations that provide fresh San Francisco tap water at 11 different venues.

Four different water station designs have been used:





The net result? A staggering reduction in water waste: from 4,369 gallons of attendee drinking water consumed to 1,020 gallons consumed. This while attendance has increased and no complaints have been received about attendees going thirsty. Just how much water has been saved? Enough to:
  • Serve 50,700 cups of water
  • Provide 420 four-minute showers
  • Flush 2,090 toilets
Furthermore, this has prevented the use of over 56,000 water bottles, which have an additional estimated manufacturing footprint of 13,600 gallons of water!

Graphic courtesy of Hartmann Studios


Do you know the difference you're making by providing a smarter, more sustainable drinking water service for event attendees? Dig into the numbers and quench your thirst to make a difference!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The King of the Jolly Jumper

While some people skip happily through their sustainable event checklist I confess there are some decisions that I find decidedly swampy.

For years we've been trained that eliminating paper is a cardinal rule for reducing our impact at events.

Every single time I read or hear that piece of advice this image comes into my mind.


Meet the Geigers. Or a few of them, at least. They're 6 in total: Dad Andy, Mum Jaci and four lovely kids: Aedan, Isaac, McKenna and Josiah. Aedan just passed his swimming badge and busts some awesome Party Rock Anthem moves. Isaac loves to skateboard and wants his uncle to teach him how to use a bow and arrow. McKenna holds her own with her big brothers and loves watching musicals with her Mum. Josiah? He's the new little guy on the scene: the King of the Jolly Jumper.

They're four of the nicest, happiest kids. No doubt a tribute to the good work of their parents and grandparents (given Auntie Shawna has only exposed them to bad things, like video games).

Their Mum, my sister, is a busy, full-time parent with a beautiful singing voice and loads of creative talent. Their Dad is a patient, easy-going man who works hard at the local pulp mill to make sure they're all cared for. It's a profession he shares with his father, and his brother. A profession in an large industry of loggers, truck drivers, long-shoremen and mill-workers that has helped support another sister of mine and her two children, four of my uncles and 11 of my cousins. Forestry even raised my father, and therefore in a way, myself.

Where would my Dad be, where would I be, without forestry? Every time I hear "eliminate paper use at your event" my stomach trips a little. Especially when I wonder too, where will the Geigers be if the trend continues?

So few things about sustainability are simple and easy. Sometimes an apparently 'good' action has a negative reaction. Sometimes there's a spectrum of possibilities on which you can find a happier medium for all. Purchasing paper from sustainably harvested forests or mills that use recycled materials and adopt strong environmental practises in paper production, for example. Open your mind to the possibility this might be as good a choice as being paper free.

Sustainable choices are enabled by putting a human face on each decision you make. Looking at that face and answering for yourself: are my choices creating a good or better future for you? And those you care for?

So don't be surprised if you see some paper at my next event. Andy Geiger made it. And I want him to be able to keep making it, for Jaci, Aedan, Izzy, Kenna and the King of the Jolly Jumper.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

A Pinch of Salt and Food for Thought

Earlier this week Stanford University announced that organic food may be no healthier than non-organic food. So what does that mean for your sustainable event catering plan? Have the benefits of sourcing organic food been debunked? Were we all wasting our time and money?

CSA Bounty! Photo by yksin
First let's be clear what the study found from Stanford itself:
(Researchers) did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.
Stanford's release clarifies the scope of the study, which included 237 papers. These papers only involved studies of less than two years in length. Researchers also acknowledge many limitations of the review, affirming much variation among farming practises that make it hard to determine what factors predict nutritional quality and risks in food.

So what does this mean for you, and your requests for organic food at your event?

 

Well, it means if you were doing it because you thought organic food provided more vitamins and minerals to your attendees, making them healthier than non-organic options, you may want to re-evaluate that idea in light of this evidence.

It also means you might want to carefully scrutinise the claims of caterers and suppliers selling organic food at a higher price solely on the basis it makes you and your event attendees healthier.

And it still means you'll likely want to keep asking for organic for other important reasons, not the least of which is reducing the presence of chemicals in the environment. For a good, technical and scientific perspective on the Stanford study please read Charles Benbrook's response on the Washington State University Blog, which includes more on the benefits of organic and a critique of the study. For a shorter, consumer-oriented counter perspective check out Jason Mark's commentary on the Earth Island Journal, which raises the argument many purchase organic not for their own health, but the health of others.

And while the Stanford study may make you sceptical of spending a bit more on organic as a premium brand on your next trip to Whole Foods or Walmart, remember that organic food does not have to be more expensive where you can plan for it. Consider my community-supported agriculture (CSA) box: $20 a week for a summer of lovely organic veggies. By planning ahead and buying in early with my fellow consumers I  get great organic produce for less than conventional grocery store veggies. Imagine what we could do if event planners banded together earlier across our events with an organic CSA-mentality? Or the difference caterers could make if they got ahold of the idea first?

And in those situations where it is more expensive, let's not forget that certified organic growers use different materials, apply different processes and meet standards that are not the same as conventional growers who may externalise the environmental and social costs of operations. I wonder if we were to tally up the true cost of non-organic options how expensive it may actually be, and how cheap organic may look in comparison?

A pinch of salt, and food for thought.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Waste Not, Want Not

One event. 
One day. 
3,600 participants.
1,616 pounds of food waste. 


Looks good, no? Having hand-picked through it I can tell you it was a mix of fruit, vegetables, bread, rice, coffee grounds, pasta, french fries and beans. I can also tell you it does not smell all that zesty after sitting in the summer heat for a few days. But what can I say? Event planning: we do it for the glamour, am I right?


For fun, let's assume my one day of food waste was a single food item. 
How much water did it take to grow the food that was composted, 
assuming it was 1,616 pounds of:

Tomatoes: 146,601 litres of water, or enough to grow 2,932 tomatoes.
Lettuce: 175,921 litres of water, or enough to grow 2,154 heads of leaf lettuce.
Apples: 610,838 litres of water, or enough to grow 4,886 apples.
Bananas: 586,404 litres of water, or enough to grow 3,665 bananas.
Rice: 1,224,119 litres of water, or enough to grow 403 bags of rice.

Bread: 1,339,200 litres of water, or enough to grow wheat for 2,443 baguettes.

Coffee grounds: 13,853,800 litres of water, 
or enough to grow beans that would brew 
104,715 cups of coffee.

“More than one-fourth of all the water we use worldwide is taken to grow over 
one billion tons of food that nobody eats. 
That water, together with the billions of dollars spent to grow, ship, package and 
purchase the food, is sent down the drain.” 
Torgny Holmgren, Executive Director 
Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). 

It's World Water Week. Want to save water at events? Stop wasting food! 

For easy tips that also save money check out this post from the archives.

Water footprints estimated using Waterfootprint Network Product Gallery.
Thanks to Global Green Integrators for measurement support!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Confessions of an Event Standard Junkie Chapter 3: GRI EOSS

You can't really blame MGM Resorts for wanting to share some of the sustainability goodness they're doing. Nor Hyatt. And you can't really blame Leon Kaye or Gina-Marie Cheeseman for critiquing their approach.

After all, we live in an era of radical transparency. We expect companies to share what they are doing to create a better future for us all. And we want to have confidence we can trust what they're saying so we can feel good about doing business with them.

For the uninitiated event professional it can be intimidating to talk about your sustainable event efforts. Why? Because while we're somewhat familiar with marketing and communications, we're less versed in sustainability reporting. And we know enough to know that mixing the two up can be disastrous.

What event professionals don't know about sustainability reporting can, indeed, hurt us. So if you work in the event industry and you're thinking about talking about your sustainability program at all, it's important to know that there are ground rules to follow and yardsticks against which you'll be measured.

The Global Reporting Initiative provides the standard against which many corporate reports are assessed. GRI has created guidance for how and what event organizers should report in their newly launched Event Organisers Sector Supplement.

If upon opening the guidance you're intimidated, take heart: you're not alone. I still feel that way even after attempting two reports based on these guidelines. Even if you're not quite ready to publish a detailed event report there are kernels of wisdom in the GRI EOSS that can help you prepare sustainability communications for your event or event-related business. Applying and practising these rules will reduce risk and improve your event brand.

So the next time you want to 'talk' about your sustainable event program in your exhibitor kits, on your event website or in your attendee program run your communications through the following basic questions. In time, you might become comfortable enough to attempt a sustainable event report of your own.

(Note: to help expand familiarity with sustainability reporting principles GRI 'keywords' are included in parentheses).
  1. Are significant impacts of the event identified or addressed? Although it can vary, most events typically have large carbon and waste impacts that should be addressed at a minimum. (Materiality)
  2. Does the communique indicate important audiences are being listened to and is feedback welcomed? It's important to think about primary stakeholders like event staff, volunteers, attendees and sponsors, but also parties that might be indirectly affected by your event, like community residents. (Stakeholder inclusiveness)
  3. Are connections to obvious issues related to the environment and social responsibility at events made? Things like water conservation, climate change, accessibility and risk management are big, global issues that affect all events and may need to be addressed. Are you linking things like your water bottle elimination program and attendee transit programs back to these bigger issues? (Sustainability context)
  4. Is everything included? For example is it important to think about pre-event as well as onsite impacts? Is it clear what kinds of things can be controlled, such as your direct purchase of name badges, and what can merely be influenced, such as event attendee behaviour? (Completeness)
  5. Are negatives and positives included? Is it relatively free of bias? Communications that only report the awesome parts of your sustainable event program may draw criticism. (Balance)
  6. Is it possible to evaluate efforts from one event to the next? Can you tell if things are getting better? Worse? Staying the same? If you're making claims about reducing, increasing or improving things be prepared to answer the question "compared to what?" (Comparability)
  7. Is the data right? Are any errors evident? Likewise, if you've made assumptions about any data it's best to footnote these in the interest of transparency. (Accuracy)
  8. Is there a regular schedule and pattern to reporting? Getting your communication out early enough so that it can be included in decision-making by sponsors and attendees can be important. (Timeliness)
  9. Can people understand what is being said? Confusing and jargon-laden language can frustrate readers who may not be familiar with the technical aspects of sustainable events. (Clarity)
  10. Is there evidence of any kind of auditing? It can help build trust if you have your work reviewed by an outside expert. (Reliability)
If you're looking for guidance on how other organisations are approaching sustainable event reporting under the guidance of GRI EOSS check out the following case study reports. Each is pioneering sustainable event reporting using the sector supplement:


Look forward to adding your report to this list in future!

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Confessions of an Event Standards Junkie Chapter 2: APEX/ASTM

I'm a lazy baker. I like to bake. I like to eat the results of my baking even more. But I do not like to spend a lot of time baking.

When I cruise for recipes I adopt a simple formula for judging if I want to embark on a new baking adventure:

The number of ingredients required in a recipe is directly proportional to the amount of time + amount of effort required before I can enjoy the fruits of my baking labour.


So imagine my reaction upon opening the recipe for an "Environmentally Sustainable Event" according to the APEX-ASTM standard and learning that it has.... wait for it....

#(@ INGREDIENTS

Oops. Sorry about that. Choked on the number...I mean...shift-key. What I meant was....

392 INGREDIENTS

That's right. A "green event" checklist that is three-hundred and ninety-two items long. And that's without an accommodation section. And only assuming you want to achieve Level One of the four-level standard.

Needless to say, it's not the recipe you want to try spontaneously. You know the kind: the go-to recipe you pull out at about 9pm because you have a hankering for a late-night snack. This one requires special planning. Mining the cupboards to see what you have in the house and itemising on a grocery list what you have to go shopping for tomorrow.

My point being, the APEX-ASTM standard is not really 'at a glance' accessible. Either in the way it's written or in terms of what it requires. It's intimidating, and that unto itself will alienate some.

Is that a reason not to try? No. After all, some of those hard-to-translate, need-imported-ingredients, using-imperial-measurement recipes of my Gramma's that came before the days of buy-your-own Jello lemon meringue pie mix are the best tasting desserts on the planet. But do you take the effort all the time? Unlikely. Sometimes you just need the help of a ready-made three-step cake mix.

So if you're looking for a quick, easy way to say your event is "environmentally sustainable", this standard may not be for you. Now for the time when it absolutely counts to get technical about what you did to make your event more sustainable, APEX-ASTM might be the standard you turn to.

When you do, plan for it to take extra time. Time to translate what it means. Time to decide what your commitment will be. Time to communicate the expectation. Time to prepare workable versions of the standard you can use. Time to educate and train your staff and vendors to prepare. Time to implement. Time to double-back and verify measurements.

Time. Time. Time.

It's not a bad thing, after all when I slaved over my first (and only) homemade pastry what did my Mum tell me? Good food takes special ingredients and time to prepare. So, it seems, do "environmentally sustainable" events. Isn't it about time we were honest about that? We asked for standards, now are we prepared to implement them? Are we willing to take the time? Break a sweat for sustainability? Maybe even pay a little extra instead of focusing only on the sustainability stuff that saves money?

I hope we are. Greenwashing concerns abound and many people contributed many hours into putting the recipe together. Our task now is to roll up our sleeves, put on an apron and get to work.

With that in mind, from my test kitchen to yours, here are some practical things I've found have helped to get me started:
  1. Buy the recipe book. Single and compiled standards are available on the ASTM web site.
  2. Start logging your time.You owe it to yourself to know how much time it takes to implement the standard if it is to be a viable business process.
  3. Transcribe the standards into a format you can use. Yes, I know it's a pain and it should have been put in a usable format from the beginning. Welcome to the "Wonderful World of Standards" (Lawrence Leonard, TM). Take the time to draft your own working checklist of the standard. You only need to do it once. Then you will have a template you can use over and over.
  4. For each specification add options for "yes" and "no", as well as "does not apply". When you start to assess an event, hide all those items that don't apply so the checklist feels less overwhelming.
  5. Consolidate similar specifications. If you've read the standard you'll see some items are repeated. The need for a sustainable event policy on the part of the planner, for example. Or having a designated representative to be responsible for your strategy. Lump these together in your template as one task if you can: write one policy that meets the varied requirements of all 8 standards. Do the same with your training and communications.
  6. Involve suppliers. Layout your checklist in a way that allows sections to be sent to individual suppliers to complete. This will save you time and help communicate expectations through the supply chain.
  7. Deploy the above steps as early as possible! My interpretation of some items in the standard suggest it's more realistic to accept a one to two-year time line to achieve Level One. Why? Because some specifications require a baseline and proof of performance against it. For many events this may require two event cycles.
  8. Get support. This standard is new to everyone. We're all learning. Turn to your peers, and your industry networks. Ask for help. Mentor and be mentored. We can all better learn from each other if we ask for and offer help.
  9. Keep a log of questions and changes you think need to be made. Having used it a few times now, I've found there are things that are unclear in the standard, and in all honesty tough to achieve. It's only going to improve if we all take responsibility for using the parts that work and sharing what isn't so users' experiences can be considered in future updates. The Convention Industry Council has even been kind enough to give us a place to share comments here.
Welcome tips from others and invite you to check out Chapter 1 of this series: ISO 20121.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Confessions of an Event Standards Junkie Chapter 1: ISO 20121

Three sustainable event standards have been launched within the last year. If you're confused about how they're different, wondering if they have value to your work or think it all sounds too complicated to bother my guess is you are not alone.

In brief the standards are:
Today, in the still-early stages of roll out, we've heard a lot about how standards are needed. And their potential value. But is the fuss really worth it?

I've recently survived the transition to an ISO 20121 management system for a small event planning company, helping earn certification for MeetGreen's event management processes under this new standard. In the spirit of ISO 20121--which stresses the need for review and evaluation--I thought I would brainstorm what I've learnt in the process to answer for myself: what worked, what didn't and is it worth it? My takeaways thus far:

The timeline is not weeks or months. It's years. The journey that led to ISO 20121 actually started in 2008, when we first considered implementing BS 8901, the precursor to ISO 20121. Initially we didn't log how much time tasks related to the process were taking. Mistake! Part-way through time spent on the system was tracked and now there is a better sense of the resources required to start and administer the system. I'd encourage anyone who starts down this path to log the time it takes from the beginning. And a heads up: the work never really ends for an organisational-scoped system. Even today I spend a few hours a month performing upkeep on the system, in addition to daily use staff make of the processes put in place under it.

Outside support helped but it's better if you do the work yourself. Without a formal background in management system standards, I found I needed help to really understand what was meant by certain clauses in the ISO 20121 standard. Having an outside mentor to talk to helped immensely. However, do not expect an outside party to do the work for you. Even if they indicate they can, consider this: you know your staff, resources, culture, values, goals and company best. If you really want an effective system you need to do it yourself. Outside mentors and consultants can help with guides, resources, templates, gap analyses and auditing, but the heavy lifting is best done by you and your team.

Scope it right. Your ISO system really is what you make it. You dictate what it applies to and the objectives you want. It can apply to one event, certain kinds of events, or certain aspects of services you provide. Or you can choose what MeetGreen did: have it apply to everything.This choice made sense for us, but it may not make sense for everyone. So be really clear what you want to bite off, especially if you're not yet sure about the amount of work involved or if you are uncertain that you have the resources sustain the system itself. It can help to test drive the standard on a single event project first, before deciding to dive in all the way.

The promotional benefits are marginal at best. Don't get me wrong. It's nice to be able to say you're ISO 20121-compliant. But when you have to explain more often than not what ISO 20121 means to prospects it's doubtful they've contacted you because of the standard. Does it help? Maybe a very little bit. Once prospects learn what the standard is they may look at it as a differentiator. But if it's the only perk you're looking for from ISO I wouldn't bank on it.

It has helped enable a virtual office model. Over half of our company workforce is remote. ISO 20121 has helped create project planning tools that improve the ability of these geographically dispersed teams to seamlessly work together. And I should know - I'm one of the few who have experienced the before and after!

The ability to orient and train staff has improved. Is it perfect? Hardly. But it is much better. Online project plans have been standardised and detailed instructions developed. This includes steps to take during all stages of a project, from start up through design, planning, execution and debrief. An online operations manual also provides staff with on-demand templates and training. Where staff find they need additional training a mechanism has been developed to enable that as well.

The ability to cope with staff turnover has improved. As a small company MeetGreen doesn't experience a lot of turnover. In the past, however, loss of a single project manager led to major internal disruptions which could impact client service delivery. With ISO this transitioning process is much smoother, and documentation is vastly improved, enabling new project managers to more seamlessly take over project work when staff move on to other opportunities.

Bureaucracy still sucks. I confess: the thing I don't like about ISO 20121 is it can increase organisational bureaucracy. For example, some staff now have additional review processes. Reviews take time away from other things and are more administrative. It's accepted as a necessary evil and the team tries to adopt a "Goldilocks Principle" with each potential layer of bureaucracy. Meaning, just enough documentation is needed to improve a process and overcome an issue, but not so much that event managers revolt. Ahh just right.

People struggle with setting integrated objectives. This has been the biggest pain-point in my experience. While overall company objectives for sustainability are required under ISO 20121 and are technically not difficult to set, translation of these into projects and tasks can be difficult. This may be less of an issue if your system is only scoped for one event. But if you're trying to adopt ISO 20121 as a company you may want to anticipate that it will take time to integrate company with project objectives and tasks. Plan for multiple employee consultations and be prepared to adjust. Challenges also emerge if client objectives for sustainability vary from your own, and across projects. The lesson? In theory objective and target-setting can and should work very smoothly. In practise it's a very different story.

It can help structure your approach to pro-bono work. We all get them: requests to do a free student project, write an article or donate time for a presentation or webinar. In previous years our approach to this was very ad hoc. Requests were dealt with one at time as they came in and with only loose attention to informal criteria. Today pro-bono hours are prioritised and targeted each year to keep the company's involvement in important, community-driven projects sustainable. The costs and benefits of these are also tracked in consistent ways.

Measurement of the impact of education and outreach can improve. Related to the above, our ISO system has evolved better ways to measure the impact of marketing and communications. From social media to webinars and presentations, our ISO system has helped improve tracking of the legacy the company provides in terms of education and awareness-building. 

Communication with clients and client satisfaction improve. It may be hard to believe but prior to the adoption of BS 8901 we didn't really have a formal process for project owners to ensure work was evaluated. It wasn't that client communication didn't happen, but it was approached differently by each project manager, and there was no formal, consistent type of evaluation post-event.  This is now more formalised, includes discussion of sustainability issues and is tracked as a project objective with clear targets for staff.

..and a note on certification. Compliance with ISO 20121 may or may not be third-party certified. It's your choice. I've found that third-party certification has had value. The surveillance processes put in place by our certifier cost money, but in turn keeps improvements on-track. This has worked because we've cultivated a productive, long-term relationship with a certifier, who in addition to being knowledgeable in the system, understands the event industry as well. It's critically important to choose someone that has both if you opt to certify.

So, has ISO 20121 been worth it? All considered I think so. I can point to numerous examples of how a systematic approach to sustainability has helped us improve management practises. Three things make a strong impression in these first few years of using a sustainable event management system for events:

First, I feel we've benefited in many ways that don't involve 'greening', as the list above I hope illustrates. Sure there have been environmental and social responsibility improvements, and these have also translated into business benefits that stretch beyond 'green'.

Second, the value is more internal, and less external than I expected it to be. It's done because it helps stakeholders within the company do things better and in more consistent, measurable ways. It's also helped teams more effectively engage in their projects and the company, while improving their ability to be more proactive about sustainability and anticipate projects risks and issues in ways I didn't expect.

And third, while the system does ensure sustainability is actively considered, it has not guaranteed that projects produce more environmentally or socially responsible outcomes by default. Sure it enables conditions where this can happen and staff are often successful. But the system alone does not guarantee performance that reduces impacts and ensures risks are eliminated, for example. It's your commitment to honouring the system that ensures it works.

Lastly, a note on client value. My observation is that clients appear happy and according to debrief comments appreciate that staff can take care of their projects using a system that is verified to an external standard. Would they pay more and does it earn additional business? I'm less convinced of this and look forward to learning how to better harness it for business development purposes.

Welcome insights others who are using the standard may have, or if you're considering ISO 20121 for your event company or event!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Using event powers for good: How one small community event influences attendees about sustainability

Over the last few months myself and the lovely Judy Kucharuk have talked about the power of event organisers to influence environmental change. I had another example of this today when I took in a little event in my own back yard.

Party at the Pier is a small, family-oriented weekend event that celebrates the maritime history of my neighbourhood in North Vancouver. Taking a stroll trough the site today I stumbled upon some cool examples of event planners using their powers for good: providing opportunities for attendees to learn about and engage in sustainability. How?

Events as EDUCATION about sustainability:

Port Metro Vancouver shares some of their sustainability initiatives through interpretive signage.

Events as CONVERSATION about sustainability:

BC Hydro's interactive games and displays encourage discussion about how families can be Power Smart.

Events as PLEDGE about sustainability:

Burrard Inlet's Environmental Action Program's Ambassador's Pledge to help improve city water quality.

Events as ACTION about sustainability:

Metro Vancouver's water refill stations help to reduce use of individual bottled water at events.

Nice work! How are you using your influential powers for good at your events?