Sunday, 11 March 2012

Wristbands don't solve war crimes, or event sustainability problems

I'm going to go out on a limb and take a guess that most of us didn't know who Kony was on Monday. But 6 days later, it's hard to find a single person who's not aware of the man.

As often happens with these kinds of things, social awareness of an important issue arcs on an expected path. Mad trending of the topic. Water cooler conversation. Broader awareness. Critique. Uncertainty and intellectual conflict about everything from the integrity of efforts to what should be done to really solve the problem. And possibly by next week Kony will fade into the background as the social speed of awareness-based advocacy slows and becomes old news. Those people who are devoted to the issue (and not the figurehead of Kony) will continue to work hard to solve it, while the rest of us will move on, feeling satisfied we helped raise the profile of an important issue that may bring a man and others like him to justice.

On March 8 The Atlantic published a critical piece on the idea that awareness-building about complex issues like war crimes is a very dangerous practise. Arguing that yes, it's important to care about issues, but that we are all kidding ourselves if we think buying and wearing a wristband will solve much of anything.

In reading the article I can't help but think about how a similar point needs to be made about sustainable events. Evidence suggests we sometimes assume sustainable events are about awareness-building. That getting the issue on people's radar is the problem that needs to be solved. If people know, they'll do better, or so we think. So, we provide hotel room guests with a choice for linen reuse and assume water will be conserved when the towels are hung up. We include a session in our conference agenda about sustainability and hope attendees will be inspired to make better decisions. We add a clause to an RFP to encourage suppliers share their sustainable practises so we can hopefully leverage more value from a purchase decision by balancing the triple bottom line, instead of just a financial one. All important steps to say to our stakeholders: these are things we care about and we think you should too.

Evidence also suggests we place a lot of importance on the experiential aspects of sustainable events. We provide opportunities for attendees to participate in volunteer projects. We feel good contributing to something important like delivering lunches to the homeless, planting trees or enabling a book drive for school children. We actively communicate what we're doing and embrace the 'feel good' nature of these programs. They often lead to a good photo opportunity to share with the world and indeed may help, even if only for a moment. All important steps to say to our stakeholders: our commitment to sustainability is visible and adds to your experience of our event in a way that we hope also makes you feel like you're contributing to a greater good.

Although they provide benefits, event sustainability initiatives that only focus on awareness-building and attendee experiences are dangerous for four reasons:

They reassure us we're addressing sustainability while enabling us to avoid attending to other highly complex social and environmental issues in the event industry. Take food, for example. I'll be the first to admit that diving into improving food sustainability at your event is an incredibly intimidating undertaking. It touches on everything from fair labour to energy, carbon, water conservation, ethics, genetic modification, packaging, toxic pesticide use, human health and beyond. It's very attractive to take the path of least resistance when faced with the option of diving into these complicated topics by researching and changing your supply chain. Eliminating bottled water, providing a sponsored tumbler and encouraging attendees to reuse it seems a much easier way to check off the sustainable food box.

They miss critical business opportunities that sustainability can contribute to. If we prioritise sustainable event tactics based on visibility and public relations potential we may overlook those solutions that can make the biggest difference to our bottom line, and the planet. Destination selection is one example. It's the earliest and arguably most invisible decision you make for your event. Yet it has the greatest potential carbon impact. It can also affect your budget immensely, potentially eliminating the need to invest in shuttles or additional directional signage and staff. Yet if attendee-facing sustainability opportunities get sorted to the top of the list we can miss this critical opportunity to make a big difference.

They divert precious resources from real actions that can make a material difference. Where time and money are limited it is essential to direct both to those sustainability measures that make the most material difference. That cut to the heart of a sustainability problem, rather than dealing with a symptom of it. For example, why spend thousands on a carbon offset when those funds could be invested in hiring someone to develop a comprehensive carbon reduction strategy for your event? One that actively looks at your decision making process and supply chain for ways to reduce emissions and business costs?

They expose you to risk. If the Kony story shows little else it reveals we have become a cynical and suspicious public. In the age of radical transparency, it took mere days for critics to question the story and intentions of the people behind it. The lesson to be learned? You can rest assured that when you hang up the poster for your event's CSR experience that someone, somewhere will have something to say about it. And most likely it will be a "yes, but": "That's nice you're recycling used soap, but how are you solving the problem of packaging waste? And access to clean water?"
Those event sustainability initiatives that only build awareness and promote experience in the absence of considering how it may make them vulnerable to critique do so at their own peril.

So should we be silent about characters like Kony, or forgo efforts to build awareness and engage our attendees in sustainability? Of course not, not if it's appropriate and the audience wants to engage. But we need to acknowledge these kinds of steps rarely solve root problems that are necessary to make the event industry more sustainable. To make that claim we need to continue to go deeper and farther than educating stakeholders and providing attendee wristbands.

No comments: