Sustainability: The Next Big Thing

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The Plastiki
The Plastiki

Last year, explorer David de Rothschild sailed from San Francisco to Sydney aboard the Plastiki—a sailboat built out of 2-liter plastic soda bottles—to raise awareness about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. One of five such “gyres” (swirling eddies) in the world, this soup of plastic sludge many times higher in toxic concentration than average is trapped by oscillating currents.

The National Science Foundation says the Patch covers an area over twice the size of Texas. We’ll spare you the details about how it enters the Bluefin tuna food chain.

“We’re treating our world as an endless resource and a trash can,” said Fabien Cousteau, grandson of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, and guest speaker at MPI’s World Education Congress (WEC) in Orlando this summer. Cousteau emphasized the ongoing destruction of the world’s oceans to provide context for what he sees as a big positive: the public and private sectors’ rising clamor revolving around the environment and sustainability.

“Everything ends up in the ocean… and complacency and indifference are the biggest blocks to action,” he said. “Instead of living on the earth, we need to live with it.”

There were a multitude of suppliers, vendors and buyers at WEC promoting sustainable meetings. InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG), for example, continues to lead the industry with its “Green Engage” program, which in January was the first initiative of its kind to win LEED endorsement.

And it’s not because guests are using bath towels twice. That’s just a gateway drug to sustainability.

“What I would look for if I were in a planner’s shoes would be for the authentic, stuff that really is meaningful from a sustainability standpoint, something demonstrable,” said Paul Snyder, IHG’s vp of corporate responsibility for the Americas. “If you’re going to a property and you ask them, what total kilowatt hours did you use per occupied room for the last 12 months—if they can’t answer that pretty quickly, then they’re not actually paying attention to measuring themselves. And what gets measured gets managed.”

Paul Salinger, vp of Oracle, discussed the company’s annual OpenWorld software conference in San Francisco, attended by 41,000 pax last year. He said that within the last four years, sustainability initiatives have saved over $1.5 million.

“If you look at sustainability as a lens to see the entire conference through, and integrate it throughout the entire conference, then you do save money and build brand value,” Salinger said. “If we don’t take action, then the event industry will continue to be part of the problem versus part of the solution.”

And as Paul Snyder mentioned, Salinger says the most important thing is “gathering the right data to help transform the industry to help transform the world.”

A new framework to define metrics, establish benchmarks and gather that data is coming soon to a meeting near you.

“Sustainability” has a variety of academic definitions that often obfuscate the discussion and bore the bejesus out of people. For our purposes, it simply means: Protecting what we have now for future generations with regard to economics, community and environment.

Britain’s BS8901 sustainability management system was the first standard used by event planners in Europe to manage their events’ impact. With the onset of the 2012 London Olympics, however, BS8901 is upgrading into a global standard. Since last year, 32 countries have come together to collaborate with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to create the new ISO20121 sustainability management standard.

The new standard is being used to manage the entire environmental, social and economic impact of the London Olympics from the initial bid through to the closing ceremony. Because of this, organizers are touting the Olympics as the first “Sustainable Games.”

Chairperson of the ISO initiative is Manchester-based Fiona Pelham, who also spoke at WEC. She operates three companies: Organize This, an event management company; Positive Impact, a non-profit educational network; and Sustainable Events, an arm focusing on sustainable strategy.

“I think the really big thing that the London Olympics is doing is raising the profile of what sustainability means for the event sector, and providing the framework and tools so the event sector can continue with the conversation after the Olympics is finished,” Pelham told us. “There’s been quite a lot of interest around the green side of things but sustainability is something different: meeting your budgets, generating sponsors, engaging your local supply chains and community, having a happy and healthy workforce. And on top of that there’s the green stuff, you know, understanding your carbon footprint and managing your waste.”

And that’s just half of the equation—the management part. This November, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is unveiling the Event Organizer Sector Supplement specifically for the meetings industry as the international standard for sustainability measurement.

This will allow planners to compare their events’ impact with any other event across any other industry.