8 High-Impact Ways to Make Your Meetings More Sustainable

Engaging attendees and supporting the local community is good for people and the planet.

Illustration by robu_s for Adobe-Stock
Illustration by robu_s for Adobe-Stock

Essential Sustainability Strategies
Watch this brand new webinar on demand and come away with countless sustainability tips and takeaways from Jaime Nack, Courtney Lohmann, CMP, and Marley Finnegan.

Much of the work toward planning sustainable events happens behind the scenes, says Jaime Nack, president of Three Squares, a global, women-owned environmental-consulting firm. “Some clients want to make sure the work gets done but they don't want to talk about it. Others want to scream from the rooftops.”

Don’t keep your efforts a secret: “Attendees want to know what you're doing,” Nack said yesterday while driving to Coachella, the annual music festival in Indio, Calif. The mega-event has drawn more than 250,000 people in recent years, about 65,000 of whom camp out on-site for the weekend. Three Squares plans and manages Coachella’s extensive sustainability plan, which involves the masses very directly.

Here's advice from Nack on how to make participants part of the process, minimize waste and leave a positive impact on your meeting destination.

1. Be transparent about sustainability goals

Younger generations, in particular, don’t want to align with brands that aren’t showing a commitment to the earth and its inhabitants. “The Internet lets you find out in two seconds whether a company's done good or bad in the world,” says Nack. “Inaction — or just not sharing the positive actions you're taking — could result in someone switching brands or deciding not to go to a particular event.”

2. Let attendees know you’re counting carbon emissions

There’s a growing awareness and concern about the impact of air travel and other modes of transport to or from a meeting. Ask questions during the registration process to calculate each participant’s carbon footprint. This lets registrants know there's some measurement and management involved — that can make a difference for many.

3. Provide earth-friendly transit options

Encourage or even incentivize people to walk, bike or use electric mobility options in the destination. “We partnered with an electric scooter company for an event in February,” says Nack, “and they gave us a usage report showing many attendees used the scooters and how many miles they traveled. It was great to see the level of engagement. For some people, it was their first time using an electric scooter, so we were introducing a new way of transport.”

4. Source local food items

Show how you’re reducing your food miles — the amount of travel it takes for the food to get to you — by featuring locally sourced, farm-fresh foods. “We always make sure to list local sources of food along with the distance on menus. So, it might say under a salad, ‘tomatoes from XX farm,’ and then in parentheses how many miles away the farm is.”

5. Donate the leftovers

“There's a huge disparity between those who have access to food and those who have food insecurity. “For every event that we do, we have a plan for donation of excess food — and there's always excess,” says Nack. “We do massive food distributions, and there are wonderful organizations anywhere you are in the world that help with this.” Three Squares often works with Food Runners in San Francisco and National Food Recovery nationally.

It costs nothing to donate food, other than perhaps some aluminum trays to pack it in, but most chefs and caterers already have these and are happy to provide them. And the federal government recently made it even easier to give away leftovers.

6. Banish wasteful swag

Carefully consider gifts and giveaways. Will people keep something branded with the event logo? Do you want sponsors to give out swag? Will you set rules for the swag? As organizers, you can say that swag can't be plastic or single-use.

Another consideration: Where are the items coming from? Swag from other countries might be cheaper, but what’s the carbon output for getting it to you? It’s more sustainable to source items made in the United States — but that can be difficult. For example, only a few U.S. companies make reusable water bottles and coffee mugs, according to Nack. “Most are produced in China. So, that's a decision point. Do you want to give out coffee tumblers from China, or just encourage people to use the ceramic mugs that catering is providing? Or do we message people and ask them to bring their own from home?”

7. Donate and repurpose leftover materials

Just about anything that’s going to be left behind can be distributed locally. Some cities have distribution centers where community groups can come and take building materials or other goods for free. Materials like banners or fabric from the stage can go to a creative reuse center, where teachers can shop for free craft supplies.

Just about anything can be given away. “We had an event that had 11 separate dinners at different hotels, and they insisted on ordering floral for all of them,” Nack recalls. “We collected all of the floral arrangement from 11 sites — there were about 3,000 — and we distributed them to 10 different care facilities and hospitals.”

8. Choose sustainably operated hotels and venues

Nack asks these questions during the RFP process: Which sustainability initiatives are in place on-site? Do you have any green-building certifications? What are your sustainability strategies, both social and environmental? Do you have relationships for the collection of excess food or excess materials? What community partnerships do you have?

“This lets us see that if we go to venue A, it’s going to be a lot of work for us, but venue B is more dialed in and has systems in place, so it will be smoother for us to implement our sustainability initiatives.”

The more planners ask those questions, the more likely it is that venues will put resources behind sustainability, says Nack. “We, as meeting planners, can create the change.”