How to run sustainable and eco-friendly events and conferences
An article from our Partners, ACC Liverpool
Events and conferences have traditionally been resource and energy-intensive affairs, involving attendee travel, plenty of printed materials and handouts, lanyards, catering and more. These days, however, there’s more pressure than ever to ensure that conferences and events have as small a carbon footprint as possible. So, if you want to make sure your event or conference is eco-friendly and sustainable, keep reading…
Why is sustainability important for events and conferences?
Is it really necessary to try and make your event or conference more eco-friendly? After all, there are far more polluting activities taking place across the world.
Actually, you might be surprised.
According to research carried out by events consultancy MeetGreen, over 170 kilograms of carbon emissions are generated per attendee, each day, at a conference!
That’s just carbon emissions.
Think about the other things associated with a conference, such as discarded waste, and the figures are equally eye-opening. For example, the typical attendee at an average conference generates 1.89kg of discarded waste per day.
Scale that up and things get quite surprising. A three-day conference, for 1,000 attendees, can generate up to 5670kg of discarded waste. That’s the same weight as four small cars!
It’s clear then, that sustainability is crucially important for events and conferences.
If your business or organisation is serious not only about tackling climate change, but minimising its impact on the world’s resource-base, then you’ll want to ensure your event or conference is run as sustainably as possible.
Luckily, we’ve told you how to do just that below.
Decide upon your metrics
It’s all very well talking about ‘carbon footprints’ and ‘sustainability’, but what do these things actually mean when it comes to making your event or conference eco-friendly?
It’s important, before you do anything else, that you decide what metrics you’ll measure your event or conference against.
Give yourself clear targets or goals that you want to achieve, and from there, you can then set out clear actions to help you achieve them.
Common sustainability metrics for conferences and events
Common metrics that are used to measure how sustainable an event is, include:
Waste management - how much waste is generated by an event, and of that waste, how much is diverted from landfill and successfully recycled.
Green travel - measuring the number of your attendees that travelled to your event using lower-carbon forms of transport.
Carbon footprint - measuring the overall carbon footprint of your event. This can be done using tools like SAM (which was developed with input from ourselves here at ACC Liverpool).
Local procurement - measuring the number of local, socially-responsible companies that have supplied goods and services for your event or conference.
Food and drink - measuring the types of food and drink you’re serving at your event and the carbon footprint of these choices, as well as the volume of food waste.
These are the most common metrics that are typically used to measure how sustainable an event or conference is.
Whilst there are other metrics in use, the above are those that are the most popular and most meaningful when it comes to assessing how eco-friendly your event has been.
Social Value Checklist - here at ACC Liverpool, we’ve produced a handy Social Value Checklist which will help you to remember to measure all of the right sustainability metrics for your event or conference. Click here to download the Social Value Checklist.
With those points in mind, let’s take a look at some practical steps you can take to make your event or conference more environmentally friendly.
1. Choose a venue with great public transport links
Your choice of venue is arguably the most important way you can make your conference or event more sustainable.
Because travel to and from your event - for attendees, speakers and organisers alike - will be the biggest contributor to your event’s overall carbon footprint.
In fact, if you’re running an international event, with attendees flying in from across the world, air travel emissions can be responsible for up to 70% of your event’s total emissions.
It’s not just aeroplanes though. Car travel can also quickly add up to be a major source of carbon emissions in relation to your event.
The answer is to select a conference venue which has excellent public transport links. Where you can, select a venue which is strategically located next to mainline and local rail stations, as rail is one of the lowest impact ways of getting attendees to your event.
When choosing a venue, you should also think about active travel access too. You want attendees to be able to easily get to the event, for example by walking.
If you are running an international event, then make sure the venue you choose has great public transport links between the venue and the nearest airport. Whilst this won’t eliminate the carbon emissions from air travel, it will help to reduce emissions related to those ‘last mile’ journeys from the airport to your event.
Aside from the travel aspect of a venue, you should also check out the venue’s green credentials. Select a venue which has a strong and actioned commitment to sustainability.
In short, choose a venue which has excellent public transport links and excellent active travel routes and facilities.
What’s more, you should consider incentivising lower-carbon travel by offering discounts on your event tickets to people who commit to using public transport/active travel to reach your event or conference.
Alternatively, you could offer room upgrades to people who attend using public transport or active travel options.
2. Go paperless
From e-tickets to programmes and agendas, it can be surprising how much paper and printed materials can be associated with an event or conference.
Whilst exact figures are hard to calculate, one estimate suggests that the average conference or trade show uses 170 trees worth of paper. Additionally, the average conference attendee can find themselves taking home as much as 4.5kg of printed materials.
We’re not sure about you, but to us here at ACC Liverpool, that is a significant amount of paper!
Going paperless then, is one of the most effective things you can do to make your event or conference more sustainable and eco-friendly.
Not only will e-invites, electronic agendas and other digital replacements help save the environment, but they will also save you significant amounts of money in printing costs.
E-invites and other digital alternatives also save the carbon emissions that are associated with delivering paper-based invites.
From event invites to agendas and other printed materials, going paperless will not only boost your event’s green credentials, but will potentially save you considerable amounts of money too.
3. Food and drink
Anyone with even a passing interest in the news will no doubt have seen the increasing number of stories about how diet - the food and drink that you eat - has an impact on the environment.
When it comes to your event, there are three core food and drink-related sustainability issues you should think about:
As you’ll probably be aware, food waste has been a perennial issue for events and conference organisers.
With no shows and last-minute cancellations, it can be all too easy to end up with far too much food, which then inevitably goes to waste.
In fact, food waste can account for anything from 20% to 60% of an entire event’s overall waste.
But, it doesn’t have to!
Make sure that you choose a caterer that is not only able to advise you on the correct amount of food to order, but one that is able to effectively recycle any food waste that is generated.
Here at ACC Liverpool our caterers Sodexo Live! run their Waste Watch initiative, which allows you to track and monitor any food waste generated. You can use the learnings from this to reduce avoidable food waste at your future events.
Some caterers will have policies in place whereby any excess food is donated to local charities, or recycled via anaerobic digesters. These are both things which will prevent food waste at your event or conference.
It’s also important to think about packaging when it comes to food too. Make sure that things like sandwiches are served on reusable trays, plates or crockery rather than being served on disposable alternatives.
Ensure that tea, coffee and other similar condiments are served in jars rather than being individually packaged.
Reducing the amount of food waste is only one aspect of reducing the carbon footprint associated with your event catering.
It’s also important to select foods which have lower levels of carbon emissions associated with their production.
For example, vegan and vegetarian foods are less impactful than meat. Lamb and cheese both emit more than 20 kgs of CO2 per kilogram, whilst poultry and pork emit 6 and 7 kgs of CO2 respectively per kilogram. As you may expect, beef has the biggest carbon footprint, producing 60 kgs of CO2 per kilogram.
By making 80 to 100% of your event’s food vegan and plant-based you can make a big difference to the overall sustainability of your event or conference.
Another important factor to be aware of when considering the sustainability of your event or conference, is the provenance of your food and drink.
Where you source your food from can make a difference to the carbon footprint of your event.
So, not only be sure to use local suppliers, but ask them where they source their food from. Ideally, you’ll want to be serving food which has been produced locally to the venue.
Don’t forget that provenance also applies to drinks as well. Ensure that the tea and coffee that you serve to attendees is fairly-traded. Fair Trade tea and coffee is not only financially ethical in that suppliers receive a fair price for their produce, but sustainable too.
Give some thought to how the tea and coffee is served also. Ideally, you’ll avoid serving tea and coffee in disposable paper or plastic cups. Instead, go for crockery, or offer attendees reusable eco-cups made from sustainable materials such as bamboo or rice husk.
When it comes to water, the sustainable route is to offer tap water in jugs and other similar decanters. Whatever you do, don’t offer water in plastic single-use bottles!
When it comes to catering at your event or conference, you not only want to minimise food waste, but also consider factors such as packaging waste, lower-carbon, plant-based food choices and locally-sourced foods.
Whilst some of these are only small things, they are the kind of things which are noticed by attendees.
After all, they’ll be directly interacting with the food. If an attendee can see that you’ve made efforts to create a plant-based, locally-sourced food offering, they’re likely to recognise that you’re running a sustainable, eco-friendly conference.
4. Local procurement
A wide-range of suppliers are typically involved in planning, running and managing a successful event or conference.
From audio and visual specialists, suppliers of lanyards and other materials, to staging and exhibition set up specialists, there are a wide range of companies that can potentially be involved in the running of your conference or event.
Think of it this way; you may find a brilliant supplier of roller banners, but if they’re producing them in China, those roller banners will have a hefty carbon footprint. It’s better instead to choose a supplier that produces roller banners locally - even if this comes at a slightly higher price.
As we mentioned earlier, caterers should ideally be sourced locally. This will reduce the ‘food miles’ associated with your event catering.
Aside from the environmental aspect of local procurement, choosing suppliers that are located near to your chosen venue also helps to support the local economy, providing employment, job creation and more.
If you really want to take your procurement to the next level, then you could look to work with social enterprises. These are not-for-profit businesses that put people and the planet first.
When in doubt, source your suppliers locally. This not only has the benefit of reducing the carbon footprint of your event or conference, but also has the benefit of supporting local businesses and jobs.
5. Ditch single-use visuals
Whilst large individualised props, banners, stage lettering, posters and other items that include the title and date of your event might look great, they’re limited to a single use.
This means that they’ve got an extremely limited lifespan and can’t effectively be reused.
It’s much better instead to go for more generic props and visuals which are more focused on your brand (rather than dates/times). These can be used year after year, at multiple conferences and events.
Better yet, why not consider using dynamic lighting packages? Many conference venues have AV specialists who can work with you to create digital displays, logos and more - all of which can be edited at the press of a few buttons!
Use props and visuals that don’t go out of date. Avoid putting the exact name and date of your event or conference on things like signage and banners, and instead go for more generic brand-based visuals.
6. Go hybrid
If you want to reduce travel-related carbon emissions, then an increasingly popular solution is to run your conference on a hybrid basis.
Due to the experience gained during the COVID-19 lockdowns, venues and conference centres like ACC Liverpool are adept at running incredibly smooth, professional hybrid events.
Running your event on a hybrid basis not only means that attendees don’t have to travel, but can also mean your event can be attended by a far broader range of people - increasing ticket sales and therefore revenue.
With hybrid events it’s also possible to create a great legacy, as key speakers and sessions can be recorded and provided to attendees as a resource for future watching and review.
Choose a conference venue which has a demonstrated expertise and track record of running hybrid events. Hybrid events can be quite complex to run, so you’ll want to work with a venue which has access to production and technical experts.
7. Reconsider lanyards
If there’s one item that most people associate with attending an event or conference, it’s lanyards.
Look in your desk drawer at work or at home and you’ve probably got one or two lanyards yourself.
Lanyards are something of an expectation at events these days, and they do have many benefits. They save attendees from having to use fiddly pin-based badges and they can be easily reused.
However, all too often they do get thrown away. And all of that fabric adds up!
If you can’t do without lanyards at your event or conference (and we don’t blame you if you can’t), then consider using lanyards that are made from more sustainable materials such as bamboo fibre. These types of lanyards also tend to be easily recycled.
However, if you really do want to avoid using lanyards at your event, then ask attendees to bring their own name badges or lanyards (many corporate employees will already have a work lanyard).
This encourages attendees to think about their own role in supporting a sustainable conference, and it can also be a great way of networking as they’ll have their employer’s logo on their own lanyard.
Encourage attendees to bring their own lanyards from work. Failing that, choose lanyards which are made from sustainable materials such as bamboo fibre.
8. Communicate, communicate, communicate
One of easiest, yet high-impact, things you can do to make your conference or event more sustainable is to communicate with attendees and speakers.
In every piece of communication, be it the email that accompanies an e-ticket or a speaking invite, let attendees and speakers know that you’re trying to run a sustainable event.
Emphasise how important it is that they take sustainable transport options where possible, not waste food or electricity and to bring their own water bottles, lanyards and other items.
Invite them to take part in car or taxi shares and include handy tips on other things they can do to make the event a greener one.
As we mentioned earlier, you can also use your communications to incentivise sustainable behaviours e.g. providing discounted tickets to attendees who will be arriving via active travel options or public transport.
About ACC Liverpool
ACC Liverpool is the most sustainable and eco-friendly conference centre in the UK.
The Liverpool event campus is an interconnected arena, convention and exhibition centre which plays a leading role in shining a spotlight on Liverpool. Since opening in 2008 we have successfully staged a wide array of national and international events, from shows to conventions, business gatherings to showcase exhibitions. Our world class campus boasts a talented management team, delivering a winning combination to event organisers, delegates and visitors alike.