How to Build Sustainability into Your Event Planning Strategy

Sustainability isn’t exactly a new concept, but today’s consumers expect the brands they work with to maintain a certain set of standards. Embracing a sustainable strategy could help you build stronger connections with your audience, attract attendees with shared ideals, and even save you some money.

Read on to learn more about how to embrace a more sustainable event strategy—Local foods, energy efficiency, and rented booths, reused display elements.

Free download: How to analyze the environmental impact of your event

Why Should You Host a Sustainable Event?

Sustainability has gone way beyond being a trend or a buzzword, it’s something today’s consumers expect. According to research by Cone Communication, 87% of B2B buyers made a purchasing decision based on whether the vendor shares their values.

Nielsen found that 73% of consumers say that they’d change their habits to reduce their environmental impact. Being sustainable means your goal is to limit the impact your event has on the environment—from reducing waste to working with vendors, speakers, and sponsors that align with your mission and values. And, it’s an area where event pros need to step up their game.

It’s also worth pointing out that failing to make an effort to incorporate sustainability into your strategy could hurt your reputation, invite criticism, or make it difficult to attract and retain top talent. In other words, sustainability isn’t just the right thing to do for the sake of the planet, it’s just good business.

Assess Your Footprint

The meetings industry has a massive impact on the environment. If you’ve run this event in the past, look at the data to get a sense of which areas could be improved. If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to measuring the impact of your event, look toward online tools or carbon offset providers to help you measure your carbon footprint.

Here are some areas to consider:

Energy Consumption

Managing energy and improving energy efficiency can help you save money. If reducing energy is a top priority, it will impact your venue choice.

Keep in mind that if using existing venues, you’ll need to communicate early on that energy efficiency is an important part of your strategy, as implementing energy initiatives can require significant resources and lead time. If you’re attending an event and setting up a booth, you can still make reductions when it comes to energy consumption.


The largest share of carbon emissions comes from attendee air travel, so you might start by looking at the average distance traveled or the number of attendees that flew in from other locations. Should you learn that a large percentage of participants are based in a particular region, you may want to opt for a venue closer to them.

While food and beverage don’t account for nearly as much of the emissions output as travel, it’s one of the more visible areas you can focus on as you plan your next event. Additionally, working with local, seasonal, and organic food suppliers shows attendees that you value these things.

Food and Beverage

Going beyond the menu, you’ll also need to consider all of the non-edible items that contribute to your footprint. For example, Google’s NEXT conference featured food stations made from recycled materials and staffed waste disposal areas with event staff tasked with sorting recyclables, compost, and trash.

Some ways you might reduce the food and beverage impact:

  • Use recycled napkins and reusable flatware and dishes.
  • Ditch plastic straws
  • Embrace plant-based cuisines–you don’t need to go full vegan, but leaning toward locally-sourced produce and sustainable seafood can help you reduce your footprint.
  • Purchase bulk condiments instead of single-use packets–think salt and pepper shakers, ketchup bottles, cream, and sugar.
  • Establish a plan for composting food scraps and recycling kitchen grease.
  • Find out how and where you can donate leftover food to local homeless shelters or food banks.

Wasted Materials

By some measures, landfills are around 40-50% paper waste and single-use plastic bags.
With that in mind, one of the best ways to reduce your impact is to go paperless, which includes taking the following into consideration:

  • Replace printed marketing materials with digital campaigns.
  • Consider which tools you’ll need to collect registrations and keep your audience in the loop. Keep in mind, this may mean you’ll need to invest in a dedicated event app or a comprehensive marketing automation platform.
  • Where can you cut back on other throwaway items? Ditch the single-use cups, straws, and plastic bags. Look at the packaging used by your suppliers–are some using excessive materials?
  • Rethink your swag bags–can you offer digital incentives instead? If not, make sure you’re offering thoughtful, environmentally-friendly alternatives. For example, Intel made gift bags from repurposed signage. Another idea is offering memorable experiences or edible treats.

Additionally, you might also rent a trade show booth instead of building a new one, particularly if you’d rather change things up every year.

Set Goals and Measurable Targets

As you plan your event, you’ll want to look toward touchpoints that help you decide what is important. A list of principles that are most relevant to you will help you know how to respond to an opportunity or challenge in a way that aligns with your sustainability vision.

If your goal is to cut back on carbon emissions, then you might map out a strategy that includes the following:

  • Host the event near walkable destinations to reduce car travel.
  • Cut back on freight by working with local vendors and shipping ground instead of air.
  • Choose a venue located in a central location to minimize air travel.
  • Look for green venues that already have sustainability initiatives in place.
  • Partner with sustainable hotels for accommodations
  • Offer remote, virtual event options to far-away participants.

As you list your priorities and goals, make sure you can tie them to measurable metrics. The SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely) framework is a good way to do this.

Pick the Right Partners

Which suppliers were used last time around? While it might be hard to retroactively measure food or material waste, you can look at which vendors you worked with last year—were they local to the event? Do they follow sustainable best practices?

Look toward the Sustainable Event Alliance, Sustainable Brands, or Certified B Corporations to find suppliers that make the cut. Additionally, EPA’s SmartWay program helps companies improve supply chain sustainability by finding freight shippers and carriers with the lowest environmental impact.

A supplier’s word isn’t enough. Make sure that vendors have the certifications and documentation to prove they’re not just greenwashing to keep up appearances. Establish an official green policy. This offers vendors a set of expectations and the metrics used to measure their performance, and should cover the five areas in this graphic from the Events Industry Council:

Consider working with local vendors. Sustainability efforts aren't only about waste management and carbon emissions, they're also about supporting local communities, a chance to feature local cuisine, entertainment, and creators. Click To Tweet

In 2018, Miller Coors embraced Austin’s local flavor at their annual brand reception, bringing in local artists, food, and entertainment that complemented each of their 23 brands.

Beyond your vendors, you also want to make sure you’re working with speakers, sponsors, and influencers that align with your sustainability efforts. Given that corporate values matter more than ever, brands, thought leaders, and influencers can differentiate themselves from the competition by demonstrating their commitment to fighting climate change and supporting social justice issues.

Or, you might try partnering with a community organization or an environmental group like General Mills did at Expo West 2018. The exhibit educates attendees about how climate impacts our food supply and showcase’s the brand’s effort to support conservation efforts.

Look for speakers and session leaders that share your values when it comes to corporate social responsibility. Further your marketing efforts by partnering with influencers that work with causes your organization supports, and build sponsorship packages that emphasize the sponsor’s involvement with green initiatives.

All together, partnering with the right supporters allows you to create an experience that resonates with your attendees’ values.

Wrapping Up

Organizing a sustainable event may seem a bit daunting at first, but it’s not overly complicated.
Start simple and take on initiatives like going paperless or reducing travel distance. Partner with vendors and sponsors that can help you implement change and embrace local-inspired flavors.

Ultimately, “greening” your event strategy is an ongoing effort that involves measuring your footprint against the right metrics and tweaking your plan to improve your impact–and by extension, your brand’s reputation.

At Echelon Design, we build branded event environments designed to “wow” your audience and tell your story. Whether you’re looking for a rental exhibit that minimizes waste or a new booth made from recycled materials, we’ll put sustainability front and center. Contact us today to get started.

Free download: How to analyze the environmental impact of your event

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