Gathering with Greater Purpose

How Sustainable Events Can Change the World

In the aftermath of ‘Larry’s letter’—when BlackRock’s powerful chief executive Lawrence Fink demanded a shift in CEOs’ priorities toward more than just profit—as global businesses look for new ways to deepen their social impact, there lies a high-potential solution routinely lost in everyone’s blind spot: making all events, from Monday morning team meetings to weekend barbeques to convenings on the global stage, sustainable.

In advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is an elegant opportunity to make the medium the message. SDG # 17—more partnerships—is often described as the goal that makes all the other goals possible, and the action that makes partnerships possible is meeting—collaborating, connecting, engaging, inspiring, and educating. Basically, it encapsulates the magical potential of what happens when people come together, face to face.

SDG # 17—more partnerships—is often described as the goal that makes all the other goals possible, and the action that makes partnerships possible is meeting.

What if meetings themselves, in the way they are planned, conducted, and followed up, were examples and sources of inspiration for sustainable development? According to data from the association Meeting Professionals International, the event industry is equivalent in size to the agriculture industry in the UK or the automobile manufacturing industry in the United States. This industry can be a powerful catalyst for achieving the SDGs and creating a world that works for everyone. Imagine if every meeting in the world—from work meetings to local community festivals, pop concerts, or family gatherings—was created with consideration for its social, environmental, and economic impacts.

The London Olympic and Paralympic games of 2012 is an example of one such mega-event. The organizers wanted to demonstrate they had planned their meeting to maximize positive impact, and they were revolutionary in their approach. Beyond seeking short-term gains of positive press, the organizers facilitated and inspired the creation of an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) management system standard to support sustainable event planning. For the first time, there was a reliable process for taking into account social, environmental, and economic impacts at every decision point in event planning, execution, and disassembly.

Considerations in event planning such as banning plastic water bottles, sharing event content to benefit local communities, or using local suppliers, can influence decision making. Over the last few years, the team at Positive Impact, a global nonprofit, has gathered examples of the impacts from decisions taken with a consideration for sustainability and have showcased them in an online library. In 2017, Positive Impact conducted research as part of the UN’s Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development to tell the story of the power of events and encourage society to make a sustainable difference.

To understand this difference in practical terms, when an event is organized, there is a primary decision-maker whose decisions affect the majority of participants, such as choosing a vegetarian meal for a conference’s opening dinner or sending a percentage of revenues from ticket sales to support a local charity. By introducing a more deliberate approach, all of these decisions can be determined in the context of the SDGs.

A component of the Positive Impact 2017 report includes content from five academics who provide commentary on how an event can address a specific SDG. Also, key actors in the event industry were invited to respond to four questions, one of which was, ‘What action do you think the event industry could take to support the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals?’ Over 33 percent of respondents suggested that events should be used as a catalyst to inspire positive change.

For years, data has demonstrated that customers who have a positive experience with a product develop greater brand loyalty. Events deliver those experiences and more. Attending an event is a unique opportunity to try something new, be inspired by others, and connect directly with others—the foundation for world-changing collaboration.

Attending an event is a unique opportunity to try something new, be inspired by others, and connect directly with others—the foundation for world-changing collaboration.

As we collectively pursue a more just, sustainable world, there is a ripe opportunity: business leaders request and empower their event and meeting planners to use existing industry resources to design, deliver, and then tell the story of the sustainability of their events. Imagine if boring meetings became a thing of the past, and every event inspires participants to take action to meet the SDGs through actions small and large—coming together to collaborate, innovate, educate, inspire, and meet—creating a world that works for everyone.

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