Sometimes all you need to do is ask

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I come from the “Lock it Up” school of event sustainability: all event sustainability practices shall be signed on the dotted line to ensure seamless, as-promised delivery. No room for dangling loose ends that could run awry and cause a major embarrassment, making a sponsor or organizer look environmentally or socially irresponsible. No margin of error to guess what the impact of the event’s sustainability program was.

Sometimes, however, we don’t have the luxury of lead time or contract clauses to bake in our sustainability expectations. We don’t have the ability to verify and follow-up on every green detail. We don’t have a chance to audit the event location for potential environmental concerns.  And we may not know our vendors well enough to be certain if they’re going to follow through on practices to reduce and measure our footprint. These are the times when it seems like all you can do is ask, and hope.

I had a reminder this month about just how important it is to consistently ask for event sustainability practices. Even if it is the only thing you can do. Because sometimes, those projects where you merely influence, invite and inspire engagement can produce amazing and unexpected results, possibly even exceeding the sustainability outcomes of those events you rigidly control.

In February 2013 I traveled to Shanghai with Paul Salinger and the Oracle Marketing team to conduct a site inspection for Oracle OpenWorld and JavaOne. I wrote a post about the experience here, at the time feeling unsure how successful we would be at engaging the local event team in working with Oracle on a sustainability plan for the event.

The process we put in place represented a departure from the command and control strategies I’m most comfortable with. Instead Paul, myself and Aileen London from Oracle Procurement simply met with each of the event vendors. First as a group, outlining general commitments and goals Oracle Marketing has to host events that reduce waste, promote carbon reduction and responsibility, give back to host communities and enhance attendee experiences. We briefed the Shanghai team on what had been done at previous events in Tokyo and Beijing, and then asked if they would help improve the upcoming event with more sustainable approaches. We then met with each vendor at their place of business to learn what they were already doing, and ask one-on-one about steps they might be able to take forward for this event. After the visit we followed up quickly with sincere thanks for their time, appreciation for what we had learned and a tentative list of action items we wanted to attempt that advanced Oracle’s event sustainability goals. No signing on the dotted line. No penalty if things didn’t work out. And also, little incentive. Just an expressed desire and invitation to work together to make a bit of progress, and a promise to share what was achieved by each contributor at the close of the event.

And then, frankly, I held my breath. Following up with occasional encouraging emails, requests for updates and gentle reminders to please not forget to measure as much about impact as possible.

Six months later, within three weeks of the event, the results started to come in. And as you can tell by the photo below, the local team was (and should be) proud of what was accomplished.

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  • The Shanghai Expo Center developed a new sustainability policy and planning process to prepare for the event, formalizing operating procedures that complimented pre-existing LEED(R) Gold green building certification. A post-event footprint report was prepared for the first time, showing among other things, the benefit of 20,874 kWh of electricity sourced from a solar array on the roof, representing 5.2% of use.
  • General services contractor Pico worked with Oracle Marketing to reduce the event’s sign footprint by half compared to the previous conference in Beijing in 2010. This was done by taking advantage of permanent digital signs at the venue. All disposable foamcore was eliminated and replaced with recyclable cardboard substrates.
  • 360 kg of landfill waste was disposed of by the venue, a 90% reduction in trash compared to 2010. 60% of waste was diverted from landfill, including 100% of kitchen waste, more than doubling 2010 diversion.
  • Disposable boxed lunches were eliminated by using durable boxes and reusable, unbleached cotton bags for attendee meals. Event caterer the Intercontinental Shanghai Expo provided lunches in boxes made from rice husk, an agricultural waste product. This kept 10,000 pieces of plastic waste from landfill as boxes and bags were retained for reuse each day. Staff lunches were served on stainless steel trays, eliminating disposables for a further 1,680 meals.
  • Logistics agency BizCom conducted special sustainability trainings for onsite staff. Trainings ensured staff were prepared to recommend transit hubs and scheduled multi-passenger shuttles given no taxi stand was specially arranged, a conscious step to discourage single-vehicle trips. 87% of BizCom’s onsite staff brought and reused their own bottles at specially arranged water coolers in an effort to lead by example when it came to eliminating bottled water.
  • Accommodation providers Intercontinental Shanghai Expo, Intercontinental Shanghai Pudong and Sheraton Shanghai Pudong also exceeded Oracle’s minimum sustainability guidelines for guest rooms, meeting space and catering.

Not bad, for no guarantees! Could we have achieved more if the process was more tightly controlled? Possibly. Was the effort perfect? Hardly. In fact, lack of command and control structures run counter to what many event sustainability standards require.  However, I would argue Oracle made significant progress toward eventually achieving these standards in the long-term by asking vendor partners to tap into locally available solutions and their own creativity to meet important, consistent sustainability goals. An additional spin-off of this open approach was that suppliers crafted solutions that made sense and had value for them, as well as Oracle. So for those struggling under the expectation that “locking it up” is the only way to ensure event sustainability, loosen the reins a bit. Permit yourself to be okay with simply asking vendors to support a few key sustainability goals in ways that respects they are experts in knowing how to best deliver, and trust they’ll follow through. You might be surprised at the outcome!

For more information on how to make the ask to help improve the sustainability of your events please visit MeetGreen.

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