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What came first? The event? Or sustainability?

How has the pandemic changed sustainability in events? By spotlighting the ripe opportunity to expand our mindset beyond sustainability-in-event-logistics to sustainability-in-service-of-engagement.

If there is one question I’m asked most often it is: “How do you get support for sustainability in events?”

For many years, and until recently, I’ve replied with examples of the business case: how sustainability reduces costs, improves efficiency, builds positive public relations and gains sponsorship.

During the pandemic period I’ve also often been asked: “How has COVID-19 changed sustainability in events?”

Initially I’d answered technically and logically: carbon emissions from events have dropped due to fewer in-person and more digital events being held, and as in-person events re-open it is expected emissions will rebound and waste will increase as more disposable personal protective equipment is used.

Recently, however, I’ve been re-evaluating my responses. And how the shape of the question creates a blind spot in our thinking as event professionals.

Discussions about “sustainability in events” assumes a boundary, and a role paradigm. It implies that sustainability–and how event professionals think of it–fits within the default function of planning events, where sustainability is relegated to a logistical consideration.

However, events exist to serve the purpose of those organizations that host them. Chief among that purpose is engagement toward an outcome, where that outcome relies on respecting audiences by considering the wider sustainability issues that impact them. In this way, consideration of sustainability is a necessary condition of healthy, adaptive organisations that are preparing for future risks and uncertainties that might compromise audience well-being and, therefore, engagement.

So to recap, the event industry often frames questions about planning for sustainability as a logistical challenge for events:

When the situation is more akin to a strategic challenge of engagement:

Seeing this wider context, event professionals need to also ask:

  • “What sustainability issues are impacting the organisation?”
  • “How do we show respect for audiences by demonstrating alignment with their values?”
  • “How do we promote engagement while reducing risk for the organisation?”
  • “How do we strengthen engagement in ways that advance sustainability goals on behalf of our audiences and the organisation?”

Seeing engagement as a function nested inside the wider organisation, and how that organisation is impacted by sustainability better prepares those identifying as event organizers to consider the wider, pressing issues that can impact audience engagement, such as climate change and equity.

This makes it possible to see how old engagement models may need to be dissolved and rebuilt if they no longer solve–or worse, contribute to delays in acting on–critical sustainability issues stakeholders care about.

Looking from this vantage point enables us to better adapt to evolving uncertainty and risk because it can make us more willing to disrupt the engagement paradigms that we’re used to. It prepares us to innovate forward, rather than getting “back to normal”, where normal stands in contradiction to the sustainability realities our organizations face and values our audiences have.

So how has the pandemic changed sustainability in events? From my current vantage point, by spotlighting the ripe opportunity to expand our mindset beyond sustainability-in-event-logistics to sustainability-in-service-of-engagement.

Can you relate to this shift in perspective? And does it spotlight an opportunity for you?

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