I recently returned from an incredible journey through Southeast Asia, filled with eye-opening AHA! experiences, from the nightlife and temples of Bangkok, bike treks through Cambodia’s local villages and Angkor Wat at sunrise, to the impossibly blue waters of Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay. But it was one of the more adventurous moments of the trip that ended up being the most meaningful.
My itinerary led me to an ecotour of Tonle Sap, a vast freshwater lake in Cambodia that’s fed by the Mekong River. It’s home to countless birds, fish, plant life...and people, who live in floating villages and survive on the fish they pull from the water. Whatever they can’t eat, they barter for rice and vegetables, or ferment into prahok, a pungent paste that’s used as a condiment. Due to the constant tidal changes, they move their floating homes, crops, animals (including crocodile farms!) and all their belongings every two weeks or so, pulling it all downriver to higher waters. A true awakening and a constant change of life.
We had lunch in one of these humble floating homes, helping the local men and women prepare by grinding spices in a mortar, chopping vegetables, and cutting up hunks of just-caught catfish off the deck of the kitchen. All of it was cooked up into a spicy, filling stir-fry. Afterward, our host gathered up the fish skeletons, threw them in the pan of still-bubbling oil, and passed them around for us to nibble on, like surprisingly tasty toothpicks.
It was a fascinating experience, not to mention genuine and delicious. But what struck me the most was that not a single morsel of food had gone to waste. Such a contrast to our daily lives—and my work of planning and producing corporate events for the better part of 20 years globally—where we buy so much more than we could ever consume, and then throw most of it away! And, I thought, the waste grows exponentially for events, even when you’re just talking about feeding just a small group of attendees.
One of the intentions of this trip had been to get some R&R before launching my strategic meetings and events management business, Make It Happen Management. But my experience at Tonle Sap made me expand the mission of my new venture: not just to create exceptional events, but to do it in a way that’s a little less wasteful, a little greener, a little more impactful. My clients and the people who attend their events aren’t primarily focused on making sure their plastic bottles are being recycled or the light bulbs are energy efficient. But I can make a difference, and I can give back to our industry, communicating and providing the resources for others to do the same.
We hear a lot about sustainability in event management, and there’s a lot of information to process, a lot of procedures to rethink, a lot of downstream effects to consider. To help tackle this issue, and help groups cut back on food waste they produce, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), with support from The Rockefeller Foundation and the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) launched a Zero Waste Menu program.
My Call To Action For You: Focus on making just one aspect of your event more sustainable. Once you’ve seen the impact of that, you can move on to other areas, until step by step, you’ve created a sustainable event management practice.
So where to start? Here are five simple ways to make a difference:
Food Waste. You don’t have to fry your fish bones. But you can partner with a food rescue organization (like Transfernation) that will redistribute leftovers to those in need. Or tackle the issue from the consumption side, by not over-ordering. Do you really need to offer a choice of meat or fish or duo plates? Everyone likes chicken! (Read more about Transfernation here.)
Water Bottles. Nothing drives me crazier than seeing case after case of those miniature plastic water bottles—I just imagine them ending up swirling around the ocean for eternity. Distribute refillable bottles instead, with refill stations around the event. The bottles are a great opportunity for branding, since people can take them home and re-use them.
Repurposing Decor. I frequently work with an organization called The Special E that sweeps through an event space and gathers up goodies to reuse. My floral arrangements might go to a local hospital, notepads and pens to needy students, table linens to a nursing home. Their fee is tax-deductible, and a post-event report provides details and photos for your company’s CSR report.
Transportation. Encouraging attendees and transportation companies to group arrivals by time, use carpools or vans—or even public transportation—is an easy way to reduce an event’s carbon footprint.
Offset Your Impact. Speaking of carbon footprint, you can compensate for yours by buying offsets—essentially, planting trees that will help reduce whatever carbon dioxide your event put into the atmosphere. There are several organizations that do this. Some vendors even offer their own offsets: I’ve done events with a purveyor in the UK, The Fruitful Office, that plants a fruit tree in Africa for every basket of fruit it sells.
So tell me, what steps have you taken to make your events more sustainable? What would you like to see? What resources have you found helpful? Please share in the comments!