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Sustainability trends in 2020: A little less talk, a lot more action

Sustainability is high on the agenda for the most talked-about issues for 2020. It’s encouraging to see so many discussions and thought-leadership speeches and suggestions on the future of sustainability.

At an Events Industry Council panel discussion ‘Bringing People Together for Climate: The Role of the Events Industry’, Mark Cooper, IACC CEO gave examples of how the organisation and 400 of its international partner venues were working to become more sustainable.

“400 venues doesn’t sound like a huge number but, when you consider those venues look after more than two million events a year you can see how even the smallest changes can make a big impact on the wider industry,” Cooper said a the UN Climate Conference COP25 in Madrid.

The initiatives that IACC put into practice at the event included healthy food options such as a vegan lunch; water stations with compostable and recyclable cups or refillable glass bottles for all delegates; all signage, badges and other information printed on sustainable materials such as recyclable card with no plastic. For the pre-conference study tour, all delegates travelled by train or electric/hybrid cars.

Three pledges were made – that Europe Knowledge Festival attendees committed to – eradicate all single use plastic bottles, remove all single-use coffee cups from guest rooms and to create an online repository of information and organisations which provide advice on how to become more sustainable in partnership with the Events Industry Council.

It was acknowledged that this is just the start of the debate. “While we have made some great efforts and headway in recent years there is still more to be done and through the sharing of knowledge and best practice with our industry colleagues it can be done,” Cooper admitted.

Britain prepares for Brexit after Tory victory in general election.

Britain prepares for Brexit after Tory victory in general election.

Brexit effect

The protracted divorce proceedings from the EU may have some unexpected side effects, suggests Warren Campbell, general manager at 15Hatfields, a leading sustainable events venue.

Sharing predictions for 2020, Campbell said: “The impending execution of Brexit will likely lead to a big shake up of how suppliers and supply chains operate. From a sustainability perspective, it will hopefully encourage more local and seasonal produce to be sourced across the country, enhancing local trade and mitigating the prospect of shortages going forward. This will also force procurement teams to drill down on point of origin, and with price being a key factor and driver, local seasonal produce should be the cheaper option when factoring in transportation costs.”

Campbell believes the hot topic of reducing single-use plastic will continue in to 2020. “Through my role as sustainability ambassador for the Meetings Industry Association and chairing its #20PercentLess campaign, we’ve been educating and championing best practice while encouraging the sector to commit to eliminating single-use plastic usage by a minimum of 20 per cent each year for the next five years.

“As many organisations have already executed the quick wins, the pressure will now turn on to suppliers to scrutinise packaging across the supply sector. This will likely be a direct result of pressure from consumers and with the large supermarkets being forced to act, this will filter across all suppliers, as organisations finally see that their buying power can drive change.

“The more businesses work together to refuse unnecessarily shrink-wrapped supplies, the more suppliers will be forced to reassess their own processes. This year at 15Hatfields, we have looked closely at 12 supply lines and produced case studies to highlight and demonstrate that there are suppliers and solutions to move away from unsustainable packaging.”

Clients are asking for a new type of candour and approach, such as that displayed by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

A new type of candour and approach, such as that displayed by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Ethics and social responsibility

The ethics of events was in the crosshairs of the events industry in 2019 and will continue to do so in 2020, with an increasingly urgent voice. Expect to see more from eco-activists such as Greta Thunberg who has become the face and voice of climate change. In the UK, Extinction Rebellion will in all likelihood increase its activities. Expect more direction action as at XR’s protests at ExCeL in September 2019 during the Defence & Security Equipment International arms fair.

Extinction Rebellion released a statement saying: “We need to transfer jobs from the arms industry into the sustainable economy now… we need to stop fuelling conflict around the world which is only increasing these problems.”

There is a big shift in public perception and responsibility, which the events industry and venues needs to tackle head on. They can no longer expect to hide behind ‘no comment’ responses when asked by the media about the ethics of holding events perceived by green pressure groups as detrimental to the planet.

This is reflected in an IBTM trends survey, where 44 per cent of respondents believed that ethical operations and sustainable practices will be one of the most important elements for venues by the year 2024.

The meetings and events industry is slowly coming up with a number of initiatives addressing these issues. The not-for-profit organisation Positive Impact Event’s mission is to engage the global event industry in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, ensuring by 2030, people who attend events every year acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development.

The main obstacle that Positive Impact Events says it faces “is the lack of event industry leadership understanding the urgent need to act and having the courage to change their ‘business as usual approach’”.

The number of people flying between German cities fell 12 per cent.

The number of people flying between German cities fell 12 per cent. (Source: ADV airports association, Fraport AG)

Travel trouble

Sustainable travel is increasingly under scrutiny in 2020. Many of the world’s prominent airlines have already introduced, or are planning to introduce, carbon emission offsets or biofuel surcharges. Governments, especially in Europe, have introduced proposals to raise taxes on aviation, while reducing tax rates for alternative modes of transportation, according to the Air Monitor 2020 report from American Express Global Business Travel (GBT).

Climate change deniers might protest – as are airlines – who claim that these measures will eat in to profit margins. That may be so, but public opinion has reached a tipping point as evinced in Germany.

Figures from German airports show a steady decline in passengers taking domestic flights. The number of people flying between German cities fell 12 per cent in November 2019 from a year earlier, according to the ADV industry group, marking a fourth straight monthly drop. In contrast, rail firm Deutsche Bahn AG has reported record passenger numbers. This points to suggestions that travellers are using ‘greener’ travel options. Deutsche Bahn is now targeting 100 per cent renewable electricity to power trains on inter-city routes.

In conclusion, the meetings and events industry is lagging behind the wider public perceptions in terms of dealing with the new decade’s concerns which include climate change, ethics, sustainability and wellbeing of employees in the industry.

Organisations such as the IPCC would do well in pressing the discussion much harder as they have done already by commenting that we are ‘running out of time’ and that action needs to be taken far more quickly than existing policies are promising.

Hope lies in the future. Millennials are amongst the most sustainability conscious generations so far. According to Nielsen and Deloitte reports, as “an influential and rapidly growing consumer market”, it’s important to “engage in sustainable practices or their future growth could be at risk”.