Talking point: Keen on green?

Keen on Green?

Jonathan Reed casts an eye over practices on sustainability in the MICE sector to see whether the talk of change is reality or a mirage…

On a beach in Koh Samui, Thailand, the temperature is already a sweltering 35 degrees centigrade, but a group of some 30 senior meeting planners from around the world have joined local charity Trash Heroes to clear the sand of litter. In just two hours there’s a lorryload of waste being carted off, an area of pristine beach, and smiles and high fives all round.

Yet a week earlier the BBC reported that a whale on a neighbouring beach had been choked to death by more than 80 plastic bags, while the sandy stretch at Maya Bay, famous from the Leonardo di Caprio-helmed movie The Beach, was closed to tourists so the environmental damage could be assessed. Of course, it’s unfair to blame Thailand, when the whale will have swum through thousands of miles of plastic-filled oceans just to reach there. And being brave enough to close a beach may well be a necessary – albeit unpopular – step in the right direction.

So, do such initiatives as beach cleaning make a difference, or is it merely a tick in the CSR box? Certainly the assembled planners, who’d been wined and dined in the best luxury hotels the island had to offer, enjoyed and valued the morning; and the mountain of rubbish collected was a testament to what can be done. Across the island the MICE industry is making an active commitment to reducing the amount of waste ending up in the seas.

“Are CSR activities mere tokenism?”

Yet at night the tide turns and brings with it another wave of garbage to be cleared. Are such activities mere tokenism? “It’s a very mixed picture,’’ comments industry consultant Richard John who joined the Thai group. “I’ve seen hotel groups taking massive steps to reduce waste, with steps such as helping guests separate recycling in their own rooms. And glass bottles and water stations reduce the quantity of single use plastic.”
He adds: “At the same time, I can’t think of any event workshops I’ve run recently where anyone has been aware of ISO20121 (the international standard for sustainable events). That’s really disappointing and suggests we have a lot more work to do.”

David Preston, CEO of events apprentice specialist Realise points out that “the new events qualification deals explicitly with the topic of sustainability; it’s a vital area and one could argue that there should be more about the topic, but it’s a start.”

2017 was the UN Year of Sustainable Tourism, an initiative that took place against the backdrop of President Trump’s continued denial of climate change, withdrawal from The Paris Accord and decimation of the Environmental Protection Agency. However, Jon Morgan of merchandising expert EP Gifts has a more optimistic view.

“We recently launched a new bamboo coffee cup, to address the issue of the billions of cups that end up in landfill. In 30 years of selling promotional merchandise I have never known such an overwhelming response. For example, we are supplying 15,000 to one university that is giving them away to new students, so they no longer have to use plastic cups.”

Morgan also offers a few simple tips for users of promotional gifts. “Be smart. Buy quality so the items last, and don’t buy cheap tacky products and dress them up in fancy packaging.” He notes: “I think we’re sick of the images of ruined beaches and the strongest support is from the younger generation who are considering the future of their [own] children.”

“It’s about being sustainable and creating a better society to give the poorest people a sense of dignity”

In 1998 the UK recycled just one third of its waste and had the moniker of ‘the dirty man of Europe.’ Some 20 years later the figure is nearly two thirds, beating the EU target. This may sound good, however a recent National Audit Office (NAO) study found that over half of the packaging reported as recycled is actually being sent abroad to be processed and DEFRA is failing to adequately monitor what then happened.

As a result, says the NAO, the government has little idea of whether the recyclables are getting turned into new products, buried in landfill or burned. Environment secretary Michael Gove has stated the UK must stop exporting its rubbish, and consumers should demand to know if the apparent progress is merely an illusion.

Emma Cartmell, CEO of organiser CHS, is also an ambassador for Clean the World, a charity aiming to divert plastic from landfill and help hoteliers become more sustainable. Bottled products are either recycled or repurposed. Soap is remade into new bars and given to those in need.

“It’s about being sustainable and creating a better society to give the poorest people a sense of dignity,” comments Cartmell, “we aim to reflect that in our events, with a philosophy of “reuse, recycle or repurpose”. This includes recycling carpet, ensuring signage/branding can be used over multiple years where possible, using recyclable products and providing water bottles and coolers for visitors.” She’s not alone; many exhibition organisers are now on track to achieve 100 per cent waste recycling and encourage their exhibitors to do the same.

There are many signs that the meetings industry is committed to delivering a sustainable future. Perhaps, at last, the tide is turning.