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Have Sustainable Meetings Been Put on the Backburner?

Shutterstock illustration of woman with Earth on her head.

Earth Day, observed globally every April 22 since 1970, celebrates the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement, but after more than a year of COVID-19 pandemic chaos, the perennial hot topic of meetings sustainability has receded as the massive disruption has roiled the meetings and events industry. 

But while meeting, convention and event cancellations, travel and gathering restrictions and the daily drumbeat of the toll of the virus may grab the headlines, many planners and facilities are quietly working to maintain the momentum and mindshare sustainable meetings has enjoyed with event stakeholders.

Leading sustainable meetings authority MeetGreen, led by Founder and President Nancy J. Zavada, has estimated that the typical conference attendee produces 4.1 lbs. of waste per day at an event, and more than half of that winds up in a landfill. Do the math, and the numbers may startle you: For a three-day event with 1,000 attendees, waste weight equivalent to 2.6 compact cars winds up at the dump. 

[Related: 10 Easy Ways to Boost the Sustainability of Your Event]

How One Virtual Event Cut Down on Waste 

What remains to be seen is how the dominance of virtual events—the only meetings and events game in town for more than a year—will translate into less waste generated by the industry. 

Nancy Zavada, MeetGreen
Nancy Zavada, Founder & President, MeetGreen

MeetGreen points to statistics it collected from the 2020-2021 annual Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association (PNCWA) meeting, which was transformed to the virtual environment and renamed the PNCWA Virtual Summit Series 1-6. 

Compared to its last in-person event, held in 2019 in Portland, Oregon, the 20-hour program registered the following waste reduction statistics, according to MeetGreen: Total CO2 emission savings were 74,239 KG (163,669 lbs.) of CO2e, equivalent to eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions from an average passenger car driven 184,216 miles, or more than 9.4 million cell phones charged. 

To help meeting and event planners sustain their green meetings efforts in whichever form their events take, a number of free sustainable meetings tools are available on the website of MeetGreen, including: 

Where Have Sustainable Meetings Been? 

To mark Earth Day, Meetings Today touched base with Zavada, as we’ve done for a number of years, to get her perspectives on the state of meetings industry sustainability in a wildly unstable pandemic environment. 

Following is an Earth Day Q&A with Zavada: 

Meetings Today: Meetings and events sustainability was always in the mix as an industry concern before the pandemic. Are you worried the issue has faded into the background, and what message do you have for the industry regarding the importance of “green meetings?” 

Nancy Zavada: Every time there is an external force (economic crisis, pandemic, etc.), I expect the industry to abandon sustainable practices. Each and every time, I have been proven wrong because, simply, green meetings make good business sense. I am happy to be proved wrong!  

What have you learned about sustainability and the meetings industry since the onset of the pandemic? 

Happily, there is a heightened awareness of environmentally responsible meetings. Many planners have taken time during this pandemic to educate themselves and learn how important sustainable events are to their younger audience, especially. Many venues have used this "downtime" to ensure their plant operating systems are the most energy- and cost-efficient possible. Virtual technology has quickly become more sophisticated. This is a win-win for the environment.  

How can meetings and events sustainability be improved in the post-pandemic environment? 

It will be vital for meeting organizers to understand the health and safety implications of every decision they make in the future. Many of these are also the most sustainable alternative. A word of caution, though, don't be tempted to make choices that may "look" safer without a clear understanding.

[Infographic: MeetingGreen's Keys to Sustainable & Safe Meetings]

Do you think companies that have renewed commitments to reducing their carbon footprints will use virtual meetings as a way to stay true to that mission? 

Yes, I do think organizations are reevaluating their meetings in line with their corporate mission to reduce their carbon footprint. This isn't to say they will only hold meetings virtually, but there may be some meetings that are equally efficient online.  

Everyone understands the importance of meeting face to face, and I believe those events will be even better experiences because our participants won't be so road-weary all the time.  

The pandemic has forced change for all of us. Virtual technology has developed rapidly in response and is now a much better product. Change is often difficult in this industry, but I urge event organizers to use every possible tool to convene people safely, with increased accessibility, and with exciting, innovative experiences.

Read Next: An Earth Day Sustainability Checklist for Green Venues 

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About the author
Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.