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Don't forget the jobs

Martin Fullard, editorial director, Conference News, says the quest for a sustainable industry must not ignore people’s livelihoods.

Before the pandemic, sustainability was something of a fringe subject. There were occasional panel discussions and well-meaning motives, but as a mainstream agenda point it never quite broke through.

Now, though, it feels like it’s all we talk about. That’s no bad thing, such is the scale of the matter at hand.

However, it is vital that we don’t forget what sustainability actually means. Clearly defined, sustainability refers to the ability to maintain or support a process continuously over time. In a business context, sustainability seeks to prevent the depletion of natural or physical resources, so that they will remain available for the long term. “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” according to the Brundtland Commission, the internet tells me.

Sustainability breaks down into three areas: environmental, social, and economic. It is the former – environmental – that gets the most attention, perhaps because it is the easiest to tackle and understand.

However, I do often worry that by encouraging fewer people to travel to events – often cited as a big carbon contributor – that we deprive destinations and their citizens of their livelihoods.

For context, pre-pandemic, Liverpool welcomed £3.3bn annually in direct spend from people attending events. This, in turn, accounted for 42% of business rates paid to the council and, most importantly, supported 38,000 jobs. It is a city which has been regenerated over the past couple of decades through events; just look at Liverpool Waterfront. It’s packed full of restaurants, hotels, museums, galleries, and of course, ACC Liverpool.

Fewer people travelling to events, or fewer in-person events happening in favour of virtual alternatives, might sound like an easy win in reducing impact, but it flies in the face of true sustainability if thousands of people are put out of work as a result.

Many destinations around the UK rely on event business for their local economies, but they are also agents of change. Knowledge exchange through association conferences and congresses are vital towards social betterment.

We hear often from those who believe that virtual events will become the main medium for conference delivery. They say virtual events are the true key to becoming a sustainable industry. Well, without the physical infrastructure of hotels, venues, suppliers and delegates, there isn’t an industry at all. I find this disregard for people’s livelihoods concerning, frankly.

The next time you are reviewing your sustainability policy, or deciding on how to run your event, double check how you stack up against the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 13, which is Climate Action, must feature prominently, but don’t ignore Goals 8 and 11: Decent Work and Economic Growth, and Sustainable Cities and Communities. How will your decision affect people’s lives? It’s all about balance.