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From 0-2030: the race is on

Danielle Ward, founder of Reward Events, explores how the events sector can accelerate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)

Sustainability has been on the future trends list for events for many years now and, while 2020 was set to be the year of sustainable events, Covid had other plans. Thankfully, as the event industry re-builds itself, sustainability has not been forgotten, and what was previously a ‘trend’, is now a strategic necessity.

One way the event industry is responding to this need, is by adhering to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, as a ‘universal call to action, to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030’.

There are 17 SDGs (see fig 1) ranging from reducing inequalities to climate change to innovation, highlighting the integrated environmental, social, and economic pillars of sustainability.

Each of the goals can be achieved through our event design and with an industry worth £84bn in the UK, capable of bringing together 1.5bn people each year across industry; the event sector has a unique opportunity at a strategic level, to not only talk about the SDGs, but showcase them in action.

Not sure where to start? Firstly, don’t try to attack all 17 goals at the same time, start with something you are passionate about or where you can have the biggest impact.

That might be ‘gender equality’ or ‘climate action’. And don’t forget the goals are all interconnected, so by achieving one, you will undoubtedly have ripple effects on others.

Here are a few ideas to get you going:

Research your venue

You can manage a lot of SDGs just by choosing the right destination for your event. Does the venue have good public transport links? Are the event spaces well ventilated with natural daylight or is there outside space you can use to build wellbeing into your agenda? Choose a green venue with sustainable credentials for their low energy use, water saving and waste management initiatives.

Sustainable venues will avoid using disposable service ware, source their food locally (and seasonally) to keep food miles down and may even grow their own produce on site. You will also find they run eco-programmes such as kitchen and herb gardens, bug hotels or tree planting and will work closely with their local area to support community projects. Many organisations are now prioritising destinations where their event will create a positive legacy.

Events shape sustainable cities and communities and there are locations up and down the country that rely on business and consumer events to fuel the local economy, employment and growth.

This is covered by SDGs: 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 17.

Rethink, Refuse, Repurpose

The event industry can sometimes be notorious for single-use items and the excessive waste streams it produces, so it is important to embed circularity into our event strategy and design. SDG 12 looks specifically at ‘Responsible Consumption & Production – in other words, what are you using for your event? What is it made of and what happens to it afterwards?

Firstly, look at everything you have in your event kit list and ask yourself ‘what value is it bringing?’ If you can’t answer that question with any conviction, ditch it. Have a digital-first approach and then look to repurpose existing stock or upcycle resources over virgin materials. We need to minimise our event lifecycle impact and can do this by removing single-use items, prioritising reusables, and designing out waste.

This is covered by SDGs: 1, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17.

Responsible Procurement & Planning

Goal 17 is titled ‘Partnerships for the Goals’ and I think one of the most significant as it connects everyone involved in your sustainability journey and highlights the importance of knowledge sharing and collaboration. Think about your supply chain, venues, and local communities as well as governments and industry bodies.

Consider your next event: who are you working with to bring it together? Do they share your sustainable goals and vision for the event? If not, find people that do. Educate them on the necessity of sustainable development and work with innovative companies that share your passion; there are lots out there. Where possible invest in responsible businesses local to your event – that can also drive goals 8, 9 and 11 and keeps transport emissions down, too (13).

This is covered by SDGs: 4, 8, 9, 11, 13, 16, 17.

Progress, not perfection

As with everything in sustainability, it is about progress not perfection and making small changes really makes a big difference. If you can achieve even a handful of the goals at your event, it is a huge step forward and can educate and inspire people to follow suit.

As event professionals we have a critical role to play in accelerating progress in sustainable development. It is so important to recognise the value of events and the long-reaching benefits they can have for driving behavioural and system change beyond the walls of a conference room.

Using the SDGs as a framework for our event planning goes a long way into helping the wider institutions such as industry leaders and governments achieve them, and also elevates the event industry as a sector with the power to accelerate sustainable progress.

Events have the unique ability to bring people together - to inspire, educate, foster innovation and, most importantly, create change and it is that collaborative commitment that we need, to drive the sustainability agenda forward to 2030 and beyond.

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