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Are virtual events sustainable?

Are virtual events sustainable?

Cameron Roberts looks into the sustainability credentials of virtual events, from carbon footprints to the impact on supply chains

The push towards sustainable events has been married with the move to more digital-focused conferences. As the two are so aligned in their respective life cycles, the question now remains – are virtual events sustainable?

There seem to be two distinct camps when it comes to this question: those who will espouse the virtues of not travelling or catering to attendees when going virtual; and those who will highlight server usage and its impact on the planet.

The often overlooked aspect of sustainability is the impact that events have on communities and supply chains. Events cannot be counted as sustainable if they are not actively working to maintain the businesses that support the industry. How virtual events contribute to this goal will be the defining factor of their ESG credentials going forward.

I spoke to platform experts and organisers with experience in virtual events to shed some light on the true impact of virtual events.

Footprints

Inescapably, when talking about sustainability, many will jump to an event’s carbon footprint, its energy usage, or the waste it produces. The effect that our industry has on the planet is something many organisers are looking to mitigate, with events such as COP26 actively working to reduce waste and reuse materials where possible.

There’s no doubt that on the surface a virtual event has sustainability chops that are hard for its live counterparts to keep up with. Reducing travel is a big plus for organisers to use in aligning with green governance and initiatives.

Vanessa Lovatt, virtual event evangelist, spoke about some of the research she had been a party to. She said: “What blew my mind, is that we found if you flip 25% of your attendees online, it actually reduces your carbon footprint by between 67 and 71%, which is a massive reduction for actually quite a small percentage of your attendees.

“A lot of the emissions at events are to do with the travel. Our data is based on average journeys. The distance, and the density of the time between journeys that individuals are making to get to events, is a real contributing factor for carbon emissions. The impact of things like food and beverage is massive, much bigger than we anticipated."

Carbon offsetting is a popular method of making an event carbon neutral. Event organisers therefore turn to virtual as a way of keeping track of the emissions they are producing. Ed Tranter, managing director, 73 Media, said: “There is no such thing as an easy carbon neutral event. Everything uses carbon. Everything creates waste, which in turn creates an impact, it just does. Because as soon as you step out your door, as soon as you switch on your computer, you are using energy, you are using resources.

“The thing that makes it easier with virtual events is that it’s much easier to measure your impact. Therefore, it is easier to offset it or be able to plan so that you can make your event carbon neutral.”

Knowing your own internal figures, around server usage, emissions at a production site and how much energy an organiser uses, is one thing. But the chain of emissions from attendees is nigh on unquantifiable from the platform perspective.

Lionel Scurville, virtual event expert, said: “The carbon footprint of an event will be much larger than it was before. There are all sorts of questions around the use of servers, and the drain on energy sources means it is leaving its mark, not just only where your event is taking place, but also now along that value chain.

“That carbon footprint now is going to be spread across many places globally. What we don’t know is that carbon usage when doing it virtually; that still is an unknown number at the moment.”

Measuring pains

One part of keeping a sustainable charter on track is being able to track how events are impacting the local areas and the environment. On this latter point, though certain aspects can be tracked, the individual footprint of attendees is something our experts thought was an impossibility.

A roadblock to this is the fact platforms and organisers have to rely upon the users themselves to submit data on what set-up they are using to join a virtual event or meeting.

Lovatt, expanded on this point. She said: “I think it’s something we’ve learned in the past two years. The average person is probably actually perfectly tech-capable, but doesn’t really think of themselves that way. So, if you were to ask people to fill in a form, share their personal tech set-up, they just wouldn’t do it. I mean, they really, really wouldn’t do it.”

It’s not just the virtual world that will be impacted by this. Scurville highlighted that in-person events are now intrinsically linked to the digital world, with mobile devices in constant use at events. He said: “You’re not going to get that carbon footprint information from Vodafone or the like, so you can only guess. Organisers have to extrapolate that kind of usage based on data they’re providing so you’re never going to know fully.”

People pleasing

It’s not all about the planet when it comes to sustainability, however. We in events have the unique power to impact local communities and the people in our industry, all of which feeds into the longevity and sustainability of the events sector as a whole.

Narmeen Kamran, managing director, Desert Island Events, said: “When we talk about sustainability, we’re always focusing on the planet. But sustainability is more than just carbon impact. It’s about people as well. I think even if you look into becoming a B Corp, it’s not just your sustainability towards the planet they look at, it’s also about your profits and your people.

“It’s all well and good that you might be working towards more sustainable practices in terms of recycling, reusable materials and all along that side for the planet. However, if that is coupled with your team working 12–16-hour shifts, bad mental health, lack of sleep, all of that is not sustainable.” This is the advantage live events have over virtual counterparts, that ability to impact the surrounding areas, to bring in business tertiary to the venue and the companies involved in delivering the actual event.

Kamran continued: “A recent client of mine did carbon offsetting for an event. They had people travel across the world. So, we’re talking 40-50 flights, long haul across the world, to London. Think about that for London – that is business for all the hotels and the supply chain that goes alongside them.”

There are no easy answers, there are questions around the sustainability of virtual events from multiple angles. Until we can effectively measure and track the footprint, both on the carbon level and the community level, of virtual events, there will always be a question mark over their impact.