Turn Sustainability Into Member Benefits and Engagement

Climate change impacts are causing many associations to push harder on sustainability. At this year’s IMEX America in Las Vegas, sustainability was a focal point for attendee education and engagement.

Last week, I was struck by the words of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, who spoke with intense emotion at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City.

“How dare you?” she asked world leaders, calling out a lack of will and collective action necessary to address climate change issues that her generation will soon be forced to confront.

Her video remarks almost instantly went viral around the world, and those words are not just for politicians’ ears. They’re also for business leaders—association executives included—who might think they’re advocates for the environment but could be doing more to promote sustainability.

Preserving the planet for future generations is certainly the right thing to do, but promoting sustainability can also serve associations’ own interests by providing opportunities for new member benefits and new ways to engage their communities.

For a story in the fall issue of Associations Now (due out later this month), I spoke to association professionals who are reshaping their meetings with a focus on sustainability. Their work demonstrates that in both big and little ways, associations can add more environmentally friendly elements to an annual meeting, which typically results in a lot of physical waste and is responsible for heavy travel-related carbon emissions.

At last month’s IMEX America in Las Vegas, where about 14,000 attendees and 3,500 exhibitors gathered, sustainability took center stage. “We encourage participants to join in by giving them guidance about what they can do” to promote sustainability at the event, says Chief Operating Officer Nalan Emre. “Along the way, we reward and recognize people and organizations making a significant commitment to the environment.”

Emre shared a few sustainability programs that other associations can implement at their meetings and use as member benefit and engagement opportunities.

Guides and tours. To encourage exhibitors and attendees to think about how they can act in more sustainable ways, IMEX America has a sustainable exhibiting guide [PDF] and offers educational tours and demonstrations throughout the meeting. “What’s really important is to inspire action and engage all stakeholders frequently,” Emre says. “For our meetings, we’re also having pre-event and post-event conversations to help people understand the impact of their collective actions.”

Waste reduction. IMEX America commits to an annual waste diversion goal. Last year, the meeting hit its highest waste-diversion rate ever—93 percent of event materials were either recycled, composted, or upcycled (donated for secondhand use).

IMEX also incentives attendees to bring their own reusable items to the event. “At this point, I think people are pretty much used to bringing their own shopping bags or water bottles with them as they go,” Emre says. “Why not incentivize that within your membership too?” In Las Vegas, attendees who brought a water bottle or mug received free water and coffee refills in the expo hall—an easy way to inspire action.

Green squad. Associations can support sustainability by adding language to vendor contracts that require more environmentally responsible action from business partners.

For IMEX America, a staff “green squad” analyzes everything that vendors provide for the meeting. But you could broaden the green squad to include members on a volunteer committee, Emre says. “That group can specifically ask about green services and materials if it’s something like an RFP,” she says. “Or for an existing supplier, they can suggest, advise, and lead from the front more proactively.”

Have you engaged members on sustainability efforts? What types of member benefits do you offer that double as an opportunity to protect the environment? Post your comments below.

(Handout photo)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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