How to Talk With Vendors About Environmental Goals

Standards and certifications could help to keep your event more sustainable—but so could close collaboration with vendors, according to sustainability experts in the meetings and association spaces.

With virtual events inherently more sustainable than their in-person equivalents, the return to in-person events is bringing the conversation around meetings and sustainability to the surface again.

The problem is, events are complex beasts. For an event to be environmentally friendly, it’s not enough for just your organization to be on board. Your vendors and partners need to help keep you on track with sustainability measures, too. Here are some tips to ensure that your association and your vendors are working together on broader goals.

Build With Collaboration in Mind

Collaboration may seem like a secondary element. But it leads the Events Industry Council’s list of principles for sustainable events, which encourages organizers and suppliers to “share responsibility” for sustainable practices.

Mariela McIlwraith, CMP, CMM, MBA, EIC’s vice president for sustainability and industry advancement, said that the work of building sustainable events doesn’t sit with any one stakeholder.

“Event organizers, supplier partners, education providers, and participants all have roles to play in achieving the sustainability goals for an event,” she said.

Encourage Training for Your Vendors

Not every vendor is going to have significant experience with sustainability efforts, which isn’t necessarily a problem. McIlwraith argues that “encouraging suppliers that are getting started on their sustainability journey is also an important way that event professionals can help accelerate change.”

Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact, a U.K.-based nonprofit that provides sustainability resources to meeting planners, points to the work adjacent to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Race to Zero—a global campaign encouraging zero-carbon approaches across sectors, including events. Positive Impact runs an accelerator program built around UNFCCC constructs, with a focus on small to medium businesses.

“Any part of the event supply chain can make a net-zero commitment,” Pelham said.

EIC also offers educational resources, including its Sustainable Event Professional Certificate program, which offers a set of online courses on business operations, event logistics, and social impact.

That said, mixing in vendors experienced in sustainability still makes sense. “Working with suppliers that have a proven track record in sustainable practices is always helpful,” McIlwraith said.

Keep Close Watch on Your Vendors

Alison Heppenstall, chair and founder of Climate Action for Associations, a year-old group that encourages a stronger role for associations in climate-change discussions, said it is important to keep an eye on vendors to ensure that their promises match what they’ve told you—as the lower costs of a non-sustainable event can prove tempting.

“Just running a sustainable event means more expensive events,” Heppenstall said. “So I think there needs to be a lot of scrutiny among suppliers also cashing in and maximizing their green credentials as well.”

Get Creative

If a potential roadblock emerges, it’s important to be willing to think creatively about ways to get past those challenges.

McIlwraith said it is important to keep your vendors involved in these conversations.

“Always start with the goal in mind and then work together with your supplier partner to ideate the possibilities,” McIlwraith said. “For example, if your goal is to reduce food waste, discuss what is feasible locally, and look at all the ways that you can do this, from menu and service-style selection to minimize food waste, to education for the participants, to how to safely manage food to increase the opportunity to donate, and later to composting.”

Set Goals, and Measure Them

Goals are a key factor in tracking the sustainability success of any event. One of the most common standards for goal-setting is ISO 20121, which aims to set event standards for any organization, along with EIC’s own Sustainable Event Standards.

“Look at setting clear, measurable goals with your stakeholders, and then share the stories broadly to help others to be inspired and learn from what you’re doing,” McIlwraith said.

Positive Impact’s Pelham added that associations and vendors alike should be working toward a net-zero commitment under the U.N. standards.

“We all recognize the value of connecting and being face to face,” Pelham said. “But we also need to recognize that the world is changing, and we need to measure and understand our impact.”

(nndanko/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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