We need no convincing that the event industry is wasteful. The Hong Kong Exhibition & Convention Industry Association (HKECIA) Annual Seminar held last Friday (7 December) heard that a typical conference attendee discards 1.89kg of waste each day, 1.16kg of which goes to the landfill.
Darren Chuckry, chairman of The Marketing Society, who shared those statistics, said that while many event planners have started practicing sustainability with a social conscience, that itself is not enough to make the plan sustainable (no pun intended). This is because, in reality, being sustainable may be the last thing on most people’s mind once work gets in the way.
“It has to come from the top down, [it] has to come from the board,” Chuckry emphasised. “There are two questions—who’s funding it and who’s doing it. If you can’t answer those questions, then you can’t have a sustainable plan.” Getting executive-buy in on green practices also means creating cross-functional teams—from the finance department to the project management team—to get everyone on board the initiative.
That being said, making events and exhibitions green involves working through a lot of nitty-gritty details, especially with regards to the adoption of sustainable practices. For instance, 628,000 litres of water can be saved if organisers opt to serve chicken instead of beef for a 500-person banquet, Chuckry said.
Lily Ng, CEO of Foodie Group, who spoke about sustainable event catering, also mentioned that there has been a call to take avocados out of the menu simply because the fruit requires a lot of water to grow.
The upside from all the sustainability talks is that consumers (attendees) are likely to be more knowledgeable about the issue than the organisers, Ng said. She mentioned the ‘protein makeover’ with the increasing preference for plant-based meat. “It’s true that if you choose to use ingredients from sustainable sources, then you do expect to have to pay a bit more." While that's the bad news, she said, the good news is the increasing number of options becoming available from brands such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Burger entering the supplier market in Hong Kong.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
Meanwhile, other back-to-basics common practices include encouraging delegates to download event apps and return their badges. Sianne Ryder, head of events, Asia, GSMA, the organiser of Mobile World Congress, shared that getting delegates to download event apps is one of the main challenges facing organisers.
A digital focused event such as MWC has an edge over others in that aspect; MWC Barcelona, which has been certified carbon neutral from 2014 to 2018, achieved a 68% unique usability and login for its app.
Ryder emphasised the importance of pre-event education, as well as incorporating digital badges on the app to encourage downloads. But the latter may give rise to a heavy app, which in turn leads to low downloads. “We are working really hard to lighten it up," she said. "[The app] can suck the battery very quickly and so with various cloud technology hosting it and having it offline at certain times is helping us with that.”
As for the good ol’ plastic badges, Ryder said badges at MWC Barcelona were made from recyclable plastic collected from previous shows, but added that recycling badges is a different issue altogether. For starters, the lanyards are not recycled for hygienic reasons, neither are the high-tech badges embedded with electonic chips, Ryder said. All things considered, these are good reasons to encourage adoption of digital badges. Ryder shared that MWC Shanghai next year will be going paperless.
Yet the large items used in exhibition booths are usually the biggest culprits that need to be recycled. Jan Bloome, managing director of ShowTex Hong Kong & China, pointed out that the lack of initiative to do so goes back to the bottom line. Organisers are more than likely to choose the cheapest solutions rather than pay for rental spaces to store these materials. "I don't think anyone doing rental houses in Hong Kong have a lot of drapes and these types of things. Sustainability is a mindset that goes a long way [here]," Blomme said.