How Green is your conference?

William Thompson at Gallus Events looks at how reaching sustainability targets can be more easily said than done

Before the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the Scottish Green Party (SGP) had just over 1,000 members. Fast forward a year and membership is more than 9,000. For any membership body, this is a nice problem to have. However a 900% increase in paying members in one year would start to stretch any organisation’s annual conference – especially a sustainable one.

It was against this background that the SGP planned what would be their largest ever annual conference. Moving up from Napier University’s Craiglockhart Campus in 2014 to the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) was the first major decision.
Finding a suitable and affordable venue for any annual conference is a challenge. For an organisation which looks to minimise the environmental impact of its annual conference finding the right venue becomes even harder, especially in Scotland where organisers chose from a small pool of large venues.

Glasgow was the choice for the SGP in 2015, with many attendees arriving by bicycle, including co-convener Patrick Harvie.

So the attendees were playing their part. But what more could the SGP have done to limit the environmental impact? Having an online option and using some voting technology would have certainly limited the need for some to travel. A 32-page conference brochure seemed rather incongruous. Not providing lunch or refreshments meant the SGP had no influence over thousands of meals noting in that rather unwieldy pack: “Members are reminded that the catering lies completely with SECC and may not meet all our aspirations with regards to supplier, packaging and so on”.

Overall an event is only as sustainable as its venue. The SECC, “Scotland’s premier national venue for public events, concerts and conferences”, would rightly be expected to lead the way in sustainability. A statement by the venue’s management company says: “SEC Ltd is aware of the potential impact that the events staged at the SECC can have on the environment.” Beneath the statement was a list of 18 things that they will do to develop more environmental policies with the “objective of gaining formal accreditation”. It is an impressive list that would at first sight fill a sustainable organiser with confidence. However the list simply says things like “reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill” and “work with the Carbon Trust to assess and reduce SECC’s carbon footprint”. It doesn’t appear to have any targets, timelines or success to date, although the website is being relaunched in January 2016, presumably when the Green Policies document on the site dated 2008 may be updated?

It is of course easy to attend a Green Party conference and expect to attend the most sustainable conference you’ve ever experienced. The same can be said of events at the largest venues. But that would be to miss the underlying challenges faced by our industry in being more sustainable. Being Green in practice is hard even if you are Green in name. There is no doubt that the SGP would like to run the most sustainable event possible, as would many organisations, but that challenge seemed to have been too great for 2015. There’s little doubt that the SECC really wants to be Green.

Doing it properly (and defining what “properly” means) is the real challenge. Clearly running a sustainable/Green event comes with significant challenges for any organisation including our largest venues. It will be interesting to see how the UK conference industry approaches sustainability in 2016.
We need our guiding lights and I suggest organisations taking a serious run at managing a sustainable event in 2016 share their experiences with CN.

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