Let’s Get Real About Events: Carbon Neutral Does NOT Mean Sustainable

Carbon neutral is the latest buzzword taking the advertising world by storm. Although the term has dominated industry events, its impact is less impressive.

Many brands obtain this status through offsetting — meaning they match an event’s carbon emissions by contributing to other carbon-friendly projects. But the investment in the future doesn’t really offset the damage being done today.

Therefore, offsetting should be considered a minor piece of the puzzle — never the first step in a truly sustainable event process. Carbon reduction, not offsetting, should be considered at every step of the event planning process.

Where Does Your Carbon Footprint Stand?

To reduce carbon footprint effectively, businesses need first to measure their carbon impact as it stands. There are several solutions to measure your company’s carbon footprint, just as many companies offer these kinds of solutions. When considering your impact on events, many of these carbon costs fall under the third scope — put simply, they are costs you don’t have direct control over. These include how attendees travel, the carbon cost of graphics, or food waste. Even with that in mind, there are ways that you can cut down on these emissions — it all begins with proper measurement.

Marketers should think carefully about measuring their event’s carbon emissions because this will establish the baseline from which they can work to diminish their negative environmental impact. Consider each of the scopes of carbon emissions. Everything from your choice of venue to your mode of transportation should be taken into account.

Reducing Your Impact 

Once marketers know the carbon footprint of their events, they can begin to determine ways to cut down on their carbon impact. The amount most companies will be able to reduce will depend on whether they are hosting or attending an event and the amount of elements under their control. 

However, a major factor in all events is travel. Givsly determined that 95% of its carbon footprint was attributed to travel after their Cannes activation. While flying is a quick and convenient means of transportation, the carbon cost is immense — after all, the airline industry is responsible for 2-3% of global carbon emissions each year. 

Companies should consider using a train system, where possible, and utilizing public transportation instead of taking a cab. When airline travel is unavailable, consider flying economy, as this will minimize your carbon impact. Or, consider diminishing your team’s onsite attendance by 10% a year to get closer to a better environmental impact. 

For owned events, marketers have much greater control. While carbon reduction may sound like an expensive process, it only costs more in time than in dollars. And, once you start thinking about carbon reduction, it gets easier and quicker. Adding in time for this research is an essential step in your planning process — below are a few ways you can reduce carbon emissions throughout key elements of your event: 

Venue: Take the time to explore event spaces in the area you’ll be hosting. Some spaces may even have their own carbon-reducing measures — such as not allowing for disposable tableware or utilizing energy-efficient lighting. For company-sponsored events, consider where you are in relation to your attendees and consider selecting a venue easily accessed by public transportation services.

Catering: Be conscious of your catering decisions to greatly diminish your carbon impact. On average, meat-based meals have a 14 times higher environmental impact than meatless ones. Plenty of catering services offer affordable vegetarian and vegan options — and these options are often less expensive than a steak dinner for a room of attendees.

Signage and Displays: Physical signage remains one of the most popular means of advertising at industry events; however, flashy flyers and other physical displays exact an environmental toll. Marketers should consider utilizing digital signage — and in events where this isn’t possible, look into recyclable options. For example, many companies offer sustainable signage programs through recyclable materials that are recycled again after a sustainable activation.

Swag: Consider your policy on company swag. While this marketing tactic is popular and pervasive at events, data suggests that as many as 40 to 60 percent of people do not want disposable swag items. Removing them from your space can vastly cut down on an event’s carbon cost and save your company their cost of production.

These tactics serve as a starting point to reduce the carbon impact of your company’s events. Accurate measurement should be obtained for additional carbon costs, such as the venue’s lighting or employees’ transportation. Then, after the event, you can look into offsetting options for this unavoidable impact.

Carbon offsetting is convenient, but be wary of partners who overly label activations as carbon neutral. The greenwashing phenomenon is still in effect across the event space, and words don’t always translate to action. Marketers and event organizers must begin implementing simple strategies to drive the industry towards truly reducing its carbon footprint.