Sustainability means more than ‘going green’

Following COP26, the global business events industry seeks to move beyond ‘business as usual’ to build a regenerative future.

Destinations and event professionals are showing keener intent than most industries to take a lead on the climate change debate and contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).
Destinations and event professionals are showing keener intent than most industries to take a lead on the climate change debate and contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). Photo Credit:United Nations Framework

The dust has barely settled on COP26, the UN climate summit held in November, but the event has already generated its fair share of controversy. The overwhelming response appears to be one of frustration over hope, with many saying talks have failed to deliver action at the scale and urgency required to make a real difference to climate change.

The impact on host city Glasgow, however, appears to be markedly more positive — with Aileen Crawford, head of tourism and conventions at Glasgow Convention Bureau (GCB), saying there are numerous COP26 legacy outcomes for the city.

“Much work has been done by GCB and Visit Scotland with industry partners to encourage hospitality businesses to gain third-party sustainability accreditation, using two established bodies — Green Tourism and Green Key,” she said. “GCB has subsequently done a survey among members, asking if COP26 has inspired them to get sustainability accreditation or/ and improve their practices, and 65% answered positively.”

Another initiative is The Glasgow Declaration, launched at COP26 by Visit Scotland and The Travel Foundation, a call for stakeholders to commit to a decade of climate action in tourism.

Crawford also points to numerous online educational tools that have been introduced in the run-up to COP26, such as the Go Greener Toolkit, which identifies and promotes sustainable businesses across the city to conference organisers, assistance with measuring carbon footprint and resources to help plan hybrid conferences.

Advancing sustainability

Destinations and event professionals are certainly keener than most industries to take a lead on the climate change debate and contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).

Global trade body the Joint Meeting Industry Council (JMIC) for example is facilitating a net-zero carbon events pledge for the industry, launched in September, signalling an industry commitment to carbon neutrality and creating the alignment and practical processes required to support this.

James Rees, JMIC president, said that the industry has two primary roles to play as a driver of the climate change agenda: first, as a strategic tool for all governments, institutions, and industries to drive developments and implementations in a sustainable way (COP26 itself being a good example) and secondly as a sector that must drive development towards carbon neutrality and net-zero carbon for the sake of its own future as a sustainable industry.

“Within weeks, this [initiative] has grown to be the most global and the most inclusive collaboration ever seen in our industry on this issue — with leading organisers, venues, association and service providers joining in and signing up. We already have more than 200 supporters,” Rees said.

He added that there are a wide range of sustainability goals to address and many different ways to pursue these.

“This pursuit will be driven by the increasing expectations of clients and communities for enhanced sustainability and as part of a “license to operate” as an industry in our respective communities,” he said. “Creativity and the sharing of experiences and ideas will produce the best results, particularly where this takes place within an agreed framework.”

JMIC president James Rees, and CEO of Positive Impact Fiona Pelham.
JMIC president James Rees, and CEO of Positive Impact Fiona Pelham. Photo Credit: United Nations Framework

Changing the legacy narrative

Fiona Pelham is CEO of global not-for-profit Positive Impact, which provides education, engagement and collaboration to create a sustainable event sector.

“We keep falling back on the ‘environment’ and ‘green’; it’s an area we cannot win on because there is a negative impact from events, so it’s important to look at how the events industry can advance ‘sustainability’,” she said. “Some of the key initiatives to advance that narrative is making net zero carbon commitments, however we also need to go beyond carbon, thinking of human rights considerations.”

Pelham believes it’s time to change the narrative around the legacy impact of events. “What if we changed the whole system and process for an event by asking from the start, rather than after the event: ‘Who could this event impact’, ‘how can it advance SDGs and ‘What can the legacy be?”.

How does Asia measure up?

The Global Destination Sustainability Movement, which aims to enable destination management professionals to ‘create flourishing and resilient places to visit, meet and live in’, recently revealed its GDS-Index for 2021.

This evaluates four key areas: a city’s environmental strategy and infrastructure; its social sustainability performance; industry supplier support and the destination management organisation’s strategy and initiatives. Gothenburg in Sweden topped this year’s results, with Melbourne placing 11th and Sydney 15th; while no Asian destination was in the top 20, there are plenty of best practices coming out of the region.

The GDS-Movement is working with associations and DMOs to improve sustainability practices and education.
The GDS-Movement is working with associations and DMOs to improve sustainability practices and education. Photo Credit: United Nations Framework

Guy Bigwood, managing director of the GDS-Movement said: “We witness a constant increase in [South Korea’s] Goyang’s total performance since they started with the GDS-Index, and they’re currently leading the region thanks in large part to their collaborative sustainability strategy development, and their efforts in encouraging suppliers to adopt sustainability policies and certifications.”

Sapporo in Japan is also a leader in implementing impactful strategies. As an SDGs Future City known for its active measures to combat climate change and achieve the UN SDGs, Sapporo uses data and an SDG framework to monitor the impact and legacies of its events.

The GDS Movement also points to how Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau has developed an outstanding training and certification programme for local suppliers to build their sustainability capacity, while Malaysian destination Sarawak boasts a business events legacy programme, called ‘BESLegacy programme’, focused on generating positive social and economic outcomes for the local community.

When it comes to progress within Asia, the GDS Movement shows that the path has been made harder by the pandemic, for some more than others. Overall, though, it shows there is positive recovery and progress for most destinations, with the average destination’s performance returning to pre-pandemic levels. And while some will have a longer road to recovery, the GDS movement says we are seeing more innovation and creativity with destinations charting a new path forward that’s moving from ‘business as usual’ to building a regenerative future.

If the global business events sector is to meet UN SDGs, it will need to further alignment and participation from a whole range of participants, throughout both the supply chain and diverse users. As the GDS Movement suggests, the biggest opportunities destinations must build on is to continue improving the quality of their sustainability strategies by including monitoring and reporting for social and environmental impact.



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