As the world continues to see irrefutable signs of climate change, focusing on sustainability and creating carbon-neutral events will be imperative for organizations moving forward. Our clients expect it, and it’s the right thing to do for our world and future generations. However, where to start when it comes to creating sustainable events is not always clear.
The Northwest Event Show is committed to creating more sustainable events, in fact, we’ve gone carbon neutral to take action. But we know it’s difficult to start, so to help event professionals everywhere take the first steps to become more sustainable, we sat down with two experts from the upcoming Northwest Event Show’s opening session for advanced ticket holders, Sustainability – What does the word really mean?.
The dynamic pair shared insights into how they are personally working towards more sustainable events, the biggest challenges in our industry, and tips to become more sustainable. But, before we get into it, let’s learn about our two experts!
Lou Elliot-Cysewki, Environmental Activist and CEO of Coolperx
Lou Elliot-Cysewki is the passionate CEO of Coolperx, a brand merchandise company that offers gifts and experiences that truly make your people feel valued and are sustainably and ethically produced. Her enthusiasm to deliver unique and creative experiences for her clients and her attention to detail are unmatched.
Lou was raised by a first-generation Japanese-American single mother living modestly. Her upbringing shaped her in many ways and is one of the driving forces behind her environmental activism.
Lou shares, “I was never fully able to understand waste because we couldn’t afford to waste much of anything. Once I reached a place in my life where I had more resources, the lack or limited correlation between wealth and happiness was readily apparent to me. I saw how easy it was to accumulate unnecessary and meaningless items and get swept into a world of competition and anxiety. This felt like a problem that didn’t match my values and was in direct conflict with my personal experiences.”
Emily Ellen Anderson, Creative Business Coach and Founder of Lola Creative
Emily Ellen Anderson is a creative business coach and founder of Lola Creative, an event design and production company that practices what Emily calls “Honorable Events.” In essence, it’s where powerful human connection and the good created by your event are not overshadowed by the waste the event produces.
To Emily, sustainability is a matter of personal alignment with her values. As a trained landscape architect and overall nature enthusiast, she is tuned into the natural cycles of growth and usage. She understands how certain practices throw a monkey wrench into these natural cycles. Emily shares, “ceremony, celebration, and ritual are essential to humans and organizations. I love a maxed-out event with a big wow factor, but there’s a way to do it that fits into a natural cycle.”
How They are Making Their Brands More Sustainable
Emily’s brand, Lola Creative, has the motto “the good created from your event is not shadowed by the waste it generates.” This motto drives everything Lola Creative does, “every event we do is low waste, that means we will not use foams, styrofoam, some acrylics, and materials that don’t meet certain sustainability requirements.” In addition, Emily and her team look into whether materials are made from renewable resources, recyclable, how long they will last, and whether they are worth the impact.
Lou’s brand, Coolperx, was founded with sustainability in mind. However, it was not easy. Lou explains, “There was no universally agreed-upon definition, let alone one for the promotional products industry that is built on a “spray and pray” mentality for corporate SWAG, resulting in about $24 billion in annual waste. We had to define sustainability for our entire industry. We do this with three values, low harm, high ethics, and covetable, keepable products and activities.”
After creating their company values, Coolperx identified metrics and KPIs to move the industry forward. To do this, they developed a process called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Lou explained how the process was created, “we identified dozens of other KPIs that products should be scored on in addition to carbon intensity, including keepability, marketing, and circularity – resulting in a proprietary Climate Cost Score. Then, we share this data with our clients to shift to more sustainable ways of operating.”
The Challenges Our Industry Faces With Sustainability
Two significant challenges emerged when we asked this question. The common thread between Emily and Lou’s answers is that material items often miss the mark and that meaningful experiences that create genuine connections are what will make your event impactful. Let’s see what the pair had to say below.
High Impact Designs and Sustainability Are Not Opposites
Emily states “There is a trend to see how over the top events can get. The industry has confused big visual impact with meaningful experience. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have high-impact designs, high impact and sustainability are not opposites.” You can have both as long as you make sure that what you are using is responsibly sourced and low impact.
We’re Too Focused on Short Term Solutions
Another problem we’ve seen time and time again was addressed by Lou, “The industry focuses on short-term solutions… the principle of keepability is obsolete.”
She goes on to explain that often these short-term solutions arise out of fear, “Event professionals often share with me that in their preparation for an event or trade show, they feel anxious, compelled to conform and compete with other exhibitors. Sometimes they’ll try to compensate by offering a ton of cheap plastic items that will go straight into landfills.” Lou uncovers a big problem with this strategy “This is a complete disconnect from their sustainability pledges and creates brand liabilities like greenwashing and low retention rates.”
Misleading Statements and Greenwashing
Sustainability is not a buzzword but sometimes is used as one. To truly create a sustainable event, you need to understand what is and isn’t effective at reducing your event’s impact. Lou explains further, “at Coolperx, our scoring system includes a variety of criteria including greenwashing, third-party verifications, and misleading statements. Intentional or unintentional greenwashing prevents companies seeking branded SWAG from making sustainable purchasing decisions.” And we agree, greenwashing is a disservice to the events industry and the clients we serve.
Lou explains the dangers of greenwashing “greenwashing, in a nutshell, is sabotage. It stifles innovation and the ability to scale to help others and accelerate impactful solutions. Furthermore, suppliers engaging in false narratives or blatant greenwashing are not only liable for their actions and the damage inflicted across the value chain, they directly threaten stakeholder relations for companies doing business with them.”
Opportunities For a More Sustainable Industry
We’ve covered the challenges, and while there are many there are also plenty of opportunities to create more sustainable events! Below are opportunities that can make an impact today.
When It Comes to Swag
Swag and tchotchkes are an easy way and big opportunity to really make an impact fast (plus your guests won’t immediately toss swag this way). Lou explains, “At Coolperx, we see brand merchandise as the low-hanging fruit for companies to boost sustainability efforts. After all, it represents a $30 billion segment of the bigger corporate gifting industry with a huge environmental toll: typical SWAG is only kept eight months by recipients before it’s dumped straight into landfills! While this is true for any company in any industry, the event space is a huge consumer of SWAG. By pivoting towards contentious and sustainably-made products, organizers and participants alike can lower their environmental footprint while gifting items that represent their values in a meaningful, ethical way.”
Sustainable Design Is Just As Impactful
Emily reminds us that “sustainability doesn’t have to be boring.” At the end of the day, it’s all about connection “the events industry is the modern-day tradition maker, ritual keeper. Events are ceremonies. We have the opportunity to connect all the humans and make them feel.”
Emily furthers this concept “To lead a more sustainable event encourages event professionals to ask, “What will really matter here? What is the biggest impact?” Just answering that can cut down on a lot of unnecessary attention and product to areas that just won’t be memorable or cultivate that big connection.” By cutting down unnecessary products, you’ll reduce your event’s waste and have a purposeful event.
Sustainability is not always the cheapest option. You’ll need to budget accordingly so that you can reduce your carbon footprint at your event. Emily elaborates, “Sustainable materials and practices are not typically something you can ‘add-on’ with no budget impact once things are in motion.”
Emily explains why “it takes a lot of time to dismantle an event and make sure the recyclables are recycled, and the wood is reused. If that is not already built-in, just the financial expense of sorting that out will likely mean it all will go in the dump.” So be sure to budget for what it will take to properly dismantle your event in a responsible way.”
Final Thoughts: The Time to Pivot is Now
As event professionals, we must create a more sustainable industry. The world is counting on us. In addition, attendees expect businesses to practice sustainability. In fact, 75% of Gen Z and 79% of millennials want to buy sustainable/environmentally responsible brands.
Lou encourages everyone to make a move to be more sustainable now. As the climate crisis continues, we no longer have the luxury of waiting. “Today, being sustainable is a key comparative advantage for companies that claim meaningful environmental practices. Soon, it will be a ‘must-have.’ Companies reluctant to adapt to the changing marketplace will disappear for lack of demand, higher operating costs, and an overall obsolete business model. Don’t wait to pivot until it is too late. Your company and the Earth need you to do it now!”
Do you want to see these two brilliant minds live? Join us on March 1st, 2022, at the Northwest Eventshow, where Lou and Emily will join Jacque Aboubakr-Halstead, Marketing Strategist, and Traver Gooby of the Seattle Mariner, in our opening education session, Sustainability- What does the word really mean? Don’t miss this thought-provoking session that will give you actionable items you can immediately implement in your event business! Get your tickets here!