Raising awareness of sustainability issues at your event is important. But stopping there may not be the best approach. You may want to check out Shawna McKinley’s article about how a short-sighted strategy can do more harm than good.
I’m going to go out on a limb and take a guess that most of us didn’t know who Kony was on Monday. But 6 days later, it’s hard to find a single person who’s not aware of the man.
As often happens with these kinds of things, social awareness of an important issue arcs on an expected path. Mad trending of the topic. Water cooler conversation. Broader awareness. Critique. Uncertainty and intellectual conflict about everything from the integrity of efforts to what should be done to really solve the problem. And possibly by next week Kony will fade into the background as the social speed of awareness-based advocacy slows and becomes old news. Those people who are devoted to the issue (and not the figurehead of Kony) will continue to work hard to solve it, while the rest of us will move on, feeling satisfied we helped raise the profile of an important issue that may bring a man and others like him to justice.
On March 8 The Atlantic published a critical piece on the idea that awareness-building about complex issues like war crimes is a very dangerous practise. Arguing that yes, it’s important to care about issues, but that we are all kidding ourselves if we think buying and wearing a wristband will solve much of anything.
In reading the article I can’t help but think about how a similar point needs to be made about sustainable events. Evidence suggests we sometimes assume sustainable events are about awareness-building. That getting the issue on people’s radar is the problem that needs to be solved. If people know, they’ll do better, or so we think. So, we provide hotel room guests with a choice for linen reuse and assume water will be conserved when the towels are hung up. We include a session in our conference agenda about sustainability and hope attendees will be inspired to make better decisions. We add a clause to an RFP to encourage suppliers share their sustainable practises so we can hopefully leverage more value from a purchase decision by balancing the triple bottom line, instead of just a financial one. All important steps to say to our stakeholders: these are things we care about and we think you should too.
Evidence also suggests we place a lot of importance on the experiential aspects of sustainable events. We provide opportunities for attendees to participate in volunteer projects. We feel good contributing to something important like delivering lunches to the homeless, planting trees or enabling a book drive for school children. We actively communicate what we’re doing and embrace the ‘feel good’ nature of these programs. They often lead to a good photo opportunity to share with the world and indeed may help, even if only for a moment. All important steps to say to our stakeholders: our commitment to sustainability is visible and adds to your experience of our event in a way that we hope also makes you feel like you’re contributing to a greater good.
Although they provide benefits, event sustainability initiatives that only focus on awareness-building and attendee experiences are dangerous for four reasons:
They reassure us we’re addressing sustainability while enabling us to avoid attending to other highly complex social and environmental issues in the event industry. Take food, for example. I’ll be the first to admit that diving into improving food sustainability at your event is an incredibly intimidating undertaking. It touches on everything from fair labour to energy, carbon, water conservation, ethics, genetic modification, packaging, toxic pesticide use, human health and beyond. It’s very attractive to take the path of least resistance when faced with the option of diving into these complicated topics by researching and changing your supply chain. Eliminating bottled water, providing a sponsored tumbler and encouraging attendees to reuse it seems a much easier way to check off the sustainable food box.
Posted with the permission of Shawna McKinley. To read the entire post, please go to http://greendestinations.blogspot.com/2012/03/wristbands-dont-solve-war-crimes-or.html
(Photo by cogdogblog)