As the live events industry gets back on track post-pandemic, Andrew Harrison, director of the Event Supplier and Services Association (ESSA) argues that now is the time to make sustainability our number one priority, set achievable targets and get measuring…

Sustainability can be an overwhelming subject. Scary even. We know that urgent action is needed to curb global warming and prevent the extreme weather incidents that are increasing around the world. We are also aware that the exhibitions industry must play its part in protecting the future of the planet by reducing our footprint.

We’ve been talking for years about reducing, reusing and recycling to lessen our carbon footprint and minimise waste. But true sustainability goes much further than that. It requires taking a meticulous approach to all sustainability aspects, from reducing our environmental impact to tackling modern slavery, employee welfare and diversity and inclusion. Sustainability is no longer a nice to have, but a must have, and it should be embedded into every aspect of the way we do business.

It might sound a daunting prospect, but there are real business benefits to be had by taking sustainability seriously. Making the sustainable choice is rapidly becoming one of the main deciding factors of all decision makers. This means that companies that are intentional about incorporating sustainability into their business strategy are going to be the more attractive choice for potential clients.

While there is currently no legal requirement for small companies to be on a sustainable journey, I genuinely believe that all businesses within the UK will, sooner rather than later, be required by law to have sustainability policies and action plans in place, just like we do in health and safety. So rather than having it forced upon us, losing control of the conversation and seeing more stick than carrot, ESSA is encouraging event suppliers to get ahead whilst we still can and embark on that process now, if they haven’t already. That is why we introduced a comprehensive sustainability module to the ESSA Accredited scheme last summer and we are following this up with dedicated industry specific training for companies and individuals on this topic.

There is so much noise out there about the roadmap that event companies should be taking. A simple internet search on ‘event sustainability’ returns thousands of results and there are a multitude of initiatives from companies trying to monetise and provide consultancy services as well as various accreditation schemes. Though some are very worthwhile, external consultancy on this topic is an unenviable task.  Add to that the increasing pressure to be carbon neutral, and it can be difficult to know where to start. Achieving net zero carbon events should be our long-term goal, but it’s a journey with many steps that will require educating people and companies, sector wide cooperation, aligned goals and most crucially, measurement. This is where ESSA is leading, investing and supporting.

It’s easy to get lost in the race to net zero because we don’t refine it down enough or articulate the journey for companies to be able to embark on that process. This is where I believe trade bodies and associations such as ESSA can help – we all have a role to play in guiding our members within the different areas of the market that we represent.

The ESSA Sustainability module is designed to help with setting goals and understanding what to do within a set framework of bite-sized elements which are scalable. It takes an in-depth look at a companies’ policies, management, and processes relating to sustainability and then marks this against a set criterion, formed in line with ISO standards, current industry standards and the EIA Cross-associations supplier’s commitments.

It is the only third-party audited accreditation created specifically for the event supply chain – there are many frameworks and certifications available to organisers and venues – and it is offered to all full ESSA members as part of their membership. The module encourages participating companies to build sustainability into their processes by default and gives them a tailored roadmap for continuous improvement and recognition of that progress with four levels of accreditation: bronze, silver, gold and platinum leaf. Most importantly, it encourages them to measure, set targets against which they can be benchmarked, and is reviewed annually.

We cannot underestimate the importance of measurement as it is the only true way of defining whether we are on target. Only by being aware of our impact, can we strive to become a more sustainable industry. Our ambition is for the ESSA sustainability accreditation module to become the kitemark for sustainability within the supply chain for business events. I want it to become a currency for how companies trade on their sustainability. If we can get every supplier to business events reporting on an annual basis and measuring against the same standard, it helps create a level playing field.

There is a willingness among our members to embrace sustainability, but they are coming out of two of the toughest years in their existence and many are still in recovery mode post-pandemic. Sustainability is one of many must haves that event suppliers need to deliver on, from keeping within budget to managing risk and health and safety. It’s on everyone’s agenda, but with resources already stretched due to the current talent shortage, it is not yet as high as other deliverables on the list of must haves.

Whilst we appreciate the challenges our members are still facing to get back on track, sustainability must be our priority. If we want to be recognised by government and to be seen as an industry that is attaining best practice across the board, we must act now. We need to take responsibility and make sustainability an integral part of the way we do business to future proof our industry.

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