Andrew Harrison, director of the Event Supplier and Services Association (ESSA), says that event sustainability should be approached as a journey not a race, and believes that trade bodies have an important role to play in helping members embark on that process…

The pandemic has given the events industry an opportunity to rewrite the rulebook. Taking a break from live events has allowed us the time and space to innovate, to think differently about the way we do things, and build back better.

Building back better means building back more sustainably. Before the emergence of COVID-19, climate change posed the biggest threat to humanity. That threat remains strong and a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that time is running out and urgent action is needed to curb global warming before it’s too late.

As a major contributor to global carbon emissions, the events industry has a duty to act now to protect the future of our planet. Sustainability is no longer a nice to have, it’s a must have.

Making the sustainable choice is rapidly becoming one of the main deciding factors of all decision makers. There is no doubt that having a sustainability policy in place will be an integral part of all event briefs in future, if not part of UK law. Event suppliers can help organisers make better choices by incorporating sustainability into their business strategies, which in turn makes them a more attractive choice for potential clients.

Recognising the increasing importance of sustainability, ESSA introduced a comprehensive sustainability module to the ESSA Accredited scheme last summer. The module 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 for the supply chain currently available, and it is offered to all full ESSA members as part of their membership.

No matter how far along the sustainability journey you are – and it’s important to remember it’s a journey not a race – it is critical you act now. The difficulty our industry faces is that there’s almost too much information out there with regards to the roadmap that companies should be taking, so it can be confusing to know where to start.

It’s easy to get lost in the race to carbon net zero because we don’t refine it down enough or articulate the journey for companies to be able to embark on that process. There is no one size fits all approach, and the journey will be different depending on whether you are an organiser, supplier or venue. This is where trade bodies and associations can help – we all have a role to play in guiding our members within the different areas of the market that we look after.

ESSA believes the most important thing is to set goals and measure progress. We must start measuring as it’s the only true way of defining whether we are on target. The ESSA Sustainability module is designed to help with setting goals and understanding what to do within a set framework of bite-sized elements, all of which are scalable over time. It encourages companies to build sustainability into their processes and practices 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.

Sustainability is clearly on everyone’s agenda, but with many event organisers and suppliers still in recovery mode and resources already stretched due to the current talent shortage, it is often not as high as it could or should be. But we are all in this together and we must collectively take it seriously to future proof our industry. If we want to be recognised by government and to be seen as an industry which is attaining best practice across the board, sustainability must now be a top priority.

Published in the April/May issue of Hospitality & Events North magazine

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