The sustainability mirage

From left: International Society On Thrombosis And Haemostasis-ISTH's Thomas Reiser; Destination Canada's Virginie De Visscher; and Imex Group's Natasha Richards

Although sustainability is an embedded component in strategic planning, and nestled within frameworks, a closer inspection reveals a stark contrast between the rhetoric and the reality of implementation, discover speakers at the From Data to Strategy: Is Sustainability driving the selection of association meetings destinations? session at the 62nd ICCA Congress in Bangkok earlier this month.

Thomas Reiser, executive director, International Society On Thrombosis And Haemostasis-ISTH, told the audience while sustainability is part of the discourse, it often lingers as a secondary concern rather than a pivotal decision-making criterion.

From left: International Society On Thrombosis And Haemostasis-ISTH’s Thomas Reiser; Destination Canada’s Virginie De Visscher; and Imex Group’s Natasha Richards discussing the topic

“At one of our conferences, we gave delegates the opportunity to calculate their carbon footprint and offset it if they wished. Unfortunately, out of the 4,500 on-site participants, we only had 10 individuals who calculated their carbon footprint, and only one that offset it. There are similar medical meetings with just as incredibly low numbers,” Reiser shared.

Virginie De Visscher, executive director business events, Destination Canada, also brought up the topic of costing. She said: “In a survey that we conducted, we questioned who was willing to pay for sustainability, and unfortunately, it wasn’t a lot.”

The survey also revealed that 34 per cent of respondents relied on suppliers to meet their sustainability needs and only 21 per cent had sustainability embedded in their RFPs. This means that despite the nods toward sustainability in reports and statements, tangible efforts in the form of operational changes, are noticeably scarce.

Natasha Richards, director of impact & industry relations at Imex Group, shared that although the tradeshow organiser has been a sustainability champion for over a decade, they are “new to putting that into our strategy”.

She shared that in August 2023, the company “created a new business unit called Impact” to oversee Industry Relations, Advocacy and Advancement, as well as the company’s ESG strategy. A consultant which “rigorously holds us to account” was also hired.

“Something that’s super important to us beyond the success of tradeshows is to (develop) a thriving global events industry that is focused on positive change,” she noted.

One challenge is that there is a chasm between the adoption of sustainability within the organisational fabric, and the concrete steps needed to bring about significant and measurable change.

“Sometimes, organisations have lofty missions, visions, and values. However, this is usually at the decision-making level. When organising events, it’s not these people who are dealing with the execution. There’s a big disconnect between the two. (There is also) a disconnect between client expectations and reality,” elaborated Richards.

Hence, she encouraged the audience to take time to find out what organisations are doing so that there isn’t overlap. For example, the Joint Meeting Industry Council has a carbon-zero events initiative with over 400 signatories.

“This is bigger than all of us, and if we collaborate and share knowledge, that’s half the battle won.”