40 virtual trade show ideas based on research and experience to get you inspired for your next event.
24 Sustainable Event Ideas for Greener Gatherings in 2021
Reduce your carbon footprint and run a spectacular eco-friendly event with these 24 sustainable event ideas.
Going green isn’t just a trend.
It’s a new way of life that the events industry has a responsibility to embrace.
These 24 ideas will show you that there’s no need to be intimidated by the concept of running a sustainable event. Being conscious of your carbon footprint is the first step towards making real substantive changes.
By the time you’ve gone through all of these ideas, you’ll be ready to run an event that will make everyone green with envy!
Sustainability is a key trend in the world of events right now. But it’s not easy to change learned habits or ways of working. It’s even more difficult to convince sponsors and audiences that doing good for the planet is good for business. One key point to keep in mind when thinking about running a green event is to rethink the term “sustainable;” instead, aim for regenerative.
The main difference? Sustainable implies maintaining or keeping afloat whereas regenerative brings with it the idea of growth, renewal and restoration. This circular approach to running an event is the best starting point for your planning process.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the 24 ways you can run a greener event and reduce your carbon footprint:
1. Go virtual!
Virtual events are one of the best options for organizers that are seeking to minimize their carbon footprint. According to research on the climate impact of an international virtual conference published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies in 2021, “if the conference had been held in person, flights alone would have generated 66 times the emissions as the entire virtual conference.” Factor in ground transportation, hotel and accommodation energy, food production, and venue energy, and you’ll see that running a virtual event cuts down on each of those carbon emissions significantly.
Keep in mind that the virtual format isn’t perfect and that it still does contribute to emissions. At the same conference cited in the study, “64% of emissions came from network data transfer, 19% from the pre-conference planning meetings, and 11% from computer use during the conference.” With that said, sustainability is not about being perfect. It’s about making conscious choices to make a positive change, and running a virtual event can be one of those choices.
If you’ve decided to go virtual, consider letting your attendees know how this change has made a positive impact by comparing each event’s sustainability achievements year over year. This is a great way to highlight and celebrate your event’s lower impacts for participants to see.
2. Go hybrid!
If going fully virtual is not a viable option for your event, going hybrid is the next best thing! Hybrid event design by its nature is a more sustainable event design. Whatever type of hybrid event you choose to run, having a portion of your audience joining virtually will naturally decrease your event’s carbon footprint.
According to research from the University of Cambridge, “Hybrid conferences, particularly if those participants from far away join the event online, combined with the promotion of land-bound travel for those attending in person—even if this means longer travel times than flying—could be a feasible compromise to reduce emissions by almost 90%”
Similar to virtual events, the decreased carbon emissions from air & ground transportation, hotel & accommodations, food production, venue energy, and material waste make hybrid events an excellent choice for sustainability.
How can you track and compare your carbon footprint to previous events? EventMB has a tip: “Divide the total emissions by the number of participants to compare emissions intensity from event to event. If the number exhibits a downward trend, the event is becoming more carbon-efficient.”
3. Select green event venues
A green event venue is one that actively works to become more sustainable and meet particular sustainability guidelines and benchmarks. One of the first things to look for in a green event venue is to see if they have sustainability certifications. Some examples of certifications to look for include: the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certification (LEED), IACC Green Star certification, the Building Owners and Managers Association Building Environment Standards (BOMA BESt), and more.
If sustainability certifications are not something available in the area you plan to hold an event, be sure to have a list of sustainable requirements you’d like for your venue to have, such as renewable energy sources, the use of reusable or compostable plates and utensils, a venue designed to maximize the use of natural lighting, and using best practices for energy efficiency such as motion-controlled light switches.
4. Select sustainable event vendors
To make the search for the ideal green event venue even easier, the team over at Happily has created a non-exhaustive and open-sourced database of sustainable event vendors with the help of their amazing network of event planners. Here you can find a list of sustainable vendors that have already been vetted by other eventprofs that you can contact for your event. If you’ve come across any sustainable event suppliers or vendors that you think deserve recognition, please add them to this open-source database and help fellow event planners go green!
5. Consider accessible venues
When it comes to choosing an event venue, even if the venue you’ve chosen satisfies the sustainability standards we’ve outlined above, it won’t matter if your attendees have to travel long distances and use inefficient transportation methods to get there. All of the effort you put into choosing a green venue will essentially be cancelled by all the carbon emissions your attendees will emit just to make it to your venue.
This is why choosing a venue that is easily accessible by public transport or a short plane or train ride would be ideal. If that isn’t possible because you’re hosting an international or regional event, choose a venue that is close to a transportation hub such as an airport or a central train station.
Another idea would be to commission eco-friendly hybrid or electric vehicles to shuttle your attendees to your venue. Communicate to your attendees where the pickup locations will be so that you avoid confusion and minimize the needs for your attendees to rely on using their own vehicle. Whatever you decide upon, the less difficulty and distance your attendees have to traverse when getting to your venue, the better.
6. Incentivize public transportation and carpooling
Having chosen a venue that is accessible by public transportation, be sure to actively communicate that to your attendees! If you don’t let your attendees know that there are readily available public transportation options for them, they are likely to overlook this and find their own means of commuting to your event.
Do the research for your attendees and post on social media or email a detailed map containing bus and train routes to all attendees. If the information is available, include fare prices or share a link that has a fare calculator.
If you’re unable to find a venue that has accessible public transportation options, consider incentivizing carpooling. Some incentives include offering: closer parking for carpools, discounted parking to carpools or discounted event tickets.
7. Use surveys to understand how people travel to your event
A pre-event survey that you send out to your attendees can tell you how far people are coming from to attend your event. By asking for something as general as a postal or zip code, you can get a more detailed picture of where the majority of your event participants are joining you from. This information can be useful when evaluating the accessibility of your next event venue.
A post-event survey can ask how attendees made it to your event (i.e. carpool, public transportation, private car, and so on). You can use this information to see if your messaging on public transportation options was effective or not, as well as see if your venue was truly as accessible as you had hoped. The answers to both these surveys can help inform your future decisions regarding accessibility, shuttle, or carpool options.
8. Choose a venue with LED lighting
Check with the venue that is hosting your event to see if they are using LED light bulbs in order to save a significant amount of energy while hosting your event. If they aren’t, this is an ideal time to encourage them to do so! Although the upfront cost is more expensive than incandescent bulbs, the long term benefits of using LED lighting far outweigh those initial costs. For example, LED bulbs can last up to 20-25 years, are 100% recyclable, are free of toxic chemicals, can operate in extreme temperatures, and the lifespan of the light bulb is not affected by the number of times you turn it on or off. Not to mention that LED lighting provides more consistent and brighter lighting for your event space, ensuring a better overall experience for your attendees.
Recycling is defined as the “action or process of converting waste into reusable material,” and is a classic green initiative that you should seek out when planning your event. With that said, not every venue or region has the same recycling practices or facilities.
When selecting a venue or caterers, make sure they have a proper recycling program in place. If they don’t, get specific about your recycling expectations and ask if they can recycle paper, cardboard, tins, glass, plastic, or cooking oil? Also, be upfront about pricing and ask if there is a cost associated with their recycling program that is outside of their regular operating costs. If they are limited by the regional recycling facilities, see if you can send the plastics to specialist recycling centers.
If your venue requires support with additional resources for recycling, use this as a sponsorship opportunity. For example, you can digitally advertise that a particular sponsor is helping you achieve your sustainability goals, or give sponsors prime (recyclable or electronic) signage around the venue showing that they are partnering with your event to reduce your carbon footprint.
According to the NRDC, “Composting is the natural process of recycling organic matter, such as leaves and food scraps, into a valuable fertilizer that can enrich soil and plants.” The NRDC also notes that composting is a highly effective way to help your event go green by reducing the waste stream and “provides a range of environmental benefits, including improving soil health, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, recycling nutrients, and mitigating the impact of droughts.”
BioCycle, a global authority on organics recycling, has a definitive composting guide for events that provides detailed information (including tips and best practices) to help you achieve your sustainability goals. The key takeaways are: match products to infrastructure, plan in advance, communicate goals and expectations to vendors and attendees, and help both groups along the way.
Diverting all your event’s compost isn’t always easy to achieve despite all your efforts. This is why event planners and their composters (if they’ve been outsourced) should have a debrief meeting after the event. There they should talk about what worked and what didn’t, and put that experience towards improvements for the next event.
11. Minimize single-use products
This is one of the simplest ways to decrease the carbon footprint of your event. Single-use products range include disposable dishes, cutlery, plastic straws, bags, balloons, coffee stirrers, food packaging, plastic beverage bottles, and so on. Their impact on the environment is substantial given that single-use plastics never break down completely, instead degrading and becoming microplastics that continue to wreak havoc on wildlife and the environment.
Consider having reusable, recyclable, or biodegradable tableware rather than plastic or styrofoam dishes. Also, when it comes to plastic beverage bottles, have sanitized glasses with an automatic beverage dispenser available instead. During sessions, provide speakers with a brand new fully-sanitized jug of water from which they can pour into their individual cups. Not only is this better for the environment, but it will lower your overhead costs since you are not paying to bring in materials for your event.
Understandably, reducing our reliance on single-use products is difficult in a post-covid world due to increased hygiene requirements. With that said, MeetGreen explains that “event dishware is required to be washed at high temperatures with cleaning products to kill bacteria and viruses. The washed plates would be equal to or safer than most disposal scenarios, as each would be handled at a minimum prior to use.”
If you are required to use single-use materials for your event, pick products that are biodegradable or compostable. Examples include: biodegradable coffee cups, compostable plates and utensils, napkins sourced from recycled content, and so on.
Keep in mind, as BioCycle points out that “Unfortunately, most event planners don’t know special processing is required, and assume that when a product package is labeled as compostable or biodegradable, that is enough. To complicate matters further, the products accepted for composting in one location may not be accepted for composting in another location. It all depends on the infrastructure and what a processor will accept as feedstock.” This is an important consideration to keep in mind when you are preparing for your event, so be sure to follow up with your waste management contractor.
12. Organize essential waste management
Without proper waste management logistics in place, all your plans for recycling and composting will not be as successful as you had planned. This is why you must ensure that you have labelled bins that are readily available all over your venue and include signage that is clear and understandable.
Avoid placing your signs at the bottom of the bin and make sure they are at eye level. Also, restrict the aperture of your bins so that they align with what is supposed to be thrown in there such as circular openings for cans and bottles or smaller slits for paper. The different covers on your bins will get people to think twice before they throw something in.
Make sure that your contractor is forthright about what happens to your waste after the event. As part of their contract, have them report where the waste and recycling has gone. There’s nothing more disheartening than believing you’ve done your part to help the environment when in actuality you’ve not made any changes at all. This will also keep your contractors honest because they know you will be following up with them regarding their pledge and obligation to recycle and compost properly.
13. Sustainable catering
At its most basic level, sustainable catering focuses on environmentally conscious methods of sourcing, preparing, serving, and disposing of food and materials. What does this mean for you as a planner?
Seek out caterers that provide “farm to table” options. Not only are you supporting local producers, but the less distance the food has to be transported in order to make it to your event, the better for the environment. If that’s not a realistic option for your event, seek out organic produce from certified sources. This produce is farmed using sustainable methods that respect the long-term health and wellness of the soil and waterways.
Another less labour intensive option for planners is to find caterers that have been certified and proven to use sustainable methods. This takes the extra research and responsibility of finding and sourcing the food at your event off the planner’s plate, so to speak. With that said, make sure this isn’t just “green theatre” and that the certifications of your catering service are actually substantive rather than just for show.
Ask for delegates’ dietary requirements in advance, get a clear picture on final attendee numbers, and opt for plated menus instead of buffets. In a post-pandemic world, we’ve also come to realize that plated menus are a better option for health and hygiene reasons as well. A win for sustainability and a win for health and safety!
14. Provide more vegan and vegetarian options
According to research from the University of British Columbia, the impact of meat production includes but is “not limited to the pollution of the atmosphere through fossil fuel usage, methane produced by animals, land degradation, water consumption and the clearing of forests to make way for grazing pastures.“ This is why offering more vegetarian or vegan options is a great way to decrease your event’s carbon footprint. Plus, it’s good for everyone’s health to get in a few more greens as often as possible!
15. Donate leftover food
Despite your efforts to get an exact picture of your attendee’s catering needs, it is more than likely that you will have leftover food at the end of your event days. Rather than divert perfectly edible food to a landfill (even if it’s compost), donate anything edible to a local food bank or shelter! Not only will you be providing meals for those in need, but you’ll be doing your part to reduce post-consumer food waste as well.
If you’d prefer to do your own research on donating food, check local by-laws around food donation and research reputable food banks and shelters in the area. If by-laws disallow you from donating food to people in need, see if there’s the option of donating leftover food or kitchen scraps to a pig farm in the area as animal feed.
Another option is to partner with an anti-food waste app such as Too Good To Go. They not only help you gain a better understanding of your event’s food management, but they also have a program called the “Surprise Bag” or “Mystery Bag” (the name varies depending on which country you’re using the app in). These “Surprise Bags” consist of surplus food that is sold at one-third of the retail price to app users. According to latest news, “the ‘Surprise Bag’ is unique to Too Good To Go and addresses the unpredictable nature of food waste, allowing businesses the flexibility to save any and all food, including prepared food and beverages, that would otherwise go to waste.”
16. Eco-friendly swag options
Swag and swag bags are quintessential marketing items that planners hand out to attendees during an event. They serve the dual purpose of generating excitement for an event while elevating brand awareness for those companies that have contributed or sponsored swag. The problem: lots of these items can find their way into the landfill if they’re not deemed to be useful for attendees.
With that in mind, why not consider eco-friendly swag items that your attendees are sure to use (and re-use!)? Options include: branded stainless steel pint cups, reusable bags, recycled cotton pouches, branded travel mugs or tumblers, reusable straws, plant kits, and more.
If you want to provide branded clothing, consider sourcing your t-shirts or hoodies from companies that ethically and sustainably source their items rather than use fast fashion. Check to see if they print using inks that are environmentally friendly. Whatever type of eco-friendly swag you choose to use at your event, also consider working with companies that offset their carbon footprint either through best green practices or buying their carbon offsets.
17. Have prizes and giveaways contribute to environmental causes or charities
If you’ve decided against offering swag or material prizes at your event for sustainability reasons, why not change it up and donate to animal conservation or environmental causes as a prize instead? Gamification is still an important part of having your attendees get engaged in activities at your event, so a reward that contributes to your sustainability goals rather than finding its way into a landfill would be a great option.
For example, the top three prizewinners can choose from a select number of environmental or wildlife causes that you’ve vetted and have a donation made in their name. The amount donated will be determined by where they place in the competition.
How about getting sponsors involved in these green giveaways? They can run a promotion or contest at your event and provide a contribution to a sustainable cause. For example, if a certain number of attendees visit their booth and scan a QR code, they’ll donate to a local green initiative or charity. This is a great way for your sponsors to get visibility and play a part in helping the environment!
You can also be more direct about supporting your sustainability initiatives by designating a portion of ticket proceeds to local environmental or animal conservation causes. You can also give your attendees the choice of including a donation to a charity of their choice as part of their ticket so that they can be in control of where their contributions go.
18. Measure carbon footprint with free apps
One of the best ways of tackling climate change is to understand just how much your event is contributing to carbon emissions. Whether you’re running a virtual, hybrid, or in-person event, quantifying your event’s impact on the environment can help you take concrete actions to mitigate that impact. An event-specific carbon calculator can help you. Here are a few free carbon calculators to help you get started:
- Myclimate Event Carbon Calculator
- terrapass Events Carbon Footprint Calculator (also offers the option of buying your carbon offsets)
- Bonneville Environmental Foundation Event Calculator
19. Use an end-to-end technology platform
Upgrade your event experience with an end-to-end technology platform, such as Swapcard. Not only will you be modernizing the overall experience for your attendees and exhibitors, but you will also be playing an integral role in decreasing waste production and carbon emissions when switching to the digital option. How?
- Networking & lead generation: Instead of exchanging business cards that can be easily lost and find their way into the waste bin, help attendees and sponsors connect within the event app.
If you choose to go with an end-to-end platform such as Swapcard, attendees can use Swapcard’s A.I. matchmaking feature to create even more in-depth connections than organic methods alone. This is ideal if you’ve chosen to run a virtual or hybrid event for sustainability reasons and want to make sure all of your attendees are still able to network and connect.
- Digital sponsor visibility: Tools within the app allow event sponsors to gain visibility digitally. The need for expensive banners and disposable flyers can be discarded in favour of direct marketing through the app. For example, sponsored push notifications can do a far better job of targeting your ideal attendee versus distributing a bulky flyer that most attendees can’t wait to throw out at the first opportunity.
Best of all? Having these features available on your smartphone or preferred web browser make it easily accessible to all.
20. Capitalize on features in your event app instead of printed material
In-person events have traditionally relied on paper and disposable forms of communication, such as print banners & signs, paper brochures, business cards, and so on. Here is a small list of items you can switch from traditional print to in-app instead when you use an event app such as Swapcard:
- An interactive digital schedule and map: instead of making attendees use paper maps or wade through endless email attachments to find where to go next, they can find what they’re looking for easily in-app.
- Digital brochures: Instead of printing wasteful print brochures in bulk, focus on digital brochures and have them include embedded links so that potential buyers can be immediately directed to products they wish to purchase. Instead of having to throw out old brochures, a digital brochure can be regularly updated keeping your information up to date and relevant for potential buyers.
- Exhibitor documents: Have everything centralized and available in one place for your exhibitors so that they are not reliant on paper documentation that can be easily lost or discarded.
- Scan QR codes: QR codes can help with simplifying your event’s check-in process, allow prospective buyers to scan a product’s QR code and purchase it immediately (or save it for later), download brochures, ebooks, or any other downloadable content.
- In-app badging and registration: Instead of wasting time and money on disposable badging and registration systems, have everything in one place. This both streamlines your registration and check-in process, as well as decreases the waste that can be produced at your event with plastic badge covers or throwaway badge stickers.
- Digital tickets and programming: Having access to session tickets and programming in the palm of your hand is not only convenient, but it’s better for the environment.
21. Add a carbon offset fee to your registration process
Include an optional fee during the registration process that will encourage participants to offset their carbon emissions and buy their carbon offsets. If possible, it would be even better to bake this fee into the price of their registration to minimize any confusion on the part of your attendees. Just make sure you’re selecting a trustworthy and effective initiative like the UN Offset programme or terrapass so that these fees are used properly.
22. Include sustainability requirements in the RFPs and contracts you negotiate
When it’s time for requests for proposals (RFPs) and negotiating contracts for your event, be sure to include a sustainability preference clause. This will make it clear to your vendors that sustainability is one of your top priorities and not having it could make or break your decision to do business with them.
When going through contracts or RFPs, also make sure that the sustainability requirements are explicitly included so that you are not scrambling at the last minute to include them. If you include them from the onset of negotiations, you should be able to find cost-effective options and avoid a potentially hefty last-minute markup from vendors.
Last but not least, make sure that your suppliers and vendors show some kind of proof for any sustainability claims they make. It’s all fine and dandy for a company to say they’re practicing sustainability because they’re recycling an aluminum can or two, but that’s not what you’re looking for. If a company is making substantial promises about their sustainability practices that can impact your decision to do business with them, there needs to be evidence of that.
23. Vet your event sponsors
When seeking out sponsors, consider their environmental impact and commitment to sustainability. Take the time to research companies before you contact them to determine their contribution to a cleaner world. Ask: are their products and business practices environmentally friendly? Have they been embroiled in scandals involving illegal dumping or environmental contamination?
You can begin your search by contacting companies actively involved in the green sector. Seek out renewable energy companies, ethical and fair trade companies, and other businesses that use exclusively recycled materials and ask them to become your sponsors.
By starting with brands that are committed to going green, you can pitch this as an opportunity to have these sponsors host a booth or give talks to reiterate the value of sustainability and being environmentally conscious.
Once you start branching out to sponsors outside the sustainability sector, see if you can find any information on their commitment to going green or their carbon footprint. Beware of “greenwashing,” which is when a company adds some trendy eco-friendly branding to their website without enacting any real change.
So how do you spot a truly green company? Keep an eye out for Certified B Corporations. Look for honest, in-depth descriptions of a company’s environmental commitments and see how open they are about their supply chains, their commitment to carbon neutrality, and how they’re moving to a zero-waste model.
24. Don’t be shy about letting attendees know about your sustainability goals!
Now that you’ve put all of this effort into planning an environmentally friendly and sustainable event, let your attendees know about it! As part of your pre-event communications, share your sustainability goals with all of your participants, inform them of how the different waste bins are going to look, and be clear about what items are recyclable and compostable.
Do not hesitate to share this information online! Include it in your digital event programs, invitation emails, newsletters, social media, advertisements, and wherever else you can get eyes on it. By doing so you can get your attendees excited about your eco-friendly initiatives and also let them know how they can play an important role in helping your event hit its sustainability goals.
Now, it's up to you!
Be as detailed as possible about your initiatives, the role your end-to-end event platform will play in your commitment, why you’re trying to encourage sustainability, and how you’ve followed through on your promises. By being honest and transparent about your reasoning, you can avoid “greenwashing” and take the first steps to running a successful environmentally conscious event.
By starting early and making an active commitment to running a cleaner and greener event, you can start to make systematic changes that will help you make more environmentally conscious decisions.