Tackling the Tough Questions Around Greener Events with Shawna McKinley & Guy Bigwood

This week’s podcast features two experts in the field of sustainability and events, Shawna McKinley and Guy Bigwood. They sat down and shared their thoughts on how we need to recalibrate our approach to sustainability within the events industry, important takeaways on the future of events, and how the industry can do its part to tackle climate change. 


The conversation begins with a discussion on the legacy of the COVID19 pandemic and how it impacted the event industry’s understanding of sustainability and the role it plays in it. Shawna notes that “a big focus this year has been understanding the implications of the shift to digital and online when it comes to things like carbon footprint.” 

For example, research undertaken during this time paved the way for the creation of the Digital Event Carbon Calculator, in partnership with Meet Green®. Shawna notes that, “we have this new legacy that we wouldn't have otherwise had that sort of pushes us to continue to innovate on how we can do lower carbon events.”

What about waste at events, has anything been learned from this pandemic and put into practice as in-person comes back? Guy tells us that although there has been a lot of effort and focus on hygiene practices “they're not always very sustainable,” and in fact, has led to an increase in plastic waste when there had been a drop in their usage prior to the onset of the pandemic. 

Shawna then introduces us to the idea of living within a “carbon budget as laid out by the United Nations Environment Programme, but goes on to explain that “there's only so much we can do as individuals. There's a large part of technology change and system change that has to happen. So it's all solutions now to the greatest extent possible.

We all want to meet, connect, and exchange knowledge, but Shawna asks “how do I do that in a way that aligns with that carbon reality? It might mean that I do travel to events less frequently. It might mean that as an event organizer, maybe I'm shifting a quarter of my events to an online in a hybrid format."

Both Guy and Shawna remind us that sustainability is about more than just carbon, it’s about a diverse range of issues like accessibility, quality of life, and so on. So zero in on the dials that you want to make a difference in and focus on changing those. For events, for example, a carbon focus is a great place to start. 

The top three issues to focus on when it comes to the carbon footprint for your attendees are: 

  1. Venue
  2. Food
  3. Transportation

Time to address the elephant in the room: how can we approach the subject of changing how we run events without people in the industry retreating to panic? Guy explains that the truth of the matter is that pre-covid there were a lot of really bad meetings! 

He goes on, “we organized many meetings that didn't create any good stuff. We now use our time in a totally different way...every meeting we deliver has to deliver business results, has to deliver social results and it has to live with a positive environment.” It turns out that the pandemic has made event organizers rethink productivity and cost, with sustainability benefiting as a result. 

As the conversation wraps up and the discussion turns to the future, Guy leaves us with some final thoughts: 

"Let's not forget. We have power as event organizers in all of our capacities. We bring people together, whether it's virtual or offline, we bring people together and we can orchestrate [event] design to inspire, motivate, empower, and catalyze. And we can catalyze them to regenerate nature, to drive forward, to transition, to lower carbon energy, to move towards a better food system, whatever! We can design our infrastructure, our system of services to model what we want in the world." - Guy Bigwood


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