It is easy to agree that sustainability is essential. The question is, how to achieve it? This article provides an overview of some of the fundamental concepts of sustainability for event project management. It examines elements from the topic areas of event management, sustainability, and project management, while demonstrating how the disciplines can intersect to strive for the achievement of best practices in managing event projects.
Projects have impacts. Of course, there are the direct impacts of projects – the intentional impacts resulting in the form of project output. The extent of those impacts can determine the type of legacy that an event leaves behind. It can also shape the possibilities to stage future events of both similar and different types. Sustainability, in this context means planning and executing events that avoid depletion of the resources of the various environments surrounding an event.
Sustainability is a hot topic, but not a new topic. The origin of sustainability is centuries-old and comes from the forestry industry. The concept is that to be able to continue forestry operations into the future, trees can’t be cut down at a faster rate than they are able to be replaced. By striking a balance between cutting, planting, and growing, the supply of trees can be sustained well into the future, thereby allowing future generations to continue to use the resource. While the concept has grown and evolved well beyond the original concept of cutting down trees to include waste management, recycling, carbon emissions, and a host of other ecologically minded practices, the generally tenant remains the same; the preservation and protection of finite resources for the use of future generations.
Current thinking on sustainability has grown even further beyond its original roots. Ecological measures are critical, but they aren’t the only element of sustainability. In order to achieve true sustainability, in a way that allows for continued future practice, further considerations are necessary in addition to ecological elements. Sustainability needs to be achieved socially, as well as economically. These three areas - ecological sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability - form the three pillars of sustainability for the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) framework. This framework proposes that true sustainability incorporates these three areas; People (social), Planet (ecological), and Profit (economic).
TBL is usually referred to as an accounting framework for sustainability. Just as most accounting and financial statements include an end result – the bottom line – the Triple Bottom Line framework advocates for the measurement and maintenance of the final result for all three areas. Economic results as the traditional bottom line, plus ecological and social results as the other two. The phrase is attributed to business writer John Elkington in his 1994 work on the topic. It has been applied to a number of various areas in business, commerce, and beyond.
Social sustainability (people) includes, among other items, consideration of the well-being of the stakeholders of an endeavor. Ecological sustainability (planet) refers to the classical understanding of sustainable environmental practices. Economic sustainability (profit) addresses the financial considerations. All three areas are necessary for true sustainability and cannot exist alone. Conceptually, this approach makes sense. Ecological sustainability can’t continue at the expense of the human stakeholders involved. Unless a financial balance is achieved, ecological and social sustainability issues simply won’t be pursued. All three areas are necessary and compliment one another.
Event projects provide huge opportunities to pursue all three types of sustainability in the TBL. Ecologically, events consume all types of resources in staging. They involve stakeholders of all types, internally in the form of attendees, workers, venders, and suppliers, as well as externally in the form of the communities in which they are held. And, as project managers, we are all keenly aware of the necessity to keep a watchful eye on the finances of all projects, including event projects.
In planning, managing, and executing event projects and operations, there is no clear, single, set of guidelines for achieving sustainability. However, we can start by looking toward the three pillars of sustainability in the Triple Bottom Line framework as we manage events. The first step is to consider some of the elements presented here when planning event projects.
Project managers should strive to design event projects with social sustainability in mind. This goes beyond giving consideration to the needs of the output consumer (event audience) to consider the needs of other stakeholder groups as well. Are measures being taken in consideration of the local community where the event is taking place? Do supply procurement practices give preferential consideration to area venders? Most of all, this means being able to answer ‘yes’ to the question, “Is this event project a good neighbour?”
Event projects can consume a lot of resources and create a lot of waste. This is both bad for the environment and bad for the balance sheet. Events should be planned in consideration of the use of ecological resources. Asking a similar set of questions is another good first step toward reducing the environmental impact of events. How can we reduce the amount of waste generated by the event? Can re-usable items (cups, flatware, cutlery, etc..) be used for event catering? How can the use of public transportation be promoted for getting to and from the event? What is the plan to reuse or recycle materials after the event?
Cost management is an important part of managing every type of project. The financial benefit of event projects needs to strive to go beyond looking solely at the positive balance aimed for by the event organizers. Profit itself should be sustainable. That is, not only in the hope of achieving positive income for this instance, but in the future as well. Are stakeholders looked after in a way that encourages future contentment with the presence of such events? Are the environmental efforts affordable financially, or will they cause cost overruns that are unmaintainable? Based on the financial outcome can the organization do this (or something similar to this) again in the future? These are all some of the first questions to ask in consideration of financial sustainability.
Every project is unique and different, so therefore the sustainability needs – and opportunities – for every event project will also be unique and different. Event project managers can start thinking about the practical implementation of sustainability measures across all three TBL pillars by considering an eye toward sustainability in all areas of the event project life cycle. Sustainability should be a goal when initiating an event. Planning should also consider sustainability, including how it is to be addressed in event execution. Monitoring and controlling already considers costs, but environmental and social impacts should also be measured so they can be maintained to achieve pre-established targets. Finally, sustainability lessons-learned should be considered in event project closing so as to carry them forward into the future and allow for continuous improvement.
Altogether, a good balance should be striven for. As the TBL model tells us for true, workable, sustainable endeavours, all three pillars of sustainability need to be maintained. On top of that, constant improvement should be striven for. There are always going to be ways to do it better. While consideration and expertise are a great way to start, some improvements can only be realized with learning and experience.
Initiatives and achievements in sustainability can also carry over from event project management into event marketing. When true efforts are made and successes realized, it’s ok to brag about them in promoting events. Especially when hard work is documented in the form of awards, recognition, and certification for event sustainability. Green event certification is available from various organizations globally, and can serve as a marketing tool. When this is done, it can help to roll efforts back into the other aspects of sustainability in the TBL framework.
About the Authors:
Dr. Susanne Gellweiler ([email protected]) and Mark Romanelli ([email protected]) are both full-time lecturers in the Sports, Culture and Events Management program at the University of Applied Science Kufstein Tirol (FH Kufstien Tirol) in Kufstein, Austria. Dr. Gellweiler lectures and researches in Events Management. Mr. Romanelli teaches courses in General, Strategic and Project Management. He is a member of the Project Management Institute and a Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)®.