Martin Fullard, editorial director of Conference News, says the quest for a sustainable industry must not ignore people’s livelihoods.
Before the pandemic, sustainability was a marginal topic. There were occasional roundtables and well-meaning motives, but as a main agenda item, it never really caught on.
Now, however, it feels like that’s all we’re talking about. That’s not a bad thing, such is the magnitude of the issue at hand.
However, it is essential that we do not forget what sustainability really means. Clearly defined, sustainability refers to the ability to maintain or support a process continuously over time. In a business context, sustainability aims to prevent the depletion of natural or physical resources, so that they remain available over the long term. “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs,” according to the Brundtland Commission, the Internet tells me.
Sustainability can be broken down into three areas: environmental, social and economic. It is the first – environmental – that gets the most attention, perhaps because it is the easiest to approach and understand.
However, I often fear that by encouraging fewer people to attend events – often cited as a big carbon contributor – we are depriving destinations and their citizens of their livelihoods.
For context, before the pandemic, Liverpool hosted £3.3billion a year in direct spending from people attending events. This, in turn, accounted for 42% of business rates paid to the council and, crucially, supported 38,000 jobs. It is a city that has regenerated itself over the past two decades through events; just look at Liverpool Waterfront. It’s packed with restaurants, hotels, museums, galleries and, of course, the ACC Liverpool.
Fewer people going to events, or fewer in-person events taking place in favor of virtual alternatives, might seem like an easy win for reducing impact, but that flies in the face of true sustainability if Thousands of people are laid off as a result.
Many destinations across the UK depend on event activities for their local economies, but they are also agents of change. The exchange of knowledge through conferences and congresses of associations is vital for social betterment.
We often hear from those who believe that virtual events will become the primary means of delivering conferences. They say virtual events are the real key to becoming a sustainable industry. Well, without the physical infrastructure of hotels, venues, vendors and delegates, there is no industry at all. Frankly, I find this disregard for people’s livelihoods disturbing.
The next time you revise your sustainability policy or decide how to run your event, check again how you stack up against the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 13, which is climate action, should feature prominently, but don’t ignore Goals 8 and 11: decent work and economic growth, and sustainable cities and communities. How will your decision affect people’s lives? It’s all about balance.