Guest blog: Is the event industry the answer to changing behaviours for a sustainable world?

Our guest blogger, Ruth Dancer, Director at sustainability experts White Griffin Ltd, says the events sector has a vital role to play in unifying people and inspiring sustainability-focused societal behavioural change.

In the UK, despite the pandemic, we are privileged to have a thriving event industry. 2019 saw a whopping 75.1m people attending sporting events alone and as restrictions ease and confidence returns, so too will the crowds. Events are part of our daily life, interest in both attending and watching them sees no sign of waning. This is why in a decade that carries with it dramatic concerns for the environment, I am looking within my own industry for answers to the problems which face mankind now and in the future.

Whilst sustainability has been present in the sector for many years, it is surprising to find that even in 2022, most venues and event organisers still do not priortise and in some cases even include sustainability as part of their planning. This presents two problems, or rather I should say, one problem and one missed opportunity.

Looking purely at waste, the problem we face is that just one music festival produces an average of 2,300 tonnes of waste, with the majority still going into landfill or incineration. The average amount of waste produced by each visitor at any event is double that of the average person’s daily waste production. And of course waste isn’t the only environmental challenge, with food consumption, energy, water, land usage and transport amongst other key areas impacting an event’s sustainability.

But this is only half of the story. Whilst it is important that the industry focuses on getting its own house in order, it also has the opportunity to drive transformative change.

Events have a unique power to communicate with the public en masse, to touch hearts and minds and even change behaviours. This is partly due to the vast and diverse number of people attending and watching, passively experiencing products and solutions which are presented in a blanket format to all visitors. This activity enables us to see the answers to sustainability not as a question of wealth, ethnicity, gender or age, but for all visitors en masse.

But it is also due to the psychology of events, because delivering effective change requires two key elements; it needs to appeal to the emotions and it needs to be able to bring the change to life.

Growing up I was a supporter of Sunderland AFC and time spent at the match represented quality time with my dad. The rituals on the match day were as much a part of the experience as the action on the pitch; the pie and pint beforehand, a chocolate bar from dad’s pocket at half time, and so on.

Going to the football was an emotional experience (particularly supporting Sunderland!) and my habits and associations were formed on those days. If the pint was in a cup that you returned to the bar for a £1 and the chocolate bar was in a paper wrapper that went into branded bins, that too would have become part of our ritual. But it didn’t.

Nothing about our behaviour over the years was sustainable and the waste produced from every supporter at all the matches across the country, potentially still exists somewhere on the other side of the world bobbing around in our fragile oceans.

So firstly, understanding the rituals involved in event day experiences and using that psychology to change behaviours is a key way in which we can get people thinking and acting differently.

Secondly events are, crucially, experiential. Educators unite in stating that the best form of learning is to experience something for yourself. There is no shortage of information out there explaining how to recycle, live zero waste and reject plastics, but living that change is an entirely different proposition.

In a recent Twitter poll, 28% of people who attend music festivals said they leave their camping equipment behind. We can change that behaviour by showing the alternative to a throw away culture. The onus is on us to create solutions to encourage people to think long-term about their waste, so that suddenly what we see and do at an event makes change possible, achievable, easy even. And when customers try these new habits in a crowd and take comfort from everyone else doing the same, suddenly that behaviour becomes normal.

So not only do we need to operate sustainably as a sector to ensure that we are not adding to the waste crisis, we also need to capitalise on our unique ability to impact hearts and minds on a grand scale.

But a word to the wise as we embark on this process at pace; in order for real change to occur, events have to be allowed to experiment and in doing so, make mistakes. We cannot allow the cult of ‘be perfect or be persecuted’ to dictate the process, otherwise event professionals will be fearful of trying. Greenwashing is a problem, yes, but we have to allow events to tell their own stories, for better or worse, as they take steps to change

The topic of sustainability has often been an unpopular one and can descend into the negative. But the event industry can change that. Events are a unifying activity which can generate positive feeling around the process of reform. This is not about box ticking compliance, this is about creativity and innovation to inspire our customers to change.

Ruth Dancer

Beginning with IMG at Wembley Stadium in 2003, Ruth has spent the last 19 years working in the events industry at some of the best known venues and tournaments in the world, including the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Formula 1, England 2015 Rugby World Cup, Goodwood and Wimbledon. Having retrained in sustainability and environmental science, Ruth now delivers projects at White Griffin Ltd focusing on the world of sport and music.