Whether you are organizing a potluck, seed share, film presentation, or a conference, you can take steps to share your values of conservation and sustainability in a very obvious way: by designing your event to be environmentally friendly.
Whether large or small, your event is a prime opportunity to let people see, in person, what "green" looks like, and an opportunity to enhance the credibility of your organization and your message. Sometimes, modeling green and sustainable values can take more time, effort, and cost, but on the other hand, being green can inspire your event to be more creative and can save you money in the short or long term.
As you begin planning your event, be sure to include sustainability in your goals. For larger events, you may even want to appoint a special "Green" committee or volunteer.
Here are a few ways to design an event that models environmentally-friendly values and actions:
1. Location, location, location
As you are deciding where to host your event, workshop, or even a simple get-together, evaluate the environmental aspects of the location. Is it located near public transportation? Was it designed to be energy and water efficient, or use renewable energy? Does the venue offer recycling, composting, and caterers that will use tableware and local food?
LEED-certified buildings that have passive solar and highly energy-efficient features or buildings that have some green significance, such as a historic train depot, can be good options. These venues are often happy to host an event for free or cheap in exchange for the publicity that will be associated with your event, or simply to support organizations that share the same goals.
Consider incorporating a tour of the "green" features of your location as part of the event. Many people would welcome the chance to see and learn about gardens and fruit trees, xeriscaped landscaping, rainwater tanks, solar panels, geothermal HVAC system, solar oven, clotheslines, and composting bins.
Choosing an outdoor location is one way to allow your participants to enjoy the sunshine, the smell of the wind, sounds of the birds, and the shade from the trees. Even if your event must take place indoors, you can select a location that will allow you to incorporate a nature walk, urban hike or tour of the gardens - helping refresh your participants and remind them of the reasons behind the event.
2. Donate, recycle and compost
If you are serving meals or trays of food, unserved meal portions may be able to be donated to a local food bank, so be sure to coordinate this before the event.
Even if your facility doesn't offer composting and recycling, take the extra effort to recycle and compost the waste of your event. For small events, this can be as simple as providing specific bins for recycling and composting and taking them home with you. For larger events, environmental groups are often willing to perform this service in exchange for free tickets and meals, or for being listed as a program sponsor or partner.
Post signs explaining why your group is going to the trouble to recycle, reduce waste, and compost - these will emphasize the reasons behind your actions, educate the public, and can be re-used at other events.
3. Offer vegetarian food
If food is a part of your event, be sure to offer (and label) vegetarian and vegan options. This can be as easy as a veggie sandwich, mushroom pizza, pasta dish, or bean chili. Not only is this inclusive of a variety of diets, but vegetarian options are often healthier and more environmentally friendly. Trust me, your vegetarians will notice - and thank you.
4. Use local, organic or near-ganic food and drink
Depending on the location, season and local foodshed, local food can be take a little effort to incorporate. However, there is almost always a way, unless your venue contract locks you in to an uncooperative caterer. You can "potluck" the event with local food dishes, choose a caterer who offers local food, ask your caterer to work with a local food vendor or farmer, or just offer a dessert table of local fruit from the farmer's market.
If you can't offer local organic or "near-ganic" food, then organic food is a good second choice. Don't forget the local beer and wine! And be sure to label your local food with the farm's name - this increases the visibility of the farmer.
5. Encourage environmentally-friendly transportation
As you market your event, you can highlight the closest bus stop and ask participants to car-pool or bike. You may even opt to specifically choose an event location that is close to public transportation or easy to bike to - especially if you are trying to attract an environmentally conscious or lower-income group of people.
6. Use sustainably grown, recycled and re-purposed materials
You will undoubtedly need materials and tools for your event. Consider planning so that you can re-use these repeatedly for a variety of future events. If you don't have much funding, you could consider partnering with an existing organization and borrowing materials from them. In the case that you need to create art, signs, displays, etc., consider using re-purposed materials. After the event, find a way to save, re-use or give away the materials.
When offering giveaways, try to make them symbolic of the goals you want to achieve. For example, you can give away seeds, vermiculture bins, or CFL bulbs. If you will have T-shirts for sale or giveaway, you can use organic cotton in your T-shirts for only a small additional fee. Flyers and posters can often be printed on recycled paper.
7. Reduce waste
Use re-useable glasses, plates, silverware, and napkins when possible. Not only do these create less waste, but they are classier and tougher than disposable tableware. If you are using a caterer, ask the caterer to avoid disposables (and include it in the contract, if you have one). If you are planning a small one-time event, you may be able to borrow the necessary tableware. If you plan to host numerous events, consider investing in a larger quantity that can be used repeatedly for your events throughout the year. Tip: be sure to arrange for a volunteer dishwasher!
Don't offer bottled water - instead, get water coolers, dispensers and ice chests and re-usable cups. For larger events, you may be able to offer one or more water stations. If possible, avoid using single-serving containers of anything (beverages, condiments, snacks, meals).
Instead of a direct-mail campaign, use social media and websites, networking, press releases, listservs, and public service announcements to attract participants to your event.
Bonus: Offset your carbon consumption
While carbon offsets are no excuse to ignore conservation, they can be a way to fund worthwhile projects that reduce carbon - and remind people that virtually all our actions have a carbon effect. Consider calculating the impact of your event (transportation, electricity, heating, etc.), and purchasing a reputable carbon offset, or simply making a donation to plant trees. You may even be able to find a local environmental group to sponsor or perform the offset in exchange for publicity.
If you don't want to purchase a carbon offset from a third-party, you could incorporate a tree planting into your event or post-event activities, or offset the carbon from all your events on a yearly basis by planting trees, perhaps with a local organization that owns some land, or with your local Neighborhood Association. Over time this plan will result in many beautiful shade, fruit and nut trees planted in your area.
As you plan your event, you may be surprised at all the opportunities you can find to share your environmentally-friendly values. Taking the time to plan a greener event will reduce the negative impact of the event, increase your green credibility, and demonstrate how to take concrete action to improve sustainability. Seize these opportunities when you can, because your event participants will remember them, learn from them, and sometimes, even be inspired to bring these actions into their own lives.
For larger events and more tips, see this article on Green Conferences and Hotels.