Beyond greenwashing: Real sustainability progress in brand experiences

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by Rachel Russell, Senior Strategist, George P. Johnson UK

It’s time to say it louder. Something I’ve been tentatively proffering with my colleagues, industry peers and close clients over the past 4 months or so. That is, I think we are seeing real and impressive momentum in sustainability across the brand experience industry. Compared with our pre-pandemic caution, our industry wide consciousness, education, confidence and practical know-how across the topic are transforming. And it’s motivating to see. I’ll disclose upfront now – I’m a stalwart optimist.  But I am one that has paid close attention to the challenges and opportunities we face as an industry over the past 4 years, when it comes to sustainability. 

In February, I was at Cisco Live in Amsterdam, where we supported Cisco on one of their most ambitious brand experiences, with over 16,000 technologists converging for a week of education, innovation and connection. The event has already been recognised for being progressive – last year winning the Campaign Ad Net Zero Award for Best Practice in Sustainable Events. For this event, GPJ is fortuitous to have committed, tenacious clients and a partnership that allows us to think and act for the longer term. But what did I glean from seeing it up close? Where can I confidently say we are all stepping up? What can I conclude, we should feel inspired by? These are my reflections.

  1. We’re obsessing about the end, at the start

From designing out waste in the creative stages, to scrutinising materiality, to considering every piece of rubbish. We are now thinking about and planning for the end-of-event life of everything that builds our experiences. At Cisco Live, I was impressed with the creativity of scenic architecture, how structural elements had been considered for their reuse, or repurposing qualities (think scaffolded structures, clever use of system build, deliberate materials and multi-year use designs). But I was also blown away by what the attendee couldn’t touch. The sophisticated plans to coordinate many recycling streams across an array of print types. The ingenuity of repurposing materials and props, and donating others. We are no longer closing the doors and crossing our fingers that some sort of recycling just gets done. We’re going granular.

  1. We’re getting bolder, and standing for what we know can change

How will we honour our brand’s aesthetic with the existing venue flooring? What will the VIP experience be without certain amenities? What if exhibitors can’t entice shy attendees with irresistible free giveaways? These are all concerns I have heard raised, because items destined for landfill or incineration such as temporary flooring, single-use plastics and branded merchandise have been part of perceived experience mandatories and industry norms, for years. It takes nerve to say that you are breaking with tradition. But that nerve pays dividends, when it shows your attendees, exhibitors, suppliers and own staff that things really can be different. I would argue that these measures also galvanise change beyond the live days of your event, and can affect business and personal behaviour change more widely. After a Cisco Live crew-wide directive to travel to Amsterdam by train, rather than air if possible, I know that lots of us will be seriously considering how we travel to Europe for work, and life from now on.

  1. We’re facing data head-on

Hail the consultant that told us that ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’. As marketeers, we’re initiated early into this philosophy. But as experience makers, this is now becoming a fundamental part of our thinking as we look to drive sustainable initiatives across our events. All stakeholders, whether client, agency, venue or supplier are investing in reporting and understanding the stories behind their numbers. Whether this is for events that are just getting to grips with their current baselines, or for those that are now unlocking the route to achieve reduction targets. At Cisco Live, every material quantity is accounted for, every cup counted, every shipping distance clocked, and that carefully assembled picture is crucial to informing future action plans. Let’s not underestimate the work involved in this. At scale, this can mean co-ordinating and processing thousands of data points. But we are now grabbing this challenge by the horns and using it to inform more impactful sustainability strategies and more informed tactics. 

  1. We’ve accepted it’s a journey, spent better with friends

Perhaps it’s an inherent trait of Experience marketeers – we’re an exacting bunch. We want what we do to be the best it can be, with next to no room for error. Which is why the mantra of ‘progress not perfection’ feels like an uncomfortable one sometimes. We are starting to lean into the reality that it really is a journey, a transcontinental endurance climb, not an 100m sprint. It’s nigh on impossible to create sustainable event perfection the first time around. Progress comes from increments, adjustments, and learnings. One thing that our industry knows intrinsically however, is that everything is about teamwork. You can’t strive for more sustainable event experiences, without working hand-in-hand with your clients, agencies and suppliers. You have to collaborate more deeply, share more openly and help each other to be the best you can be. What we learn along the way, isn’t a tactical secret to keep under lock and key, but a tool that should be shared for the wider industry to benefit from. I’m witnessing these perspective shifts in my colleagues, clients and industry groups. I saw the teamwork first hand at Cisco Live and I feel buoyed that even more collaborative ways of working are going to help us all do better.

So, do I think as an industry we’ve nailed it? Do we have all the answers and can we say job done? Is everyone doing enough? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Can we and should we be going further? Absolutely, yes. But should we recognise some progress? Well, when I see events like Cisco Live, I’d answer yes again. It’s so easy, when confronted with the full picture of what our planet and society collectively faces, to retreat from the scale and complexity. But in the modest corner, the event industry calls home, I’m holding a nugget of faith that this momentum I’m seeing is growing legs and is starting to pick up even more pace.

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