Practical Advice on Greening Your Events

Have you been keeping up with the latest in “green events” and where you can get started?  It might not be as complicated as it sounds; you just need to know where to start.  We caught up with our friend in the sustainable meetings and events industry, project manager and technical advisor Cara Unterkofler, to ask a few questions and get her insights.  We hope you enjoy her thoughtful analysis and comments as much as we did!

Why have you chosen to focus your sustainability efforts on "green events"?

I focus my efforts on events because they are numerous, have a significant impact on our economy and environment, and create unique opportunities to educate hundreds of millions of people each year about sustainable practices.

My recent professional focus has been on meetings, trade shows, and conventions. Some stats on this segment: each year 1.8M meetings, trade shows, and conventions are held in the US, generating $236B in spending, supporting 1.7M jobs, and hosting over 205 million participants. (The Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy, Convention Industry Council (CIC) and PricewaterhouseCoppers LLO, 2011.)

The challenge is that meetings are also a significant source of energy consumption and waste generation. According to a 2008 Meetings Strategies Worldwide Study, the average conference participant at a 3-day meeting generates about 61 lbs. of waste (compared to 13.5 lbs. at home) and produces 1,142 lbs. of greenhouse gases from travel, venue, and hotel stay (equivalent to driving a car for a month at home). (The Economy and the Environment: One Solution for Two Meeting and Event Industry Issues, Meetings Strategies Worldwide, 2008.)

How do you define a "sustainable" event?

The Green Meeting Guide, published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines a sustainable meeting as "one designed, organized and implemented in a way that minimizes negative environmental impacts and leaves a positive impact for the host community." I like this definition, but the challenge is that it assumes most people understand what “negative environmental impacts” and “positive host community impacts” are and look like, which generally isn’t the case. Following The Natural Step process of “backcasting,” I think you have to create a vision for meeting planners and work backwards to create a strategy for getting there.

My (abbreviated, believe it or not) vision of a sustainable meeting would be something like, "a sustainable meeting is a meeting where show materials such as signage, carpet, collateral, food serveware, and other necessary materials are sourced locally, made from post-consumer recycled materials (or rapidly renewable feedstocks) and are easy to reuse or recycle. The meeting would be held in a location many attendees can reach by train, bus, or car and once on site they can walk or use public transportation to navigate the city. The meeting venue would be designed and operated for efficiency, only lighting and heating/cooling spaces when occupied. Waste would be reduced through thoughtful procurement, effective communication, community partnerships, and a local infrastructure that supports diversion. Vendors would utilize local staff and equipment, and food served would be locally sourced, seasonal, packaged in bulk, and consist primarily of healthy produce and grains. Before, during and after the meeting, sustainability practices and programs would be clearly communicated to educate and empower participants. Lastly, success would be measured by methodically tracking sustainability metrics and transparently disclosing performance to stakeholders.”

What are the biggest challenges that event organizers typically encounter when trying to make their event more eco-friendly?

The biggest challenge for event organizers is the amount of time and energy required to get away from the status quo — because the status quo is not sustainable. There are certainly venues and vendors in the marketplace who are leading the way and offering “green” alternatives, but if you are a meeting planner committed to sustainable meetings, it means you are committed to being an industry educator and reformist. It’s going to be extra work, but our future is worth it.

What are your top three tips for event organizers?

  1. Ask all the questions! Ask your venue, hotel, vendor, and supplier partners a lot of good questions about their sustainability practices and how they can help you host a sustainable meeting. This process will spur education (for them and you!), reduce greenwashing, and push smart businesses to start proactively offering and marketing “green” services as standard procedure. If you don’t know what questions to ask, check out the Green Meeting Industry Council for online resources ( or purchase the APEX/ASTM Green Meetings Standards (available for about $145 here). They will seem complicated, but you can easily boil them down to a comprehensive checklist to get started.
  2. Make it official. As soon as you are comfortable with these sustainability practices put them in your RFPs and contracts! You will see dramatically better results at your events and by greening your supply chain you will have a powerful and positive ripple effect in the industry.
  3. Don’t do it all at once. Trying to green every aspect of your event at once will burn you out. Select one aspect of your meeting that’s highly in your control (e.g., how much signage you print, what kind of substrates you are printing on – per square foot, how much collateral you print for on-site programs and marketing – 8.5x11 equivalent pages, how much fuel your burning for shuttle buses – per gallons) and commit to working with your vendor partners to estimate your performance as much as you can. Consider this baseline figure, make a goal, and then implement changes to reach it. When you accomplish your goal you will feel effective, you will have learned a lot, and you can expand your efforts from there.

What type of metrics are the most relevant for reporting on green events?

What metrics are relevant and important to your event will largely be determined by the unique characters of your event and what resonates with your stakeholders. With that said, here is a list of key performance indicators (KPIs) that I think are relevant to many large events:

  • Energy Use at Venues (kWh)
  • Water Use at Venues (gal)
  • Total GHG Emissions (lbs.)
  • GHG Emissions Per Participant (lbs.)
  • Total Waste Per Participant (lbs.)
  • Waste Diversion at Venues (%)
  • Ground Shuttle Fuel Used (gal)
  • Local Food (<200 miles, %)
  • Regional Food (<500 miles, %)
  • Total Signage Used (sqft)
  • Recyclable/Non-foamore Signage Sourced (%)
  • Materials Donated to Local Organizations (lbs.)

About Cara Unterkofler
Cara Unterkofler is a consultant based in Washington, DC. In her work with LEGACY Sustainability Management, Cara collaborates with event organizers to develop strategies to increase the sustainability performance of their events, and to measure, track, and report results. These processes are guided by internationally recognized standards and frameworks such as ISO 20121 Sustainable Event Management System Requirements, APEX/ASTM Green Meeting Standards, and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) sustainability reporting guidelines. In previous work with Closed Loop Environmental Solutions, Cara worked in Australia and the UK to help clients create customized waste solutions that advance sustainability performance, increase stakeholder education and engagement, and benefit the financial bottom line. Cara is the President of the Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC) Greater Washington Area Chapter and holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce. Visit for more of Cara’s musings or reach her at