A very special delivery arrived a couple of weeks ago: My copy of Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility in the Meetings and Events Industry by Elizabeth Henderson and Mariela McIlwraith.
Henderson and McIlwraith are two of my closest colleagues and friends in the industry, and I know how long and hard they worked to bring this book to life. When I saw it in print, just for an instant, I could imagine everything that meetings and events might some day become.
That’s because the book encourages us to take a step back and dream big dreams. Most of it is a step-by-step, easy-to-read roadmap for organizing socially responsible events. But the closing chapter introduces “backcasting,” a process of defining what success looks like then charting a strategy to get there. McIlwraith and Henderson’s metaphor for the industry’s future is an award-winning Sustainability Center for Meetings and Events that opens in 2020 in the fictitious town of Imagine, Nation.
“The municipality of Imagine was a key partner in the provision of essential infrastructure that made this event so successful,” they write. “Imagine, Nation, has focused on making itself a truly sustainable community, and [the first event in the new Center] benefited from this focus as well as from its own actions, which emphasize environmental protection, economic prosperity, social justice, and the consumption of eco-efficient and fair trade goods and services.”
It’s a glorious vision, and in the spirit of backcasting, I asked the authors what it will take to push, pull, or prod our industry from here to there.
“It comes back to the E-I-Os: ethics, influence, and outcomes,” replied McIlwraith. “That means a collective focus on conducting meetings and the business of meetings ethically, and understanding our opportunity to influence participants and stakeholders, while delivering on the outcomes we promised.
“In the book, we talk about some factors that discourage supply chains from implementing sustainability,” Henderson added. “They include a lack of expertise, resistance to change, apathy, and difficulty adopting new ways of doing things.”
But the industry’s recent experience gives every reason to get started. Henderson cited the notorious “AIG effect” as a moment when face-to-face meetings suffered deeply from a widespread perception that ethics had lapsed. “It may take a few more examples before more of us begin to understand how the industry can be perceived by external audiences,” she said. “But change is happening.”
The industry’s first response to the attack on meetings was a long-overdue messaging campaign on the value of face-to-face events. But if we hope to build a broadly ethical, sustainable industry by 2020—the target year in the Imagine, Nation, scenario—we’ll need new practices as well as a smart communications plan. Henderson said success will also depend on effective measurement.
“We’re more familiar with quantitative measures like budget, and they’re easier to track,” she said. “But qualitative measures have a direct impact on a meeting’s cost and environmental footprint. If you educate all your staff and half of your attendees on waste reduction, you can measure their learning qualitatively. But when the resulting waste program cuts your disposal costs and makes the event more sustainable, that’s a quantitative result.”
McIlwraith said the industry must more deliberately reward ethical, sustainable behavior through traditional awards,exposure, and gamification. “One of my favorite things about Imagine, Nation, was its recognition that all the facets of sustainability are connected. In the end, we’ll only succeed economically when we have a healthy, productive workforce and community, and a natural environment that can sustain us.”