Guest Column: For Earth Day, a Call to Action for Every Event Pro

Kilowatt Events' Brett Blumberg urges event organizers to add global purpose to local events.

At the Kaaboo Cayman music and art festival in February, Kilowatt One implemented the island's first large-scale event recycling and landfill diversion program.
At the Kaaboo Cayman music and art festival in February, Kilowatt One implemented the island's first large-scale event recycling and landfill diversion program.
Photo: Courtesy of Kilowatt Events

Brett Blumberg is the sales and sustainability manager of Kilowatt Events and one of BizBash's Most Innovative People in Events and Meetings in 2018.

As event professionals, we are masters of distraction. Whether you create experiences to inspire, admire, educate, or celebrate, your productions serve as brief, regenerative moments of entertainment and relaxation in a world where social inequalities, environmental degradation, and their consequences are on the rise and affecting billions of people around the world.

But while you can walk away from your event at its conclusion, the communities you leave will still be facing dire challenges. Although we can all use some distracting from time to time, this Earth Day I propose that you stop and really see these glaring community challenges and begin to confront them head-on, tapping into tremendous value for your event, your host community, and its natural resources. Here's how.

1. Understand the value in strategic sustainable design.
Protecting social and ecological well-being by designing operational systems specific to the needs of your host communities can also result in significant value for your events, including:

  • New revenue channels via sponsorships, asset branding, and community partnerships
  • Operational cost reductions through resource efficiency
  • Creation of novel marketing campaigns and the development of new promotional channels
  • Fulfillment of attendee, staff, and talent expectations for sustainable programming
  • Legal and reputational risk mitigation by setting high operational standards

2. Unify your efforts around a global movement.
With countless social and environmental causes to support, it can be easy to assemble disjointed, haphazard sustainability initiatives without vision, purpose, or direction. In an effort to combat this, Kilowatt Events and our sustainability division, Kilowatt One, are launching "Illuminate 2025," our sustainability strategy aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a bold effort to achieve sustainability throughout our project portfolio by 2025. We understand that siloed sustainability efforts among our projects, however impactful, are not as powerful as unification around a global movement.

Kilowatt has selected seven “core” SDGs, 10 “external” SDGs, and 12 key performance indicators that we will be tracking, analyzing, and improving upon to help us reach our 2025 targets. While we will still be focusing on pertinent local issues at our productions, our portfolio will be linked together by these international goals. We invite you to explore and utilize our strategy so that your organization can adopt the U.N. SDGs and help us lead our industry toward a sustainable future using a cohesive vision. The full report can be accessed here.

3. Define your goals. Pursue your goals. Then promote your goals.
You may believe that you can address your core SDGs or reap some of the sustainability advantages listed above by simply creating engaging marketing campaigns, educating attendees through an onsite activation, or bringing on a sponsor who wants to promote the launch of an all-natural product. However, if your event operations are not investing in the pursuit of measurable targets to support your messaging, you may be diluting overall industry sustainability efforts and risking significant negative publicity for your brand.

You may have heard of “greenwashing” and believe it to be about creating false claims about your efforts—however, lying is just one of seven ways you may be guilty. The following are several common examples we have seen from events and festivals over the past year.

  • Educating in a bubble. You are promoting behavioral change through an educational campaign without operational authenticity. Perhaps you are educating attendees on the negative impacts of single-use plastics and removing plastic straws from the venue. Meanwhile, food vendors are using bioplastics in a coastal town with no accessible industrial compost facilities, and the operations team obliviously dispersed shards of plastic zip-ties around the venue.  
  • No systems thinking. The infrastructure is there, but there is no onsite support to ensure impact mitigation. A very common example is putting recycling stations around the venue and expecting materials to get recycled without an onsite sorting team or knowledge of locally accepted recyclables.
  • Partial green zones. Pilot programs are a great way to understand how you can continue to improve sustainability across an event—but make sure you are not complacent with keeping a single zone or process sustainable solely for the reputational benefits. If you are responsible for the entire event footprint, expand your strategies to match this. 
  • Reporting only the successes. Event sustainability reports should be used for transparent reporting on an event’s successes, challenges, and opportunities for improvement—not just for marketing purposes. Be self-critical and analyze your performance against your event’s history and industry norms. 

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="5cb62b3271fb622b008b456d" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-size="640w" data-embed-alt="For last fall&apos;s Malibu Chili Cook-Off, Kilowatt One worked with the Malibu Labor Exchange to provide janitorial and waste-sorting jobs to unemployed and homeless individuals. &ldquo;Take advantage of your event philanthropy budget to develop strategic community partnerships that will add value for all stakeholders and contribute towards your specific SDG targets,&apos; suggests Blumberg." data-embed-src="https://img.bizbash.com/files/base/bizbash/bzb/image/2019/04/KW1_MCCO_edit.5cb62b2e2f367.png?auto=format&h=640&w=640" data-embed-caption="For last fall's Malibu Chili Cook-Off, Kilowatt One worked with the Malibu Labor Exchange to provide janitorial and waste-sorting jobs to unemployed and homeless individuals. <br> “Take advantage of your event philanthropy budget to develop strategic community partnerships that will add value for all stakeholders and contribute towards your specific SDG targets," suggests Blumberg." data-embed-credit="Photo: Courtesy of Kilowatt Events" ]}%4. Avoid nonstrategic philanthropy.
It may sound tempting to simply bring in a few local nonprofits, give them some ticket-generated funding and activation spaces to do their thing, post about them on Instagram, and pat yourself on the back. But what true value is this adding to the event and your host community? What statistics are you collecting to quantify positive impacts? How is this philanthropy leading to a better guest experience? Is donating to a number of disparate causes without quantitative targets the best use of your resources to drive value for all stakeholders?

If you are unable to identify partner value to the event or its mission, it may not be a strategic partnership that is maximizing value to your event or to the community.

I am not asking you to banish nonprofits or the value that philanthropy can bring to your event. In fact, it is quite the opposite. What I am calling for is to choose your partnerships wisely, and to ensure that their involvement is assisting both your onsite operation as well as your community legacy in a tangible, measurable way that contributes to your sustainability targets.

For example, last fall at the Malibu Chili Cook-Off—one of Malibu’s largest annual events—Kilowatt One worked with the Malibu Labor Exchange to provide well-paying janitorial and waste-sorting jobs to 26 unemployed and homeless individuals. Rather than just donating a portion of proceeds to the Malibu Labor Exchange and putting their logo on the event website, we ingrained them into the fabric of our event, supporting their cause while contributing to a clean and sustainable venue with an 86 percent landfill diversion rate.

It is nearly impossible to improve what you cannot measure, so if your goal is to contribute to these organizations, choose those who can add value to the production by enhancing the guest experience while connecting guests to local causes in a more profound way.

Conclusion
As event organizers, we may be masters of distraction—but we are also masters of celebrating culture and community. It's not our responsibility to fix our global problems, but we should not contribute to making these problems worse. Just as importantly, we need to support local organizations and community members who can fix them.

Our industry can no longer be blind to our planet’s collective issues, and we need to shine a light onto some of the most important challenges our industry, let alone our species, has ever faced. This Earth Day, join us and help illuminate our path forward.

More in Opinion/Experts