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Why Sustainability Is a Smart Business Strategy, and Other Insights From an Eco Expert

Marley Finnegan, the founder of Purpose Sustainability Strategy and Purpose Net Zero, discusses why sustainability is the indisputable future of the events business—and how going green can actually help your event budget.

Why Sustainability Is a Smart Biz Strategy
Photo: Shutterstock

A couple years ago, Marley Finnegan had a vision of her toddler son coming to her as an adult, angrily asking her why she didn’t do enough to address climate change. “It was the epiphany that I needed to do something big," she remembers.

Finnegan started thinking about how she—then a director of brand strategy at a large event design and production firm in Chicago—could make the biggest impact. While she was in the middle of negotiating an idea for a crowdsourced sustainable venue concept, she heard about a 45,000-attendee corporate conference—and couldn't stop thinking about its environmental impact. She calls it her “aha” moment.

“Knowing that the average emissions for a 1,000-person conference are equivalent to 176.76 kilograms of CO2e—or, in other terms, driving a car around the earth 17.6 times—this 45,000-person event could have amounted to driving a car around the earth 792.5 times, or the emissions equivalent to burning 8,796,119 pounds of coal," she explains. 

Why Sustainability Is a Smart Biz StrategyMarley Finnegan, the founder of Purpose Sustainability Strategy and Purpose Net Zero.Photo: Courtesy of Marley FinneganFinnegan quickly realized she could make the most impact with her own sustainable event companies—and Purpose Sustainability Strategy and Purpose Net Zero were born. "I saw large-scale business events as the biggest way for me to bring positive change to the industry," she says.

Purpose Sustainability Strategy is an event consultancy that works with teams to measure, minimize, and manage event emissions, with expertise on sustainability-related challenges. Purpose Net Zero, meanwhile, is a tech solution that helps event hosts measure, manage, and remove carbon emissions related to attendee travel, which Finnegan notes is the cause of 70%-90% of the overall event carbon footprint. 

"Event hosts had been managing this via manual, tedious data entry or via calculators not designed for events, which make assumptions about 1,000 people going from LAX to O'Hare, rather than meeting attendees where they are actually coming from," she says, noting that the tool can be integrated with event registration software. "Purpose Net Zero allows event hosts to easily and efficiently measure, manage, and even fund carbon removal or circular environmental solutions to neutralize this portion of their event footprint." 

Finnegan officially launched the two companies this past April, and has since left her full-time role at a design firm. "I couldn't launch them soon enough. I believe that all industries need to innovate to incorporate sustainability (and circularity) into their business model, as the climate crisis is the most important collective challenge—and opportunity—of our time," she says.

BizBash chatted with Finnegan to learn more about the companies, the future of event sustainability, and the advice she'd give to other event professionals. 

How do Purpose Sustainability Strategy and Purpose Net Zero work together? Can event hosts book your services separately?
The companies are absolutely complementary to each other, yet Purpose Net Zero can be purchased independent of my consulting services. 

Once I scoured the Internet for a solution similar to what I was looking for in Purpose Net Zero—and couldn't find it—I recognized how useful this tool could be to many people, including other sustainability consultants. I wanted anyone who was looking to solve for this portion of their event to feel able to do so, without complicating the sales process.

Most event vendors are small- to medium-sized businesses—many of whom have not had a moment to breathe, post-pandemic. Much of our consulting work lies in curating and collaborating with capable vendors to align them with the event host's sustainability strategies. It's key to the event's success.

I don't imagine this need going away anywhere in the near term; there is a learning curve and an educational component that is essential.

You talk a lot about why sustainability is a smart business strategy. Can you elaborate?
Fifty-six percent of the global population are millennials and Gen Z. And 73% of this cohort is passionate about climate and their support of purpose-driven businesses. America's future consumer is climate conscious and aware. 

Apart from the future consumer, in 2009, Harvard Business School published a study that recognized that companies who embed sustainability into their long-term business strategy perform significantly better than cohorts who don't. In 2016, NYU Stern's Center for Sustainable Business also published a report which found consistently positive financial and strategic benefits for companies that embedded sustainability into their core strategy. In 2021, Sustainable Investing was one of the steadiest forces on Wall Street—and Bloomberg Predicts ESG Assets will account for over a third of total global assets managed by 2025 at more than $53 trillion. 

The fact is, incorporating sustainability into your business actually means that your business is more likely to be financially viable into the future. 

A lot of event professionals think going truly sustainable is too expensive. What would you say to that?
That is a common misconception. To me, it's an investment in brand reputation, another form of live and in-person PR. Attendees notice when there is no recycling and food is going to waste. Conversely, from a cost-saving perspective, switching from beef at every meal to vegetarian is a huge cost savings. Eliminating linear to landfill design is a cost savings—and discontinuing wasteful and unnecessary event swag is a cost savings. Eliminating single-use plastic is a cost savings.

The rest, including things like waste diversion programming, should be accounted for in each event budget. At this point in time, 2023 event budgets should be increasing, if not doubling, due to supply chain, payment of fair wages, inflation—and sustainability. Corporations that plan to cut 2023 event budgets should be rethinking their entire event strategy.

What’s the best starting point for event professionals who want to be more sustainable?
Educate yourself on emissions, the different scopes of emissions, what they mean, and how they exist in relation to events. Also, commit to learning more about sustainability and taking certifications around sustainability in the industry. 

Depending on the event location and if it's drawing non-local attendees, travel emissions management is a huge component, with energy being a close second. Selecting venues and cities that utilize green energy can save six figures in emissions.

What are your biggest sustainability-focused tips for events?
I can talk about this all day! But, the boilerplate is to focus on the following: attendee travel, energy, sourcing (vendors, distances, materials, etc.), food choices, and waste diversion. If you focus on these elements strategically from the start and commit to positive impacts, you will be off to an impactful start.

What’s the No. 1 thing you wish all event professionals knew about sustainability?
Both of my businesses exist to facilitate live events, because I believe in human connection, and I believe that's how business gets done. But how can we do it mindfully? 

[Sustainability is] the indisputable future of the events business and industry at large. Whether it's large-scale business events or young millennial weddings, incorporating sustainability into business practices and your model is a must. It is not a trend nor a nice-to-have; it's now a signal of brand reputation and showcasing a greater responsibility to purpose-driven business practices. 

This interview has been slightly edited and condensed.

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