As I write this post, we are just days away from the one-year anniversary of the first COVID shutdown in the U.S. At this exact time last year, I was at a party with my graduate cohort kicking off Spring Break and preparing to travel to visit some friends.

Now, it’s been almost a whole year since I’ve been to an arts event in person, eaten at a restaurant, or sat on a friend’s couch. It’s been a hard year for the arts, and fundraisers have had to do what they can to make up for the loss of earned income. Arts organizations have also needed to get creative with their special events by finding ways to make a virtual event experience just as engaging and impactful for donors, members, and patrons as the in-person version.

Through all of the change and challenges, there have been a few positives from all this time online. For many, it’s been a chance to reconnect with themselves outside of demanding schedules. Arts organizations have been forced to move into the future and adapt to changing technology and viewing habits. And, the move to virtual events and performances has meant a significant reduction in the environmental impact of the event industry.

According to a recent study reported by Energy Live News, there has been a 99% reduction in related emissions from events since the start of the pandemic. The article states that, “a virtual exhibition will create less than 1% of the carbon emissions of a live event.” While this reduction may not be surprising, the percentage is certainly striking. Of course, as we’ve all learned over the past year, virtual events don’t quite hold up to the in-person event. You lose out on human connection, the shared emotions of a crowd, great catering, and the same level of engagement. However, with the considerable environmental benefits of moving events virtually, it’s at least worth the time of a fundraiser to consider if any of their events post-pandemic can stay virtual. And if not, how they might make their in-person special events more environmentally sustainable.

“Sustainability is not just about environmental impact; it is about reaching the best combination between environmental, social and economic impacts. Exhibitions play a very strong role in economic and social development, fostering the exchange of ideas and driving intellectual development as well as economic impact.” Kai Hattendorf, CEO of UFI

More on the environmental benefits of going virtual

What are the Benefits of Virtual Events?” by MeetGreen lays out some of the general benefits as well as the carbon footprint benefits for virtual events. On a more general level, virtual events can save time and money, can more easily accommodate busy schedules, and alleviate the stress of travel. Having a focus on environmental sustainability can also contribute to financial and well-being sustainability.  MeetGreen also points out that virtual events cut down on the carbon footprint of your events by eliminating air travel, ground transportation, hotel energy, and venue energy. 

In addition to travel, lodging, and energy emissions, in-person events also produce a significant amount of waste: excess food, paper used for programs or name cards, plastic cutlery, and special event decorations designed for one-time use.  According to an article by Environmental Journal titled, “Going green; the ‘New Normal’ of the events industry,” “Running an event online is undeniably greener and more sustainable than everyone turning up to a physical venue. For instance, when hosting a physical event, not only does the event team need to consider the logistics of getting people to the venue, but they will also need to consider the amount of food wasted, rubbish cleared, employee, to work the event, and indeed the energy required to run that event, from lights to heating to serving up food.”

The arts field could save time, money, and majorly reduce our impact on the environment by re-examining which of our annual events could remain virtual post-pandemic.

Making your in-person events more eco-friendly

But, what about those events that need to remain in-person? The gala experience can be much more engaging and impactful for current and future donors when they’re able to be in your beautiful venue, see a live performance from the company artists, and connect with other donors at your organization. A post-show champagne toast, backstage tour, and meeting with performers will likely excite your major donors more than a chat over Zoom. The week-long workshop opportunities you provide for high school students could have a greater impact when students are able to connect with each other and teaching artists in-person than from their homes. There are great benefits to gathering face-to-face which can be felt even more now with a year of virtual oversaturation. So, for those events in which you can’t go virtual, what are some ways to still remain committed to lowering your environmental impact?

A blog post by Social Tables explores several ways to make events more eco-friendly and sustainable. Some of the suggestions include:

  • Consider your partners carefully. When you’re looking at caterers, event management companies, and other vendors, check to see if they share your sustainability values.
  • Host your events in green venues. If you don’t have your own venue, you have the opportunity to get creative with your event location. Check out the Green Venue Report for new ideas of green-centered venues, or explore outdoor options to cut back on energy use. When selecting your location, you can also keep in mind transportation and distance of those attending. If your typical venue is in a downtown area but the majority of the those who will be attending the event are located in a different part of town, why not take the event out to them? This can help to cut down on the emissions of travel while also taking up the work of meeting your donors where they are. 
  • Find ways to reduce waste from your event. Some ways to do this include going paperless by using a phone ticketing app and QR codes for a mobile event program. To reduce the use of plastic, provide water pitchers and glasses instead plastic cups and look for creative ways to reuse materials you already have for decoration.
  • Reduce your event’s energy and water consumption. This ties in with the partners you choose. Keep in mind your commitment to reducing energy and water consumption when selecting venues, hotels, and caterers.   
  • Choose sustainable food and beverage options. This can be a really fun way to commit to sustainability. Look at your area food venders to see who uses local produce. Challenge your catering team to serve only seasonal produce at your event. Provide a meatless option to your guests ahead of time with information about your dedication to lowering your environmental impact. Prior to the event, find local food banks that can accept any leftover food from your event to cut down on food waste.
  • And of course, provide recycling options for guests that are readily available. Other components to consider include donating unused materials, choosing reusable materials in your planning, and providing a composting option for food staff.  

Other resources for a deeper dive

  • Greener Events Guide by Ministry for the Environment: This resource provides a guide for getting started with virtual events, further resources to explore, and six checklists for each aspect of event greening. The checklists are broken down into event planning, before the event, during the event, and after the event.
  • How to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Events by Eventbrite: On this page, you can read about the initiatives other event planner have undertaken to reduce their environmental impact. These range from collaborating with local food vendors and donating leftover food, asking attendees to bring their own water bottles or coffee mugs, and getting creative with what can be reused as event décor.
  • UnCarbon Calculator from MeetGreen: This tool allows you to calculate the carbon impact of your event by adding together air travel, ground transportation, onsite generation, and accommodations.
  • Toolkit for Environmental Impacts of Events and Event Impacts Manual from eventIMPACTS: These complimentary documents go deep into the details of why and how to consider the environmental impact of your events including evaluation recommendations and tools. While these documents are geared to larger events than an arts fundraiser is typically planning, the resources can still be useful. 

“The future of the events industry (and indeed many other industries) is of course rather unknown due to the pandemic, but certainly those brands who are willing to think outside the box when it comes to delivering virtual events, and indeed think longer term could be at a competitive advantage.” –“Going Green; the ‘New Normal’ of the Events Industry

Taylor Wood is a graduate student in the M.F.A. in Theatre in Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.