Lessons for Sustainable Destinations & Events from Singapore- Water and Land

Once a River, now a Reservoir- Courtesy of 50MM Photography

Having lived in Singapore for most of the last 2 months I’ve still much to learn about this fascinating island state but in this relatively short time have already been left impressed by how the government has used sustainability as a catalyst for innovation- providing lessons for any events business.  The conundrum is why has Singapore come on leaps and bounds in some areas of sustainability where other countries are lagging behind?  The answer is fairly simple, resource scarcity is a very real and tangible challenge in Singapore, albeit due to the quirks of international boundaries.  Take water- 50% of Singapore’s water is imported from outside the country so they’ve invested in correcting this imbalance. Water management has had clear support and funding with the result that two thirds of Singapore’s land surface is now a water catchment area with water stored in 17 reservoirs. One of the most impressive is of course, the old Singapore river which used to be tidal. Although instrumental in creating much of the initial fortune of Singapore, shipping here  has long since moved to a larger scale and what was once a muddy and reeking place each day when the tide went out has now been dammed to create Marina Basin, right in the heart of the city. Other great initiatives include NEWater-  wastewater is collected from toilets, sinks and daily use and treated using micro-filtration, reverse-osmosis and UV technology to recycle it into water that’s good enough to drink. This meets 30% of the city’s water needs, a target that will be increased to 50% of future needs by 2060.

Looking at the population of the city, it’s simply boomed over last 25 years, nearly doubling to over five million. Over the same period, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Environment and Water Resources proudly stated at the recent launch official launch of the new TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) for Business Coalition Headquarters  on the 6th November  that when you arrive by plane- Singapore is visibly 50% green. This has increased from a little more than a third of the city-state’s area to this impressive percentage. Why? Because the Singapore Government has designated it a high priority- and that’s all part of Singapore’s next “green road map,” its 10-year development plan, the country aims to go from being “a garden city” to “a city in a garden.”

Singapore has built it’s success over the years from attracting the best traders, from spices, to opium to the trading of today- stocks, technology and services and Singapore wants to stay at the top of the places people will want to work, play, live, and raise a family. The government intends to increase the country’s National Park space from from about 3,300 hectares today to 4,200 hectares in the next 10-15 years and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting 3 such parks on my free weekends already and witnessing live the success of this project relating to biodiversity. One such example for the “twitchers” out there is the reintroduction of the Oriental pied hornbill — the bird’s population has increased from just a pair 16 years ago to about 160 today and here’s one of that small number photographed 2 weeks ago on a simple Iphone.

Oriental Pied Hornbill In Singapore Park- Photo R.Simons

So what are the valuable lessons from Singapore’s national approach for the events business?

  1. Designate sustainability a priority at the very top of the business or organisation and fund appropriately
  2. Understand your supply chain and focus on resource challenges
  3. Recycle whatever you can (including sewage)
  4. Treat your event attendees or employees like you would yourself, provide them with healthy environments, sustenance and lifestyles
  5. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly don’t be afraid to innovate!

Transportation & events: omission of emissions?

Transport to and from meetings and events, and the carbon emissions which result, make many of us want to put our head in the sand.  We can hope that the problem will go away, but it sits there, a liability needing resolution.  Across the world, and in spite of commitment to reduce cost, climate impacts and delegate stress, travel to and from events represents an events’ largest exposure to risk from violating sustainability principles.

We’ve seen many studies and examples of the impact of travel (and here)  but fewer practical examples which outline solutions which can be replicated by event owners internationally.  Some fantastic designers are exploring big solutions which bring real promise to destinations.  Many such solutions, however, will bring benefit to events only in the distant future.

 What can be done today?

  1. Measure your transport impacts: Include carbon dioxide emissions from delegate travel and local transport.
  2. Set clear goals for improvement: Identify measureable targets, track progress and share performance on your website, newsletter or after action report.
  3. Choose wisely: the clever experts at The Carbon Consultancy have collaborated with NGO parter Cool Earth to create a search tool which provides better flight selection options. The tool includes carbon emissions as a decision factor in choosing flights.  By evaluating airplane type, age of fleet, staff training and which routes offer direct flights, this tool calculates complex data and provides simple and clear estimates to inform the buyer.
  4. Pursue sponsorships: The UN Global Compact Leader’s Summit gained Price WaterhouseCoopers as a sponsor for event sustainability. The package included their participation in event measurement and approving the recommended offset project
  5. Engage delegates: Provide recognition on name badges for delegates who travel ‘climate smart’ (also, registration site tip here)
  6. Regional events, connected virtually
  7. Work with CVBs to promote local transport options

Carbon emissions are part of meetings and events.  When we acknowledge them with measurement, we increase the likelihood that these emissions will be seen as a liability and will encourage investment in sound practices to meet targets of drastically reduced emissions.

Looking forward to practical tips and thoughts from your own experience!

Vulnerability of air travel and its effect on the meetings industry.

Today at the GMIC Conference in Portland Oregon, I led a fascinating panel about the business dimension of sustainability. It focused on how macro trends and issues will affect the meetings industry.

One of the panellist was Dr Ian Lee, an expert on the aviation industry from the Sprott School of Business . In the dialog Dr Lee described how the rising price of fuel will affect the airline industry. In his research, he predicts that by 2015 if fuel costs stay at the current rate there will be only 8 airlines in business in Europe. If the price of petroleum rises to $200 dollars a barrel then there will only be 5 airlines left in business. He expressed that the Industries visions of switching to biofuels are way off and that the science won’t be able to deliver any real results until 2050.


The presentation was a real eye opener. If Dr Lee’s projections happen as I expect they will, we are faced with a major shift in the way that we work and travel in the future. I am not a greeny scaremonger – but do strongly believe that destinations and all events businesses need to carefully consider their business strategies. The current business plan predicting constant growth into the next 5 or 10 years – may not actually be valid. In the not too distant future, we may be set to experience an external factor that will create a major culture shift to the way we travel and as Dr Lee suggests a return to the 1950’s style of traveling when air travel was just for the wealthy. This would have serious impacts to the meetings and tourism industries…

You can follow and participate virtually in more of these challenging types of discussions at the GMIC conference. www.sustainablemeetingsconference.com

Can reducing food waste help to cool the planet?

This recent article about food waste in the United States, and the energy it represents, offers reminder that this is an area worthy of focus for event professionals and their suppliers. Indeed, a recent session at the MPI WEC conference offered practical actions to reduce carbon emissions related to events.

Reducing food waste is by no means a new concept. Yet, many industry professionals who have interest in saving money while reducing the environmental impact of their events employ only a minimum of tactics to reduce food waste.

Every event is different and it’s difficult to identify a single list which applies to all. Still, we try. Here’s a hardly-exhaustive list of tactics planners might consider when creating an event which offers food and beverage:

The supplier: Caterer success has much to do with how effectively they eliminate waste. Established processes and team trainings can help. Effective purchasing and storage and rotation can all reduce food spoilage or breakage. Menu design, as well, can influence rates of waste. There are some software solutions that have proven helpful in some cases, such as LeanPath. Planners should ask prospective suppliers about their practices and how their practices can support the no waste agenda.

The venue: The type of venue selected may influence how effective is the support for food waste reduction. Hotels, because they serve many meals in many different outlets, can often re-allocate safe, un-served food completely. Ask. If the supplier advises that no waste is experienced, then this should inform the negotiation for how they’ll charge if the planner doesn’t meet the guaranteed number (savings opportunity). Exhibition halls often have no food and beverage service of their own and contract with local providers. They may have suggestions for who can perform best to help reduce food waste, so planners should ask.

The counts: Old news, perhaps but still a challenge. Many hotel venues require planners to commit to a number 72 hours in advance and then charge the planner that minimum, even if fewer people attend (see ‘venue’ above for the disconnect) Large events have benefitted from requiring delegates to indicate meals they’ll attend during the online registration process.

Donations: For the recent EWEC 2010 conference in Warsaw, planners worked hard to successfully overcome the barriers to donate food to the regional Food Bank. Concerns about food safety were mitigated with written agreements between parties and participation from Food Bank representatives whose equipment and on-site presence allowed them to immediately collect safe food product for same day distribution. Their efforts resulted in 2,900 meals being donated to a ready infrastructure in need, rather than discarding them as waste. Note: the Iceland volcano eruption caused attendance reductions and food count challenges the first few days of the conference, making the Food Bank initiative especially important in this case

Type of service: plated meals are more labor intensive and more costly but can mean less waste under most circumstances. Effectively monitored buffets can control waste but, in most cases, everything left on the table gets discarded. Bold suggestion: invite staff, volunteers and even visitors to grab a plate before the catering team clears the room. Box lunches are normally a big waste but sealed beverages, whole fruit and packaged snacks can all be re-used if not consumed, but only if they’re not left in a heap on top of the tables. Consider placing a separate receptacle for such re-usable items at the service location.

For planners that are looking for specific actions and practical steps to improve sustainable event performance, can the above actions be a place to start? Who knows? You might just help cool the planet.

What examples have you seen be effective? What are some solutions for different kinds of events?

The meetings industry is a paper tiger

Oddly, as technological innovations have advanced, and use of handheld communication devices expanded, so has the production of paper and consumption of trees.  In 1961, world production of paper and paperboard stood at 77 million tons.  In 2005,  354 million tons (more here).

Meanwhile,  recycling of paper and paperboard in industrialized nations is consistently less than 50% of the waste stream.

Fun fact:Recycling 1 ton of paper saves the energy equivalent of 185 gallons (700 liters) of gasoline.

Less fun fact: In 2008, the US EPA reported that in the US alone, over 35 million tons of paper went unrecycled.

Meetings Industry example: COP15  exceeded 8 million printed pages for its 10 day event (=the weight of  two Caterpillar dump trucks).

There exist many, many tools, resources and recommendations to guide a move to reduced printing. What’s needed now is social change (getting comfortable with practices to reduce paper use at the source) and action.  Some fundamentals:

1.  Measure your use and attach a monetary value to that.  Set a goal to reduce use using money as a goal.

2.  Convert your paper use to interesting environmental impact figures: Check out this

3.  Change your purchasing practices to mandate a minimum of 35% post consumer recycled paper.  In most industrialized nations, it’s cost is at par or below virgin paper stock.  Pressure suppliers.

4. Educate your stakeholders (see above) and advise them that your Congress directories, annual reports, telephone directory, newsletter, etc, will only be available online.  Encourage readers not to print.

5.  Collaborate with your printer.  The more you print, the more they make, but good providers have practical solutions for reducing (expanded margins, smaller sizes, paper types, etc).  Explain your goals and approach them as a resource and a partner.

Let’s tame that paper hungry beast

Your ideas?  Helpful resources?

Carbon and climate and planes, Oh my!

For the meetings and events industry, it’s the elephant in the room and, for all it’s size and imminent danger, it’s not moving anytime soon.

Airline emissions represent a minimum of 80% of event-related emissions for larger meetings and a recent, information-rich article from the Guardian/Green Futures magazine reveals that, in spite of all the technological innovations and exciting developments with alternative fuels, no real change will happen for decades.

Now what?  The technology guys are working hard but more is needed.  Continuing, as an industry, with our head in the sand (our experience shows that fewer than 10% of events and business travel is measured and offset..  never mind integrated reduction efforts) is not responsible.  We know it’s an issue and yet– and here the aviation industry heartily agrees–we need to have meetings. 

So, champions of sustainable events, where does that leave us? Thoughts?…anyone?  (.. Bueller??)   There are no easy answers, which is why we need our inspired industry leadership.  We must commit to an approach, then galvanize and solidify our voice and speed the formation of a plan for immediate action.

Some ideas for event planners and suppliers:

1.  Promote renewable energy now.  Most destinations have a utility offering clean energy for business.  When selecting vendors, require they purchase clean, real-renewable (not nuclear, sorry nuclear team) energy.  Industry leaders, demand political action and investment to find faster solutions to climate friendly travel. Join forces with airline lobbyists.  We have shared goals here.

1.  Measure (placed here as co-#1).  Lots of helpful, easy-to-use methods and tools available, so no excuses for not measuring the climate impact of your event and business travel.  Don’t forget to include the travel incurred during planning phases.  Don’t forget to include RFI factor (1.9 suggested as a minimum).

2. Set reduction targets.  Perform an emissions forecast of your event or business travel.  There’s the size of your problem, so how will you minimize it?  Rail instead?  More speakers virtual technology? Print on site and eliminate shipping of heavy boxes for the exhibition?

How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.. and it’s chow time!

Carbon neutral? Why not ‘Climate responsible’?

Soon, the British Standards Institute will release a standard on ‘Carbon Neutral’ events.  That is, if your event does not follow and document key processes outlined in the standard, it cannot be deemed ‘carbon neutral’.

The pursuit of a standard which requires a commitment to reduced emissions is appropriate, but the Carbon Neutral “brand” needs to go.

Like a sassy ad for cigarettes, the current (pre-standard) ‘carbon neutral’ brand promotes unhealthy actions.  Event owners can now budget to offset varying degrees of carbon emissions and market the event with something that looks like responsible action although no effort to reduce event related emissions was planned.

Similarly, ‘carbon neutral’ smacks of the disigenuous.  ‘Neutral’ becomes re-defined by arbitrary parameters.  Did the measurement consider the emissions resulting from the production of the 20,000 square meters of carpet that will be landfilled or incinerated?  Probably not.  Still, the attractive ‘carbon neutral’ label is awarded. 

Granted, an investment in offsetting represents a still new and positive shift in how event owners account for the impact their meeting has on the climate. Further, the ‘carbon neutral’ standard, once released, will result in everybody using the same terminology and definitions.

Still, offsetting was never intended to be the solution, but one part of a multi-facted approach with emissions reduction requiring the most focus.  Even then, our response without a major effort to safely sequester carbon will prove inadequate to achieve the 350ppm to keep our familiar climate in balance.

Offsetting is not enough and ‘Carbon Neutral’ labeled events must not become the goal. Event planners and owners must do more.

One of the lessons from COP15 is the need for all actors to immediately commit to reducing emissions. The meetings industry, like other industries, must measure their Greenhouse Gas emissions and collaborate with respective stakeholders to set agressive goals to reduce total emissions while pursuing effective carbon sequestration, investment in–and efficient usage of– non-nuclear renewable energies in an effort to become ‘Climate responsble’.

Now, that’s a worthy label by any standard.

Your thoughts?

Carbon Counters, Activate!

Posit : It’s important to measure event-related sustainability indicators  to further the cause and argument for sustainable events.

The most prominent and controversial star of the indicator lineup? Carbon emissions.

Carbon measurement: ‘A profusion of tools, a dearth of quality’

We’ve seen a mad scramble to create tools for tracking carbon emissions. Precious few, however, are designed to help meeting planners (lots of flights,hotel rooms, meals and printing).  Of those, none are designed to provide a simple output of quantifiable, respectable data (MyClimate has a great tool doesn’t provide easy graphs of tables to give the planner perspective of their impact.  At right is one we’ve developed)

For measurement to hit the mainstream:Carbon counter

  • carbon tools need to be easily updated with information readily available to the meeting planner
  • Event registration systems need to capture simple travel-related information from event participants and link that data to online tools that will provide meaningful perspective.
  • The data should be conveniently cataloged for easy reference and goal setting

We’re getting there

Hugo Kimber, an earlier contributor to our blog, recently developed the Carbon Manager.

This tool can be linked to event registration sites (the optimum situation) or can accept simple Excel files of flight information.  The more information a planner can provide, the better the report.

A very simple example of a registration based system can be seen here.  Developed by Mårten Lind and U&W, a Stockholm-based environmental consultancy, this tool asks easy questions and gives values to flights based on distance.  U&W is an approved partner of the great MyClimate offsetting products and they have their own array of compelling products for interested planners.

Which tools do you use and why? If you’re an event planner, what would you need to make carbon measurement part of every event?

Green Meeting menu initiative: low carbon meals

Cheese= Greenhouse gasses (GHGs). Who knew, right? But cow milk, coming from the same many-stomached , fossil fuel eating, methane belching ruminants as beef (and, of course, veal), carries a heavy GHG load. Lamb, too!

Like it’s not confusing enough…Meeting Planner plates are already full of confusion with the local/organic/pesticide/herbicide stuff mentioned in previous posts. Still, these confusions don’t get us off the hook from responsibly reducing climate change impacts where we find them.

A beacon in the confusion storm: Consider the provocative work from Bon Apetit, the American company who has re-shaped their entire service concept to integrate sustainable practices. Their food calculator is perhaps more cute than a rigid delivery of hard science but it’s an impressive and helpful resource to provide context for the sustainable food discussion.

The takeaway for green meeting menu planners is to add ‘consider the climate’ to your menu planning checklist.  Some fundamentals:

  • Get and communicate accurate counts to reduce waste (and cost)
  • Regionally harvested fruits and vegetables in season.
  • Seafood from sustainable fisheries, preferably from the Zone closest to your event
  • Chicken from responsible farmers
  • Dynamism and creativity!

As confusing as it they can be, green meetings/sustainable events offer us the opportunity to evolve professionally and personally as we work to find answers to sustainability challenges.

Got better ideas? As always, we welcome your comments and hope to share your best practices!

Practical Wisdom, sensible solutions

I feel so fortunate to have,  in the last 3 days,  been present for passionate speeches by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Wangari Maathai, Rt Hon Tony Blair and President Bill Clinton.  It was like a festival of voices for action against climate change.  While often worrisome, the central themes for each leader offering inspiration for taking action with sensible solutions.

For event planners and suppliers who seek to integrate sustainability into their projects,  I share one idea  gleaned from these provocative presentations (not 1 Powerpoint slide among them, by the way..  amazing):

The Green Belt Movement: Wangari Maathai’s campaign to re-forest the Congo and the world.  20% of global warming is the result of deforestation from the 3 main forest ‘lungs’ of our planet (Amazon, Indonesia and the Congo).  The impact is 4 to 5 times greater than the global transport sector combined.  Consider an activity or event that supports this cause and, in so doing, show an activated response to climate change and social investment in the developing world.

These leaders are calling for us all to come together and take action in our own spheres of influence.  Such practical wisdom, such a sensible solution.


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