Pick the right sustainability battles at conferences

Simon Sinek 4657383798_a7761bfe79_o In 2011 Simon Sinek keynoted MPI’s World Education Congress. As I and thousands of attendees watched, he began to share his message by drawing a diagram on a flip chart pad. Almost as soon as Simon picked up his marker, people started tweeting that he was wasting paper.

At recent conferences I’ve been asked if I really need to have attendees work with sticky notes and flip charts. People ask, “Can’t they just talk to each other?” I’ve also encountered resistance to requests to print a few attendee tour photos for use in artifact-building exercises.

Let’s put these and similar requests in perspective.

I am a supporter of sustainable events. From 1978 – 1983 I managed a solar energy business, and didn’t do it for the money. I am glad that apps are rapidly making it unnecessary to print the vast quantities of schedules and vendor catalogs that we schlepped around in the past, applaud the installation (and flexibility) of electronic signage, and love the efforts to minimize the appalling food wastage we used to take for granted when running an event.

Yes I know that the flip chart sheets, note cards, and sticky notes produced during interactive exercises are rarely kept afterwards. But they are needed for the experience of creation. Writing something down, sketching, or drawing a diagram provide powerful alternative modalities for learning and sharing that we traditionally restrict to hearing and looking (which often, by the way, don’t translate into listening and seeing). The act of building these creations into an appropriate concrete event metaphor—like the cardboard box bridge participants constructed at the Green Meetings Industry Council’s 2014 Sustainable Meetings Conference—also increases the effectiveness of participants’ experience.


Let’s take a quick look at the sustainability impact of using these materials at an event, using the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) approach. I’ve rounded off the figures, which I obtained from carbon footprint calculators available on the internet; smaller amounts are better.

  • Making and printing a single sheet of office paper: 10 grams CO2e
  • An average meal: 3,000 grams CO2e
  • Driving a Toyota Prius 300 miles to a conference: 70,000 grams CO2e
  • Flying from Boston to San Francisco: 750,000 grams CO2e

As you can see from these figures, the CO2e contributed by the modest use of sheets of flip chart paper and sticky notes at an event is insignificant compared to the carbon footprint of the meals and travel of a typical attendee. While we should work to use as little of these (recyclable) products as possible, our time would be better spent concentrating on reducing the much larger contributions to greenhouse gases caused by the food consumption and travel to and from our events.

Photo attribution: Flickr user centralasian and Bay Area Event Photography

  • Nancy Zavada

    Agreed, Adrian. What must also be noted is these materials should be either donated or recycled at the end of the event. In the case of The Sustainable Meetings Conference 2014, these products were donated to SCRAP in San Francisco.

  • mitchellbeer

    Excellent post, Adrian. When we saw the photo, before we scrolled down to the calculation, Karen’s comment was: “My goodness! Don’t all those people who flew to the conference realize how much carbon they’re emitting with the cardboard they’re wasting?” Meetings and events is not the only industry where people focus obsessively on the small impacts that are right in front of them, without addressing the far larger impacts across their supply chains. But it’s certainly an area where meetings practice needs drastic improvement.