Reimagining sustainability 

For 25 years, sustainable development has been revered as the solution to the world’s problems. However, the global pandemic has called on the world to stop and revaluate the systems in place and in power. This threat to economic and social stability is just one of many facing our world today. There is rampant pollution, the decline and extinction of species and the impacts of extreme weather that continue to ravage communities. As poverty increases so do the inequalities in the distribution of wealth and natural resources. 

This extraordinary context means it is no longer good enough to talk about sustaining a broken system, instead focus on regenerating the social, economic and ecosystems upon which we depend is now critical.  

The trillion-dollar events and meetings sector has been one of the many sectors to suffer tremendous losses during the pandemic. A ground breaking report – the first in a series of #Natureworks research papers sponsored by IMEX and Marriot International – explores and asserts that for the global meetings and events industry to recover, flourish and thrive in a future world, the temptation of adopting COVID-19 recovery strategies based on a wish to return to the ‘normal’ of the past must be eschewed 

Instead, we must use the pandemic as a ´great reset´ to rethink, reimagine and redesign a new restorative, resilient, inclusive and zero carbon growth model to restore and rejuvenate the planet, its people and create a heathier economy. 

The report highlights that 2019 was a tipping point for sustainability in the events industry. There was a surge of demand and actions in the sector, with 79% of organisations increasing their focus to make their events more sustainable, and a staggering 97% of organisations implementing some form of event sustainability initiative. This recognition of the need to change mindsets and operating practices has not changed post-COVID yet despite the positive intentions, the research revealed that the current commitments and skill levels of the industry are inadequate (only 3.4% of suppliers and organisers surveyed, had implemented a circular strategy for their business events) for the scale of the challenges ahead.  

Paradoxically the greatest challenges offer the greatest opportunities and as the events sector looks to rejuvenate its functions; the opportunity is to redesign itself into a sector that functions as a living ecosystemThis requires a paradigm shift from linear, extractive and wasteful models to those that are inclusive and circular and that can contribute to the rejuvenation and restoration of the environment and society. 

The Waste Pandemic  

Every year more than 100 billion metric tonnes of raw materials are extracted and converted into products. Less than 8.6% of these materials are recycled back into the economy. While millions go hungry, 30% of the food produced is wasted equating to 6% of global emissions, more than double those produced from flying.  

In 2016, 242 million metric tonnes of plastic waste were generated globally. As the report suggests, across its lifecycle, plastic accounts for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. To put that in perspective, if plastic use were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Consider that 91% of plastic is not recycled which ensures  11 million metric tonnes  enter  thoceans each year. Almost half of this waste consists of single-use plastics such as plastic water bottles, service ware, signage, merchandising and – as more evidence presents itself – the single use mask. 

As a result of this waste up to one million seabirds, 100,000 sea mammals, marine turtles, and countless fish die every year. What is worse is that this annual flow to the oceans is predicted to triple to 29 million metric tonnes by 2040.  

By 2050, plastic production and incineration at its current rate could triple to 2.8 gigatons of CO2 per year, releasing emissions equivalent to 615 five-hundred-megawatt coal plants. 

Why is nature being destroyed? 

The 2020 WWF Living Planet Report reveals there has been an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish in the last 40 years. 

Ecological capital has long been left off balance sheets and the impacts of business on the natural world have been ignored in favour of profit at any cost. This has to change in order to understand the true impact of business on the ecosystems that support it.  

Is it not time to reconnect with nature and learn from the  3.6 billion years of expertise in designing systems that collaborate and thrive interdependently?  

In nature there is no such thing as greed or waste and the infinitely complex system self regulates to ensure balance and conditions conducive to life. If we continue to operate outside of these natural laws then it is a downward slope to a world bereft of living systems that enhance and enable life to flourish.  

Some of humanity’s greatest technological  inventions have been inspired by biomimicry, a practice that puts nature at the heart of a design conundrum to see how nature would solve it.  

Ithe critical times we are facing, we need to be inspired by natural, functioning systems, and work in collaboration with innovators to improve our planetary and social impact. More often we need to start by asking nature how to create a business (and event) strategy that will create conditions conducive to society, the environment and economy’s thrive-ability. 

The GDS-Movement and regenerative business strategies  

The GDS – Movement believes that humans are part of nature, and as such business activities need to enable human and social capital to grow and thrive. It acts as a platform that unites and enables destination management professionals to create flourishing and resilient places to visit, meet and live in. Its overall mission is to co-create sustainable and circular strategies, mindsets and skill sets that will enable destinations of the future to thrive, and society and nature to regenerate 

Their approach is based on the principles of the Circular Economy as outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with insights from Alexandre Lemille and his recent paper “Making the Circular Economy work for Human Development.” The team also draws upon inspiration and insights from the realms of nature-inspired innovation (Biomimicry), Cradle to Cradle, the work on Regenerative Leadership by Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm, and the 8 Principles for a Regenerative Economy from the Capital Institute. 

Accenture calculated that the circular economy is the world’s largest opportunity, with the potential to unlock $4.5 trillion growthCambridge Economics estimates that applying circular economy principles across the EU economy has the potential to create around 700,000 new jobs and create a net benefit of €1.8 billion by 2030. 

In a circular and regenerative economy, economic activity builds and rebuilds overall system health. It is restorative and regenerative by design. The concept recognises the importance of the economy needing to work effectively at all scales – for big and small businesses, for organisations and individuals, globally and locally. 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines principles for circularity and regenerative design: 

Design out waste and pollution 

Keep products and materials in use 

Regenerate natural systems  

HANNUWA – a framework for  regenerative events 

To enable the events and meetings sector to achieve a new paradigm of event success the GDS Movement has developed a framework and set of tools that support event suppliers, organisers and educators on their journey of transformation. Their approach is summed up in the word: Hannuwa, an ancient San word from South Africa that means the gathering of good fortune through living in harmony with our natural environment.  

It comprises of four key principles and an eight-step methodology which serves to educate and guide event organisers towards more regenerative event management that includes considerations of designing for inclusivity and diversity.  

This is just one piece of the puzzle however and future research will include destinations, hotels, venues, and other key stakeholders.  

Considering the Whole Value Chain 

Circularity requires a rethink of how you work with your contractors, suppliers, partners, and sponsors. By reorganising the value chain and by partnering with responsible organisations that align and commit to your vision and goals better results will show themselves. Integrate more certified and social enterprises and source products that are local, inclusive and ethical. If possible, choose a destination that has a strong municipal circularity strategy. The Global Destination Sustainability Index can help you find them. 

Aim to unite your key suppliers, sponsors, and partners into a “regeneration team” to think big and collaborate to reimagine and experiment how your event(s) can achieve business targets while making a measurable difference to host communities and nature. 

Conclusion:  

The time is now for the event sector to reinvent itself due to the restrictions on large gatherings and way reduced travel demands. Online events are going to be the norm with select smaller more concentrated in person events.  

Every link in the chain has a social, environmental and economic impact and as such each are responsible for co-creating solutions that will transform not only the sector but everything that is affected and dependent on it. 

Collaboration is key and all stakeholders from local government, academia, businesses, NGOs, and social enterprises can contribute to create naturebased solutions that regenerate local ecosystems and improve people’s livelihoods in the face of climate threats and social change.