10 Tips for Sustainable Event Planning

By: Caitlin Uttley

U2 performs in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 2009.  While the concert was free, you can bet the environmental impact wasn't.
U2 performs in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 2009. While the concert was free, you can bet the environmental impact wasn't.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Back in 2009 the band U2 drew a lot of complaints -- and even protestors -- for the enormous carbon footprint left behind from their world tour that took them to 44 venues around the world. While the band expressed hopes of offsetting their negative environmental impact, a U.K. carbon consultancy claimed that in order to do that, they'd have to plant a whopping 20,118 trees. That's a lot of digging!

But U2's not alone -- events large and small are notorious for generating large amounts of waste, using too much energy and even generating pollution. They can be environmental nightmares. But do they really have to be that? Why not take the steps to make your next event sustainable?


Sustainability's all about being responsible – environmentally, socially and economically. So more than just reducing your negative environmental impact, you can also have a positive impact.

Planning ahead goes a long way toward making an event not only successful, but green, too. The earlier you make sustainability a part of the agenda, the easier it is to implement it. So plan ahead and plan thoroughly. In this list we'll share 10 tips to help make the next event you plan something Mother Earth will approve of.

10: Get Everyone On Board

If you're working with vendors, or even just friends and family, make sure they know that sustainability's a priority from the very beginning. If everyone is on the same page from the start, it's easier to expect them to follow through – they may even come up with their own suggestions for making the event greener. Make sure your guests know your goal too.

One way to get the ball rolling in the right direction is to create an environmental impact statement at the start of your project and give everyone involved a copy. An environmental impact statement is a document that outlines the impact of planned actions on the environment. You could describe the typical impact of an event like yours, including energy use, waste production and pollution, and then describe how you plan to make it better. You may decide to focus on waste reduction in one particular area rather than trying to do everything at once. Or you could simply state your overall plans for sustainability so that everyone involved has a common goal when they make decisions about your event.


9: Find the Perfect Timing

There are lots of ways to reduce an event's environmental footprint, and one way is to pick a time to hold the event that makes it easier to use fewer resources. For example, choose a month when the weather is mild, so you won't need to heat or cool your venue. You can also hold your event in the daytime so you won't need as much electricity to light everything up.

Maybe your perfect timing involves a point in the week or day when there's not a lot of traffic so people won't spend as much time on the road trying to get there. Perhaps the starting and ending times of the event could coincide with bus or train schedules so it's easy for people to use mass transit to arrive and leave. You might pick a time of year when local foods are being harvested, so the food you serve won't need to travel as far to get there. You could even avoid hot times of the year or day so people won't be tempted to drink lots of bottled water.


Just remember that while it's good to consider the environment when choosing a date and time for your event, you shouldn't completely neglect the needs of your attendees. Your perfect timing will be a balance of energy- and resource-saving measures, and convenience for your guests.

8: Get the (Green) Word Out

Instead of mailing out an invite, it's greener (and cheaper) to use e-mail.
Instead of mailing out an invite, it's greener (and cheaper) to use e-mail.

Letting people know about your event doesn't have to be big resource waster. Do you really need flyers, postcards, newsletters and print ads to tell everyone when and where to go? Instead, try sending invitations electronically or using social networking to get the word out. Using the Web also gives you an easy way to get RSVPs on the spot. Local radio and television is another great way to advertise that doesn't make the landfill grow.

If you must send out paper invitations or advertisements, consider using recycled paper and making the invitations or ads as small as possible to use the least amount of paper. Rather than having return cards for responses, tell people to phone in their RSVP or sign up for the event online.


And when you send out your ads or invites, don't forget to mention that your event has sustainability in mind (it's never too early to get people thinking about ways to be kind to the environment).

7: Stay Smart

Sometimes long distance travel is unavoidable, but just because guests are arriving from out of town doesn't mean you can't find environmentally friendly ways (and places) to accommodate them.

If guests need a place to bunk for the night, encourage them to stay in green hotels or other accommodations that are environmentally conscious. A "green" hotel is a hotel that has environmental issues in mind and is dedicated to preserving and protecting the environment through sustainable practices. Check out the Green Hotels Association for information about participating places to stay. You can also contact hotels directly to find out about their environmental management practices. Some of these could include turning off heating and air conditioning in vacant rooms, avoiding personal-sized toiletries, recycling and offering a program for guests to reuse linens from day to day.


Also be aware of where hotels are located. Accommodations near your venue, or near easily accessible public transportation routes, encourage guests to arrive in ways other than by car.

6: Stop With the Handouts

Event programs are cute but get tossed in the garbage afterwards. You could display the info on a screen instead.
Event programs are cute but get tossed in the garbage afterwards. You could display the info on a screen instead.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Paper makes up the largest share of waste materials tossed out at special events -- around 27 percent -- according to a study by the California Integrated Waste Management Board. No surprise there. If you've ever been to a business conference, you probably left with so many handouts, flyers, packets and pamphlets that you felt weighed down just walking out the door. And where are all those flyers now? In the trash?

Events can sometimes get paper heavy, especially if there's information that needs to be shared with everyone. To reduce the amount of paper you use, don't hand out flyers, folders or pamphlets to attendees. Instead, e-mail materials to guests ahead of time, or create a Web site with all the necessary information. If it's important for guests to view something, display it on a screen to everyone at once rather than distributing individual copies. By reducing the amount of paper floating around you reduce waste and litter.


5: Feed People Right

The ingredients in a typical American meal travel anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 miles (2,414 to 4,023 kilometers) just to reach your plate. When it comes to planning the menu, you can reduce energy consumption and pollution by choosing foods from local vendors or hiring food vendors who use local, in-season products that don't have to travel as far to get there. If possible, serve organic food, which doesn't require the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that can damage the environment. If you want your food vendors to use reusable materials and energy-efficient appliances, make sure they know ahead of time and ensure it's part of their contract.

Avoid bottled or individually packaged beverages, which can create an enormous amount of unnecessary waste. Instead, encourage attendees to bring their own beverage containers and offer filling stations, or hand out reusable beverage containers, like cups or bottles that attendees can refill.


4: Don't Forget to Have (Green) Fun!

Piedmont Park in Atlanta hosts many event like this jazz festival.  Having the event in the day is a green choice.
Piedmont Park in Atlanta hosts many event like this jazz festival. Having the event in the day is a green choice.
R. Diamond/WireImage/Getty Images

Of course there has to be something to entertain your guests -- but just because it's fun doesn't mean it has to be wasteful.

Choose local acts and speakers who don't need to travel very far to get to your event. Once they're there, minimize their setup to reduce energy consumption and waste -- does the hot new local band you're featuring really need a smoke machine and strobe lights to wow the crowd? Probably not.


Take it a step further by making sustainability a feature of the entertainment. Guests can participate in games and trivia related to the environment. Find a speaker who has a green-centric message to get guests thinking about their own impact on the planet. If you plan to have additional activities and excursions outside of your venue, consider activities that get people out to enjoy the local environment without harming it, like nature walks and eco-tourism activities.

3: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

You've always heard the saying "reduce, reuse, recycle" and now you can implement all three while planning your event.

  • Reduce the amount of packaging materials you use by purchasing in bulk. Keeping track of the number of attendees can also help reduce waste by making sure you don't have more supplies than you need.
  • Reuse whatever you can, whether it's cups, plates and silverware that guests can keep using or donating leftover materials to schools and community centers. You can even donate leftover food to local soup kitchens, pantries and shelters.
  • Recyling waste is a must and you'll probably need someone in charge of this. Do recycling bins need to be emptied periodically? Does the waste need to be sorted? Does cardboard need to be flattened? If so, assign a point person. For big events, plan ahead with your local waste haulers to arrange for pickup and to make sure you're meeting their guidelines for what materials they accept.

Just as important is to make sure the recycling efforts -- and what guests are expected to do to contribute -- are very visible. Use color-coded signs (or even pictures) to make recycling fool-proof. Ensure all your recycling areas look the same throughout the venue so they're easy to identify. Remember, the easier recycling is to do, the more likely people are to do it (that goes for vendors as well as guests).


2: Get a Move On

Select a venue that people can reach using public transportation.
Select a venue that people can reach using public transportation.
Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

Unless you're throwing a neighborhood block party, almost all of the people coming to your event will have to travel there in some way. While you can't entirely control how people get around, you can give your attendees a nudge in the right direction.

Select a venue that can be walked to or that people can reach using public transportation. If public transport isn't an option, arrange group transportation from common pickup points. Even encouraging guests to carpool and share rides can help -- if you can reduce the number of individual vehicles to get people there, you're reducing your negative environmental impact. To help get people on board, consider offering incentives, like a free drink or a prize, to people who choose to arrive in ways other than by car. Lastly, don't forget to let guests know what the preferred transportation options are -- especially if they're not familiar with the area.


1: Choose a Sustainable Venue

Picking the right venue can be the most important part of making your event sustainable. Find a venue that has a track record of environmental sustainability and is willing to cooperate with your mission, or work with a venue that will adapt to meet your needs. Do they already have recycling facilities on-site? How energy efficient is it? What about the venue's choice of vendors -- do they use sustainable practices? Remember to review contracts to ensure your venue will participate in the green efforts the way you think they will.

When choosing a venue, there are some decisions you can make, too, that will help reduce energy consumption and waste. For instance, don't book a space that's larger than the number of guests you plan to have (most venues can tell you how many people a space holds for various types of functions). Choose a location that's accessible easily using public transportation. If you are using multiple venues, choosing facilities near one another can reduce the need to transport people long distances from one place to another.

For more event planning ideas and best practices to make your next event both fun and planet-friendly, take a look at the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Colorado Convention Center. "Sustainability." 2012. http://denverconvention.com/about-us/sustainability/
  • Concern, Inc. "How to Plan a Sustainable Event." 2003. http://www.sustainable.org/images/stories/pdf/SusEvent_2003.pdf
  • Convention Industry Council. "Green Meetings Report." June 15, 2004. www.conventionindustry.org/Files/CIC_Green_Meetings_Report.pdf
  • Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee Greening Initiative. "Sustainable Event Planning Guide." 2008. www.denver.org/denver-meetings-conventions/images/SustainabilityGuide.pdf
  • Kittler, Pamela, and Kathryn P. Sucher. "Food and Culture, 5th Edition." Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.
  • Michaels, Sean. "U2 Criticized for World Tour Carbon Footprint." The Guardian, July 10, 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jul/10/u2-world-tour-carbon-footprint
  • Stanford University Office of Special Events and Protocol. "Green Event Planning Policy." https://osep.stanford.edu/policies/green.html
  • Stop Waste Partnership. "Special Events Best Practices Guide." 2007. www.stopwaste.org/docs/specialevents-swp.pdf