Sustainable event ideas Q&A with Jeff Hamm

Jeff Hamm

Jeff Hamm, is the managing director of Upstream Events, based in Yukon Canada. As a registered professional planner, he has over 30 years of experience in local and regional planning and 20 years of experience running the technical production aspect of events. Jeff has presented and written multiple publications on sustainability and planning. His knowledge of events combined with sustainable practices makes him an expert on the environmental impacts of events and sustainable event practices.

Yukon, Canada is a popular location for destination events and cultural gatherings – what impact do events have on the community?

Even a small jurisdiction like Yukon can experience significant economic impact from events; the Yukon consistently derives an estimated $4-5 million in annual economic benefit from the MICE sector. 

Positive benefits are not limited to financial stimulus from festivals and conferences:

For individuals, events provide an opportunity for participation, skill development, volunteering, social and cultural development. 

For communities, events make it possible to protect the use of certain spaces, like parks, conference centres, stadiums, and arenas, with the result being financial return and sharing of artistic and cultural heritage; intangible benefits that contribute to a sense of community pride.

However, events are also resource-intensive and destination events generate a considerable amount of travel. An increase in energy usage, water consumption, waste disposal, transport, traffic, fuel consumption, carbon emissions and air pollution impose additional strain on community infrastructure. This places additional financial burdens on ratepayers. And for large scale events, social problems like noise, littering, crime, vandalism, alienation and anti-social behaviour are potential negative impacts.

woman looking at mountains in Yukon Canada

How can event professionals plan an event with sustainability in mind?

Being proactive is the key to hosting a sustainable event. Sustainable events have a champion, someone who is assigned responsibility and is committed to implementing sustainable practices. They connect with organisers, vendors, caterers and exhibitors early, asking if they have eco-friendly practices, such as on-site recycling, reduced usage of paper and plastic,  compostable packaging. They actively pursue local purchasing opportunities and demand energy-efficient lighting! 

  • Promote your event online, via social media to avoid generating waste from printed materials. Going paperless with communications, by text or email, is another way to reduce paper consumption.
  • At least 70% of the carbon produced by a destination event comes from air travel. Consider offsetting carbon emissions by supporting projects that help the world transition to a lower-carbon economy. Select and recommend offsets that are relevant to the event. 
  • Event planners should be taking any action available to reduce the event’s greenhouse gas emissions by choosing green alternatives.  Provide virtual meeting options for distant participants and presenters, using live streaming and video conferencing, to reduce the need for travel. 

Monitor outcomes and evaluate success, with continuous improvement of practices to minimise waste. For example, a good practice is to work with local suppliers and vendors. A best practice would be to work with local suppliers and sponsors with social economy initiatives, as their messaging may reinforce your own. Other examples: Good – minimise swag; Better – emphasise local and ethically produced goods with minimal packaging; Best – eliminate swag.

crowd of people

How do you use technology to assist events with sustainable practices?

I can remember the joy I felt the first time I distributed conference proceedings on CD. I saved so much time on printing and so much money on postage! Event websites were quick to follow as a way of increasing the reach of marketing and promotion without mail drops, and digital background materials became the norm, with small print runs as a backup. Registration remained a bottleneck though, consuming too much volunteer time and slowing down the process of bringing people on board the event wagon.

Today, we have on-line registration and payment platforms, integrated with on-site self-serve badging kiosks. We push services to the mobile platform, with flexible and adaptive event apps for all aspects of the attendee experience, well beyond simple replacement of printed materials. Better communication results in more informed attendees; better networking between attendees, exhibitors, sponsors and presenters produces more engagement. More engaged participants result in better event outcomes. Successful events help build communities.

person printed a badge via self serve kiosk
Sprintr Kiosks, Photo Credit: Oneill Photographics


We also extend the reach of events with live streaming and virtual meeting technology, for both public and secure, private audiences. When combined with our event apps, the live stream can provide a virtual attendee with the same opportunity to engage as those in the room, with no travel. And event exhibitors and sponsors are getting exposure outside the venue.

We also reduce single-use printed signage by deploying digital signage for promotional displays and touch screen monitors for wayfinding. We can even go digital with badges and attendee tracking apps to provide events with the same ability to control access without the need for printed badges, plastic holders and poly lanyards.

Attendees connecting via scanning each others badges
Photo Credit: Oneill Photographics


Have you noticed any trends around events and environmental sustainability?

Let me be honest here, and admit that I still remember putting out styrofoam cups for the refreshment break. I think there has been considerable change over the last 20 years, partly through changes in personal habits, like refillable water bottles, reusable totes, and partly through the advent of new technology, like mobile devices. Broad change in environmental awareness is reflected in the expectations of both participants and exhibitors for efficient energy use and minimal waste production.

More events are going digital and online for marketing and promotion, registration, and distribution of agenda and background materials. The ease with which changes can be made and disseminated is a huge time-saver for organisers, as is the reduced handling of paper and reduction in shredding of unused and abandoned print materials.

Conferences are more interactive now than 20 years ago, as organisers and participants look to achieve more meaningful outcomes from their events. The engagement of attendees in the conversation created a lot of waste flip chart paper and sticky notes. Event apps with features like Q&A, audience polling and networking can completely eliminate the need for flip charts.

Attendees are generally more environmentally conscious in this day and age. They have modified their own behaviour to align with broader social values for conservation. They also look to see that the businesses that serve them, and the functions they attend, respect those same values. There is a demand for greater transparency in provisioning and catering, with an expectation that goods and services are locally sourced from ethical suppliers, where and when possible. Folks are quick to point out instances of ‘greenwashing’, those insincere attempts that portray responsible practice, but are not that. My favourites are the single waste receptacles with a garbage symbol on one side, and a recycling logo on the other.

Sustainability is a combined effort, how can event professionals get all stakeholders involved.

Everybody has a part to play in sustainable practices, collaboration and partnership can create wins for sponsors and exhibitors, and reduce costs for suppliers. Put some sustainability measures into your venue evaluation criteria: 

  • Do they separate waste? 
  • Use local ingredients? 
  • Minimise food packaging? 
  • Utilise renewable energy sources? 

Sponsors and exhibitors rely on exposure to maximise ROI, usually resorting to an assortment of single-use booth signage and swag. Provide them with more sustainable alternatives for promotion, like in-app advertising and branding opportunities and digital signage. 

Use gamification to create incentives that drive attendees into the far corners of the exhibition hall. Include in your communication materials recommendations for specific sustainability actions participants can do during the event. Promote sustainable transport options, and remind attendees to bring their own refillable water bottle.

reusable cups

What is a common oversight event planners make when trying to plan a sustainable event?

Failure to plan for sustainability at all. 

Efficiency takes effort; it is our willingness to trade-off convenience for sustainability that got us in trouble in the first place. My pet peeve is plastic water bottles in buckets of ice. 

Sustainability is more than just “being green”.  A truly sustainable event balances environmental, social, and economic responsibilities. Planners and organisers can’t do all the work to make an event sustainable, and getting everyone on board with sustainable events requires partnership and collaboration. Like any relationship, this takes time, and intention.

fishbowl meeting with live streaming

Are there any quick wins, event professionals can implement immediately?

  • Use event apps for communication, networking and engagement.
  • Offer on-line components for remote attendees to reduce the amount of travel.
  • Include in your communication materials recommendations for specific sustainability actions participants can do during the event.
  • For athletics events, offer a bus shuttle from a central location.
  • Require caterers to practice zero waste.
  • Send out all materials digitally. Don’t print copies. 
  • Provide receptacles for recycling badge holders and lanyards.