A Lack of Specificity

Last week I spoke at the Sustainable Events Conference Denmark.  I posed the following question in my presentation:

“Does the event industry take CSR seriously?”

I wanted to raise the question because I have seen so much talk about CSR in the event sector as well as seeing many presentations that have raised the claim that companies that take sustainability seriously have better business returns.

I am skeptical of that claim.  I just find it hard to connect that dot when Exxon continues to jockey with Apple as the largest cap companies in the world with overwhelming profits and neither could claim to (truly) be leaders in sustainability.

But, I also wanted to challenge the event industry on paying lip service to CSR without doing the serious work of transforming itself and taking both leadership and ownership of the problem.  There are still far too many conferences and large events (let’s not even talk about the small meetings and events that have smaller impacts) that have only recently begun to put into practice meaningful sustainability policies and practices and minimal reporting of their impacts.

Maybe this is the reason – do good, specific CSR guidelines even exist?  And, if they do, are we just ignoring them?

I took the following from a slide presented at the conference:

Danish CSR Law

• “99a. Large businesses shall supplement their management’s review with a report on social responsibility.

 Corporate social responsibility shall mean that businesses voluntarily include considerations for human rights, societal, environmental and climate conditions as well as combating corruption in their business strategy and corporate activities.

 Businesses without policies on social responsibility shall disclose this information in their management’s review.

I wasn’t there the day it was presented and so I’m taking it out of context.  But I’m doing it to make a point.  If Denmark, one of what I would consider the best countries in the world for leadership on sustainability, is so vague in their CSR law, why should anyone think that any company is going to take CSR seriously?

Is part of our problem when it comes to actually being socially responsible companies, events and citizens the lack of specificity in our language?  What is a large business?  Why voluntary “considerations”?  And, what does considerations mean in this context?  If I just consider all these criteria and report that I considered them, does that make me socially responsible?

Again, I’m taking this completely out of context, but I hope you get my point.  And before the GRI folks jump down my throat here, yes, I recognize that there are emerging standards that are far more specific on what to report on when it comes to CSR and sustainability.  I’m just not sure anyone takes them all that seriously when governments are writing laws so vague as to be meaningless.

So, what to do?  Make sure that your event sustainability objectives have some specific targets and that you measure to those targets.  Whether it be your environmental targets, your social targets or your economic targets, get specific, develop some good, reachable KPIs (key performance indicators), and measure and report on them.  When we have good data we can make better decisions and take better actions to run sustainable events.


One response to “A Lack of Specificity

  1. Great question Paul! Related to your points I think at issue are also the questions of what constitutes a meaningful effort and also what makes a material difference? Events have more recently been taking CSR down the path of providing meaningful experiences for attendees, which is positive. Often though, the buck stops at these kind of visible, social service-type projects. We don’t necessarily go further to tackle harder social responsibility issues like fair labour, either in material purchasing or where we site our events. So while efforts might be meaningful to attendees, they’re not necessarily meaningful to those who work in our own supply chain. In light of this, it’s helpful not only to be specific with objectives, but also cast different stakeholder nets for events. To make sure we’re exhibiting a duty of care to people we typically might overlook. I also wonder if we’re able to identify the things that are most important to address? I know, it’s a long list! But it’s important to stop and think about: why do we choose one practice over another? Event teams have so few resources to devote to CSR, so which acts are really the most important? You’re absolutely right: we need good data to know, and feedback from stakeholders. Until then, we’re really guessing at what our impact is, and if we’re being effective. Sure, we can intuit we have challenges with waste (especially food), and energy use, but we need to become more scientific and systematic in selecting an important issue and digging into it. Onward to more specific, scientific & systematic!

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