At SEI Asia we regularly convene multi-stakeholder events and bring together regional experts in research forums, policy dialogues and roundtables in programmes such as as SUMERNET, Sida Strategic Collaborative Fund (Phase 2) and the SEI Initiative on Transforming Development and Disaster Risk. All have a significant impact on the consumption and production of resources, and we’re working to reduce that footprint.

But running greener meetings can be difficult in cultural settings where to do or offer less can be considered as “poor” or showing a lack of respect. In implementing the centre’s environmental action plan, we’ve found that there are practical steps that can overcome these issues. Here are our five top tips.

1. Get buy-in early

A meeting is held to deliver a specific outcome: talk to the leaders in the group and discuss the need, priority and desire for a green meeting, and focus on how this approach could make the event better. It is important to consider the budget and questions of identity. Then, seek input from venues, logistics, management and leadership. Importantly, the first time you do this, take a design approach – that is, learn by doing – to ensure new knowledge can be used for all future events. While the initial outlay of time is larger than for a standard meeting, it delivers short-term sustainability outcomes with lasting implications.

To help us deliver our next sustainable event, and to help you deliver yours, please share your insights with us – let’s learn from each other what works and how we can make our next meetings better.

2. Leverage what you can

In Asia, there is often little or no alternative to air travel for meetings. In Europe, there are reliable and effective alternatives – such as high-speed internet, train, or car. The trip from Paris to Brussels – a distance of 320km – takes 3.5 hours to drive, 55 minutes to fly and 1.5 hours by train. But it is only 230 km between Phnom Penh (Cambodia) and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), yet it takes about 5.5 hours to drive, and only 50 minutes to fly, and the train is not an option. Also, in a typical one-hour teleconference across the five nations of the Mekong Region, some people, without fail, will not be able to connect effectively – that is, hear and speak. And across Asia, travel is seen as an upwardly mobile and important activity for most government workers. Given these constraints, what can be leveraged? There are a number of  approaches.

First, efforts need to be made to change the culture around travel – that it will be paid for only when necessary and there is no alternative. This approach can be in the form of flexible “claiming systems” that allow for multiple stops or combined trips. For example, if your base is Bangkok, and you need to go to meetings in both Vientiane and Ho Chi Minh City, flying directly from Vientiane to Ho Chi Min without returning home in between eliminates one flight. Supporting a minimal travel approach with claim systems that enable it is essential for its success. Finally, providing sufficient but minimal per diems that are in line with local expenses helps to ensure that travel is not used as a junket.

3. Venues are part of your solution

One bonus of a sustainable meeting is that you might see, hear, smell and experience your local surroundings. Sustainable tourism is all about working with local communities to deliver benefits that are shared, not to multinational hotels, but with local communities. Actions to make this happen could include walking trips that take you outside the meeting venue into local markets and communities. Part of the meeting should be about the local culture. We’ve held event dinners off site and a short walk away (even in the rainy season) with local food and in a culturally significant place. We also ensured the venue was linked to the local public transport system.

4. Add value – in the right way

The consumables at a meeting can easily make or break its green credentials. It can be difficult to avoid a throwaway approach to food, goods and services. Many coffee shops across Asia only serve disposable mugs. Why? Because it emphasizes the “value” – you are buying a whole mug as well as a drink. To combat the dominance of throwaway culture, add value where possible. We’ve found it’s amazing what can be achieved by asking upfront and being specific about outcomes. Ask for venues with natural light, no plastic bottles and limited disposables. Ask if leftover food can be taken home; ask for mints without wrappers; for small china plates, not disposable plates; ask for non-disposable serviettes.

In addition, meeting participants rarely read everything printed for them, or need plastic covers on name tags – be creative about where and how you can add value to the meeting. There could be one large agenda for the day, rather than 100 small agendas printed at great expense and resources. Source name tags that show unique value and are sustainably produced. We’ve used event apps to manage participation and reduce printouts. And participation apps like Slido have the added benefit of facilitating engagement and questions from the floor in a culture where it can feel difficult to openly ask questions.

Avoid plastic use.
Avoiding plastic: Organize meetings with bottled water, china mugs and tea cups. Photo: SEI Asia.

5. Celebrate success and keep trying

Sustainability is a journey that we can all improve on, at the next event, or the next meeting. We’ve learned a lot from running greener meetings, but there is still more to do. For example, how can we do it more economically? How can it be more inclusive? How can we further reduce the water and carbon footprint? This blog is a small celebration of our success, but also a call to others to go make meetings more “green”.

To help us deliver our next sustainable event, and to help deliver yours, please share your insights with us. Let’s learn from each other what works and how we can make our next meeting better.