Let’s reboot green thinking

Sustainability is an important issue for event managers and organisers. We only need to look around us to see the challenges that we are facing, such as changes to the global climate system which are bringing more frequent severe weather events; a booming population, particularly in Asia; a range of economic crises and problems (think of the global financial crisis of 2007-2009 and the current European debt crisis) and global geopolitical changes such as the emergence of new superpowers, particularly China. Sustainability is vital to see us through these turbulent times and to plan and build for our future.

But how often do we question what is actually meant by the term ‘sustainability’? The usual definition, from the WCED Bruntland Report, dates back to 1987. Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and sustainability is a process to achieve sustainable development. That definition is nearly 30 years old. Does it still cover everything we need to consider?

Sustainability is often equated with being green, and of course this is important, but it’s not the full picture. The triple bottom line (TBL) includes economic, social and environmental considerations and encourages event organisers to consider not just their financial position, but also their impact on society and the environment. This is a great approach, but what is needed is recognition that sustainability is more than just the sum of economic, social and environmental aspects.

There has been a recent trend to talk about the ‘quadruple bottom line’ (QBL), but there is no real consensus on what that should include. For some, it should specifically address climate change issues. For others, the QBL should include governance, or community, or culture, or even spirituality. There is just so much to consider.

That’s why I favour a more holistic approach. A new definition and understanding of sustainability is about focusing on better quality of life, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, while living and working within the limits of our environment. Concepts such as ‘viability’, ‘liveability’ and ‘equity’ recognise the vital importance of components sometimes lost in the traditional view of sustainability. Take volunteering at events: local people can gain skills and experience while volunteering, which helps to educate and train people and improve their job prospects. A more skilled workforce attracts employers and this can help with the viability of communities, particularly in deprived or rural areas.

Events also play a vital role in raising awareness of a range of issues, both local and national, leading to more actively involved citizens and higher levels of social justice, helping to address a number of equity issues.

Finally, events can be used to encourage tolerance of diversity and bring about increased community pride and social cohesion. We know that stronger, more cohesive communities are linked with increased willingness to look after the local environment as well as reduced levels of anti-social behaviour, key ingredients for more liveable communities.

Taking a more holistic perspective on sustainability at events will help us move beyond a simple focus on three aspects (economic, social and environmental concerns) towards a more integrated view of how to build our future.

Dr Judith Mair is a senior lecturer in event management at the UQ Business School, University of Queensland

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