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CARBON NEUTRAL DIGITAL AND VIRTUAL EVENTS

Are digital events the driving force behind the meetings industry’s green transformation? There have been discussions advocating that all types of digital events are crucial in decarbonising the meetings industry. Are digital events completely carbon-neutral, though? Even though their carbon footprint is substantially smaller in comparison with in-person events, they are far from carbon-neutral. This article will delve into information uncovering the current, realistic picture and reveal one of the most common methods of greenwashing within the meetings industry. Providers of video-conferencing platforms, alongside organisers of globally-renowned events, tend to boast about being carbon-neutral without providing solid arguments.

The editorial board of Kongres Magazine has been closely following and analysing various sustainability marketing campaigns. It seems their numbers have skyrocketed this year. As it turns out, many of them are misleading and purposefully used by greenwashers to increase sales or improve a company’s reputation. By doing so, they deceive well-intentional consumers and, ultimately, do not contribute to solving ecological and social issues. It is vital to stay aware of the ways in which they attempt to outwit us. Recognising greenwashing is how we can reduce its influence on our choices.

We have decided to prepare a series of articles that will uncover such practices and, hopefully, contribute to a more responsible meetings industry.

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Environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term “greenwashing” in 1986. While on an expedition to Samoa, he was greatly upset by the hotel sign concerning the reuse of towels. He concluded that its purpose was solely a strategy to lower expenses instead of the hotel’s sustainable and responsible aspirations.

Westerveld was the first to use the term greenwashing in his expert article, and the rest is history. The term has survived till today and encompasses all areas of sustainability, including gender equality, poverty, hunger, health, education, paid work etc.

There are several typical examples of greenwashing. They have been around for some time, yet, we continue to be duped by them. We have summarised the most typical examples of greenwashing below:

1. Presenting information selectively

An example of greenwashing is emphasising environment-friendly information whilst withholding negative information. A typical example is ignoring the carbon footprint of event transfers which can amount to 75% of an event’s entire carbon footprint.

2. Lack of proof to back up claims

Let us suppose a company claims their event is green or eco-friendly but does not enclose any concrete proof. They should at least calculate their event’s carbon footprint and support it with a certificate issued by an official institution.

3. Ambiguity and vagueness of claims

Another way of misleading is using loose and undefined terms that are nearly impossible to understand in one way. A recurring example, for instance, is stating that an event is carbon-neutral without elaborating what that stands for.

4. Deceiving and irrelevant labels

Companies will often refer to certificates and labels that, in fact, do not exist or are misleading. Lately, there have been cases of green venue finders with no real foundation. This type of deception is embodied by companies that sell “products without CFC”, even though chlorofluorocarbons are forbidden by law.

5. Highlighting the lesser evil

Event organising is environmentally unfriendly. Hence, the claim that one event is greener than another is plainly false.

6. Selling lies

On occasions, companies choose to proclaim lies. Making false claims, certificates, and inventing facts will mislead customers.

7. Meaningless labels

Certificates, labels and awards can often have little or no meaning. In some cases, organisations even award themselves with certificates or endorsements not backed by any authority.

There are even cases when companies tell outright lies. Sooner or later, such practices are exposed, and information about them spreads like wildfire. We will uncover the first example of such deceit.

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Case 4: MORE ZOOM - LESS CO2

The luxurious banquet hosted on the global Titanic of events will undisputedly have to be replaced by a more humble dinner

Type of greenwashing: Lack of proof to back up claims

It appears an era is coming when it will be more vital for us and future generations to not do something instead of constantly travelling and striving to change the world we live in declaratively. Our planet cherishes prosperity; wishes are starting to replace needs, and greed is the common denominator of development.

A part of the solution for the otherwise environmentally dirty industry of live events is represented by online, hybrid and metaverse events. They will supposedly bolster the development of the meetings industry and drastically reduce carbon footprint. To understand the current situation, we can use a provocative allegory. The best remedy against carbon footprint at events is not to organise events at all. Such a heretic idea incites better and more environmentally-responsible solutions. During the corona crisis, numerous international corporations became aware of this and thus made the following advancements:

– reducing emissions from business travels
– reducing the use of electricity in offices
– purchasing energy from sustainable sources
– striving to become a carbon-neutral company by implementing a green transformation
– organising digital events when possible

The latter is on the agenda of corporations so often that the meetings industry cannot ignore this fact. At the same time, we have begun realising that the slew of various digital events is not the ideal solution when an event aims for quality networking. In addition, several research papers have been published on Zoom fatigue.

What do calculations speak of the carbon footprint caused by digital events? According to research conducted by Oxford Economics in 2017, the global carbon footprint of the meetings industry is equal to that of the USA (1.5 billion participants from 180 countries that contributed $2.5 trillion of spending while supporting 26 million jobs). The calculation is based on the supposition that a classic conference generates 170 kilogrammes of carbon footprint per participant per day. Travel, food, materials and waste comprise the highest percentage of it.

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Photo: Pixabay (Canva Pro)

Digital events are fundamentally more environment-friendly. However, they are certainly not carbon neutral.

Utility Bidder created an online calculator for events on Zoom and published the following findings: two people attending a Zoom meeting in HD quality will create 0,0037 kilogrammes of carbon footprint, equalling a drive of 0,016 kilometres.

Logically, the more there are participants, the more CO2 is emitted. To illustrate: if six participants convene for a weekly online meeting that lasts for an hour in HD, 0,05 kilogrammes of CO2 will be emitted each time. Thus, the carbon footprint of their events amounts to 2,68 kilogrammes of CO2, equivalent to a drive of 9,36 kilometres.

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Photo Credit: Marko Delbello Ocepek

This calculation shows that the footprint of both events, excluding transport, is virtually the same. Hence, transportation is the greatest source of pollution in organising events.

E-waste

This calculation unequivocally proves that digital events are fundamentally more environment-friendly. However, they are certainly not carbon neutral. According to some estimates, the carbon footprint of digital events is smaller by 90% compared to in-person events, while hybrid events have a 50% smaller carbon footprint. Yet, they are not carbon neutral. Social media platforms and video storage can be held accountable for large portions of e-waste. Even as you read this article, you create carbon footprint.

All of the above is illustrated by another interesting calculation that you can view at: https://www.chrisjohnson.earth/. They calculated the carbon footprint for a fictitious event with 10.000 attendees that lasted for 8 hours. The results of the calculation showed:

– Live event: 76 tons of CO2 (transport amounting to 69.8 tons)
– Online event: 6.8 tons of CO2

The researcher Grant Faber went even further and showcased that data transfer contributes the most to the carbon footprint of events. In addition, he highlighted the following segments:

64 % Network Data Transfer Emissions
19 % Organiser Meeting Emissions
11 % Conference Computer Emissions
4 % Monitor Usage Emissions
1 % Desk Lamp Usage Emissions
1 % Website Visit Emissions

According to colleagues’ experience, the research is very close to the truth and represents an excellent tool for transparent communication within the industry. It pertains to digital Zoom events in particular.


Another intriguing research was conducted during the organisation of the Climate Expo event, which is far more complex than usual Zoom events. You can find out more at https://www.digitalevents.uk/climateexp0/carbon.

The comparison showed the following results:

Virtual eventPhysical event
38 % Food
34.1 % Buildings
22.9 % Transport
5 % Technology
92.6 % Transport
5.6 % Food
1.7 % Buildings
0.1 % Technology
Total impact: 102,401 kg CO2eTotal impact: 684,325 kg CO2e

You can read the entire research here.

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Photo Credit: Marko Delbello Ocepek

Only by measuring effects can we avoid the occasional unpleasant questions, such as @bernarddeacon’s question on Twitter: “pledged to be the first carbon-neutral G7 summit”. How can it possibly be ‘carbon-neutral’ when these irresponsible buffoons haven’t a clue what the carbon costs are? The media need to discover a critical faculty.

Read the full story here and the Twitter correspondence here.

The moral step we should take is to publicly commit to reducing our event’s carbon footprint and state in which segments we plan to do so and how. That goes for both in-person events and digital events. Before you promote and market your event as carbon-neutral, take two deep breaths and consider how carbon neutral it is in reality.

In Britain, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is reporting a boom in the number of complaints about environmental claims – up from 117 in 2006 to 561 last year. “What we are seeing is claims about being carbon-neutral, zero-carbon emissions and use of words such as sustainable and organic,” says Lord Smith, chairman of the ASA.

About the author

Gorazd Čad is a seasoned meeting planner who has dedicated 25 years of his life to the meetings and events industry. He witnessed the fall of Yugoslavia, the establishment of independent Slovenia, adapted to the internet revolution of the ’90s, overcame the economic crisis of 2008, the 2010 eruption of an Icelandic volcano, and the 2019 meetings industry burnout, 2020’s corona crisis and more. Among other things, Gorazd Čad is a professor of geography and history who is sincerely worried about the planet’s future. He strives for events that will be environmentally friendly and responsible to attendees and society.


Note: We look forward to your opinion about such practices. Feel free to comment and send us further examples of greenwashing. We will inspect them and write additional articles about them in Kongres Magazine.

Slovenian Advertising Code on greenwashing

What the Slovenian Advertising Code says about greenwashing:

Article 17: ENVIRONMENTAL ARGUMENTATION

17.1
Advertising that includes environmental argumentation should be presented in a manner that does not exploit the consumer’s environmental concern or his potential lack of knowledge about environmental themes. It should not contain claims or visual representations that could, in any way, mislead the consumers about products’ benefits from an environmental viewpoint or the environmental activities the advertiser will conduct. Messages can apply to concrete products or activities; they cannot, however, unjustifiably imply that they cover all activities of a company, group or sector.

17.2
Claims concerning environmental preservation are not allowed to be used groundlessly. Claims such as environment-friendly, completely biodegradable, greener, friendlier or organic may be acceptable, provided the advertisers prove their truthfulness.

17.3
Comparisons are acceptable if the advertisers can prove that their product improves from an environmental perspective compared to their own or competitors’ products.

17.4
Claims and comparisons can be misleading if they leave out important information.

17.5
When scientific opinions are divided, and the results are not final, the advertisement has to make that clear. An advertiser cannot quote that their claim is generally accepted if that is not the case.

17.6
In case a product never had any evidently harmful effects on the environment, the advertisement cannot suggest that its structure was altered to make it more environment-friendly. It is, however, lawful to quote claims about a product whose composition has been altered or has been used hitherto without ingredients that are known to be harmful to the environment.

17.7
The use of lesser-known expert terms should be avoided. If the use of a scientific term is unavoidable, its meaning should be clear and understandable or additionally explained.

17.8
A broader explanation of the most commonly used claims and terms is defined in the International Chamber of Commerce Code of Advertising and Marketing Practices.

For more information please check: https://iccwbo.org/content/uploads/sites/3/2018/09/icc-advertising-and-marketing-communications-code-int.pdf