At TEDxTUM we embarked on a journey to be more sustainable. While we’re still far from reaching the destination, we learned a few lessons along the way we think are worth sharing and we hope could be beneficial to other events and organizers.
The Basic Ingredient
We found that you can only make a significant difference when not just a subset of the team has sustainability on their mind when planning the event, but everyone involved does.
This is a mistake we made in the past: having a dedicated team for sustainability led to a lot of frustration on both sides. The sustainability sub-team had to fight a constant uphill battle to bring sustainable ideas to the conference and the other teams were at risk of having their cool ideas spoiled by ‘those sustainability folks who take away the fun stuff’. The most important factor to avoid such a situation is to raise awareness within your organizing team, not by externally enforcing overly strict guidelines: when the question ‘But is this sustainable?’ is on the mind of everyone who is creating or buying something for your event, people will naturally gravitate towards more sustainable products and processes.
Rather than going for a lot of cheap goodies that usually end up in some drawer or even in the trash, we try to go for high-end goodies that our attendees will still use long after the event is over. This of course means fewer goodies, but we think sometimes less is more.
- This year, one of our sponsors contributed reusable water bottles for our attendees, and another sponsored reusable vegetable bags.
- We also bought reusable metal straws with a TEDxTUM engraving. The decision to buy metal straws was based on a survey where we asked our team members which goodie they would actually use — a very easy and effective way to select a goodie which people will actually appreciate.
- When it came to the goodie bag itself, we went for one that is made out of 100% recycled cotton.
With smaller goodies like pens or postcards we stopped putting them into the goodie bags because a lot of people do not actually want them, and instead offered a ‘goodie table’ on the event day where guests could freely select whatever they wanted — that way, we avoided giving away goodies to people who do not want them in the first place.
Lastly, we offer attendees the opportunity to return unwanted goodies so that we can reuse them in the coming years.
This is something that can be implemented quite easily at other events. As always, a bit of marketing might be required here as well to sell sponsors on the idea, but we found that high-value goodies which are actually used after the event provide much better advertising value for the sponsors. And from the point of view of an attendee it usually feels better to receive a bag with high quality content rather than a cheap paper bag filled with dozens of flyers and stuff that will never be used anyway.
We ask our sponsors to not include flyers in the goodie bags as these flyers tend to be just thrown out afterwards.
This is something that should be communicated to sponsors right from the beginning, to avoid wrong expectations.
Most of our partners are Munich-based which saves on carbon emissions from travel to the event and is also beneficial to the idea of highlighting good things going on in the local community.
Reusable Plastic Cups
Prior to 2018, we relied on single-use coffee cups, which is something that we were not happy with. The ideal solution would of course be ceramic mugs, but this turned out to be infeasible because of the high costs and complicated logistics involved in renting 500 ceramic cups.
In 2018, we partnered with a local company that runs a deposit-based system for multi-use plastic coffee cups in Munich. While working with a partner with experience in a given area is always a good idea, and something that we would try again, it turned out that their long-term goals were not in alignment with ours: they are aiming to establish a deposit system people use every day, and supporting events like ours that happen only once a year is not one of their priorities.
So this year, we decided to buy our own plastic cups and lids made from recyclable plastic that we also had branded. This cost us slightly less than 2 Euros per cup, so we established a deposit system where our attendees paid a 2 Euro deposit to get a cup and lid. This meant that if someone really liked the cup, they could take it home without us suffering a financial loss. At some point we were toying with the idea of giving the cups to our attendees as a goodie, but this way a lot of them would probably just have ended up in the trash or on some shelf.
One of the things to consider before doing this is that these cups only become more sustainable than single-use cups when they are used for a long time. So make sure that you can use the cups for future events as well. We achieved this by branding them with only our TEDxTUM logo rather than something specific to this year’s event.
Another thing is that running a deposit system means you will have to deal with lots of coins, so try to go for an even number for the deposit. We also included this in our expectation email so a lot of attendees could pay the deposit in exact change, making the entire process easier.
Lastly, once you get the cups back, you will need to clean them all. This is definitely a lot of work (8 of us spent basically one day doing this), so factor this in.
Food is of course also a big topic. So big in fact, that we posted a separate writeup about how we approached this topic: https://medium.com/@christophantonberger/does-a-vegetarian-lunch-make-your-event-more-sustainable-7eba085df283
This is another big area for improvement: This year, with the sponsored bottles, we stopped having bottled drinks at all and instead established several points where people can take tap water and provided syrup to spice things up a bit.
This is also something that is quite easy to do, however it is only really possible when you already have bottles etc for your attendees.
Also keep in mind that it might be environmentally friendlier to buy bottled drinks when there is a deposit system and those bottles are reused (for example in Germany) as some of the bottles we gave away to attendees might also end up in the trash.
Furniture / Signage
When it comes to furniture, we try to avoid buying our own things (that are only used a few times a year and only take up storage space the rest of the time) as much as possible. For us, as a TEDx event at a university, this means partnering with various institutions of TUM and the student government. This is not only a great way to become more sustainable, but also to cut costs. For other furniture, we try to buy it used.
Also signage etc. is reused as much as possible, which also means making it generic rather than specific to one event.
General things to consider
It is important to also communicate all your efforts and shortcomings openly with your guests — we were careful not to celebrate ourselves too much and proclaim the event as totally sustainable. Nothing is perfect and this boastery usually backfires when guests notice things you might have missed. On the other hand, do not hide your efforts — being sustainable is also about inspiring others to do likewise. Additionally, your team has put a lot of effort into creating an amazing and sustainable event, so be sure to honestly advertise this fact. At TEDxTUM, we had a section in our booklet with information on where we tried to improve as well as an audience experience where attendees could guess how much CO2 emissions our catering causes and how much we saved by only offering vegetarian food.
We received very positive feedback from the audience on our sustainability efforts overall and our attendees really seemed to appreciate that we did not only focus on sustainability in one area but had this as an overarching concern.
We still have a long way to go — for example, we had lots of trash at our afterparty, which we did not plan with sustainability as a priority (also because it is a lot smaller than the event itself) — but we are already proud of what our team has accomplished this year. Making your event more sustainable does raise its quality in a way that resonates with the audience — attendees were impressed by the high-quality goodies and our custom coffee cups, for example. We hope that you too can draw some inspiration from our experiences when you are planning your next event!