Top Tips for Designing a Sustainable Conference

July 2, 2018

Liv Rafferty

Liv is the Digital Content Executive at HeadBox. HeadBox is the UK's only online marketplace where you can instantly search, book and pay for inspiring meeting, off-site and event spaces. 

Did you know that almost 50% of the plastic we produce is single use? This means it goes into landfill or worse, ends up in the ocean, where thousands of animals and ecosystems are suffering. According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and 100% of sea turtle species. Ingesting plastic has life-threatening effects on wildlife and this plastic eventually ends up being digested by humans.

Our throw-away society is seriously damaging the environment and it’s up to individuals, industries and companies to start acting to effect change. If everyone begins to make changes, collectively things will improve.

With that in mind, the events industry has recently launched a vision to become waste free by 2020. But how do we do that? Let’s take conferences as an example. There are plenty of small things you can do to create a more sustainable event. We’ve pulled together some top tips you can follow to design a more sustainable conference.

Venue Selection

A big factor in organising a conference is finding the perfect venue. You want to make sure your venue has everything you need so you can nail your event. We know that venues’ business practices and views on sustainability are relatively out of your hands, but you can certainly be conscious of this when deciding which venue to hire for your event.

When you are searching for your next conference venue, search for venues that are sustainable and act ethically. If this is not immediately apparent, ask questions about the venue’s recycling processes and commitment to reducing waste. If they can’t give you concrete answers then it is likely there is no formal plan in place. If it turns out that the venue isn’t sustainable, but the space is integral to creating your perfect event, there are small changes you can implement to ensure your event is as eco-friendly as possible. Ditch the single use plastic and think about how the venue can save energy. You never know, your actions might even influence the venue and push them toward a more sustainable future.

Location should also be considered as a factor. Selecting a conference venue that is centrally located means the individual guests, caterers, suppliers and speakers’ carbon footprints will be lower. This may not be easy, but considering it is an important initial step in organising a sustainable conference.


Picking a sustainable caterer is arguably as important as choosing the right environmentally conscious venue. Farming and food production involve a lot of materials and processes that have negative effects on the environment. With the whole process emitting so many greenhouse gases, picking a caterer who ethically sources their food from a local and organic source is an easy way to make your event more sustainable.

If sourcing locally isn’t a viable option for your event, there are plenty of other steps you can take to make sure your event catering is eco-friendly:

  • Food Waste
    According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation 1.3 billion tonnes of food gets wasted every year. This is astonishing, but event planners can make small but nonetheless meaningful changes to help reduce this. For example, to avoid wasting food, try to manage your guestlist to get accurate numbers for your event, and order the right amount of food for the number of attendees, rather than over-ordering just in case. It’s normal to expect some people to drop out of attending last-minute, so you’ll probably have extra food anyway. If you do have food waste why not send it to people in need instead of just throwing it away. Fareshare is a great example of how food waste can be redistributed to prevent food waste.
  • Offer Takeaway Boxes
    This may seem a strange objective but just because it’s not been done before doesn’t mean it won’t be welcomed. Introducing takeaway boxes will dramatically reduce your food waste and gives your guests the options to enjoy your delicious food at a later date - it’s a win-win.


Organising a more sustainable conference can come from making small changes in your recycling and waste habits.

  • Recycling Bins
    This may seem obvious but introducing compulsory recycling bins at your conference can help improve the event’s carbon footprint. For a huge event like a conference, clearly signposted bins stating exactly what can go where is key. According to Friends of The Earth, the plastic bottle recycling rate is currently about 45 percent in the UK, against 90+ percent in the likes of Germany and Sweden. Encouraging your participants to make conscious decisions about their waste at your event is a meaningful step to not only make your event more sustainable but potentially to make their personal actions more sustainable in the future.  
  • Post Event Recycling
    You simply cannot organise a sustainable event without thinking about the aftermath of your event and how you are going to recycle your waste to make your conference as environmentally friendly as possible. Financially, sending waste to be recycled is much cheaper than sending your waste to landfill, so recycling your conference waste should be a no-brainer.
  • Use recycled products
    If you are promoting recycling at your conference it seems sensible to use sustainably-sourced or recycled materials at your event. If you’re handing out branded products to your attendees why not ensure they are made out of recycled materials? Getting your hands on recycled notebooks, pens and even mugs has never been easier.

Event Materials

Traditionally, the events industry is quite old fashioned and relies on a lot of paper, whether it’s in the form of traditional marketing materials, run sheets or general organisation tools.  Excessive use of paper is known to have a negative impact on the environment. Instead, these materials could be recycled from previous events, made from recycled material or recreated from available resources.

  • Go paperless
    When planning your conference, think sustainably about the materials you use. The planning process for a conference is long and detailed, often using excessive materials that are bad for the environment. Although it’s hard to wave goodbye to what you know, conference planning can be done better and faster online. Choosing to plan your conference online where possible rather than on paper reduces the negative impact on the environment and allows for more flexibility and team collaboration and makes the whole process much quicker and more efficient.
  • Marketing material
    Going paperless also means ditching the traditional marketing channels and putting more of your efforts into digital marketing in all its wonderful forms. The benefits of digital marketing are endless, but most importantly you are able to reach a bigger audience a lot faster and often a lot cheaper. You could even just use social media and then your marketing could be completely free.

Start Making a Difference Incrementally

Organising a sustainable conference doesn’t have to be daunting. Small, manageable changes are a great place to start and once you have these initial sustainable changes nailed you can move on to bigger, and even more effective changes. Although it means making changes to your established processes, the overall benefits to the environment and your attendees are positive.

Becoming sustainable has absolutely undeniable positive effects on the environment. Creating a more sustainable conference many benefits; not only for the environment but also for your company. Ensuring your conferences and events are environmentally friendly can often attract more attendees as people are naturally drawn towards more ethically conscious companies.

The positive impacts on your business don't stop there. Making small changes can make a difference to your bottom line. When it comes to food waste and reusable branded products, making conscious decisions to be sustainable will make a difference to your finances.  You may also increase your chance of receiving investment. Sustainability is a buzzword at the moment and if you are seen to be making genuine improvements investors, suppliers and sponsors will see this as a huge positive.

There you have it, some easy steps you can take to make your conference more sustainable and make the move towards a future that is greener.

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