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How events like the G7 can be a catalyst for step change improvement in sustainability outcomes

Whenever the leaders of the world gather to discuss global issues, there’s a certain amount of scrutiny about the carbon footprint of all the travel involved. However, the attendees’ carbon emissions from a single event can pale in comparison to the prize of agreement on internationally binding reduction targets. At June 2021’s G7 summit in Cornwall, UK, we also discerned some encouraging signs of how sustainability is beginning to reshape procurement practices, both in government and the private sector.

We were commissioned as sustainability advisor to the UK Government’s Cabinet Office and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for this year’s event. As part of our role, we ensured that the event met the ISO 20121 (international standard for sustainable events) accreditation and we made a series of constructive additions to the procurement ethos. As the event came to a close, it was these subtle but significant shifts that we believe represent a valuable way for government and the private sector to accelerate the sustainable development agenda. These experiences have influenced our approach as sustainability consultants for COP26 in November 2021.

A different 'ask'

A major early task for us was to define the event’s overall sustainability ambitions and then define how the supply chain could achieve those goals. This meant a renewed focus on procurement strategy, drafting tenders so that they would produce beneficial outcomes for the local environment, economy and society. Collective action is central to the sustainability agenda and given that government is a major player in most economies, its procurement rules have the great potential to define what ‘excellent’ means for the wider range of economic actors. The hope is that for procurement and commercial leads in any industry, the case for investing in net zero and other sustainable practices becomes easier to make.

New thinking in action

So, what effect did we see as the various G7 events awarded supplier contracts? By communicating upfront the summit’s sustainability ambitions and weighting the evaluation of tender’s responses on their sustainability and carbon approach, alongside other criteria such as value for money and social value, we ensured that everyone involved was truly committed to the sustainability goals. It also got suppliers to consider how they could improve the sustainability outcomes of their goods and services in the contract and propose working in different ways, such as investing a percentage of their fee in local SMEs, or offering training to those working on the contract. There were expanded opportunities for the local Cornish workforce and local businesses, many of whom have suffered a lack of employment due to the pandemic. Suppliers also took the opportunity to trial innovative approaches such as using hydrotreated vegetable oil fuel (HVO) in the generators (in place of diesel) and source food within a 100 mile radius, to reduce food miles and support local businesses.

We can already see that suppliers are using these contracts as a learning opportunity, shaping the sustainability outcomes of their services and therefore improving their position in the industry as a whole. The experiences have been a spur to develop their own new ways of working, backed by data and targets that prove they’re becoming leaders, strengthening their commercial appeal in future commissions.

As well as learning from successes, important lessons are also learnt through trial and error – particularly within the key suppliers supply chain.

Embrace rigour

Another clear trend we can foresee, is the value of shifting to more comprehensive ratings and assessments. This means it’s not enough to think limited, you need to be ambitious and pick the most rigorous rating system that supports your project goals. We encouraged the government to use the PAS 2060 methodology for calculating the G7’s carbon footprint (which hasn’t previously applied to UK Government events). This broadened the extent of the emissions included in the footprint – everything from tankers moored off-shore, to the military vehicles and policing were factored in – guiding our carbon reduction focus and defining a carbon offsetting strategy. Using PAS 2060 for carbon neutrality sets a new standard for everyone involved, becoming a new baseline expectation among a wider cohort and gives a full picture of the emissions generated as a result of planning and delivering an event. It also drives up transparency and accountability: if challenged, the UK government can demonstrate a robust methodology and compliance with independent verification.

In future events we anticipate the onlooking public and media will rightly ask, “what definition of ‘carbon neutral’ are you using?” A parallel embrace of data is vital here. For event industry organisations we foresee growing pressure for detailed performance data and reporting, which will become increasingly essential if companies are to stay competitive, relevant and accountable.

From definition to contribution

Definition, in the form of procurement strategy, is of course, only part of the solution. But it’s a concrete way to shape the decision making landscape, and the cumulative impact of this approach is to change the way people approach the shape of future events.

Ultimately, the 2021 G7 summit in Cornwall was just a single event, and the issues we want to address require long-term and systemic change. But it demonstrates powerfully, how a very public event can be a catalyst for sectoral changes, how rapidly industries can embrace new thinking and new solutions. Ultimately we can achieve more sustainable forms of economic behaviour and activity by using every event as a chance to learn, pivot and improve.