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Making events more sustainable

How demand for sustainability is affecting event planning

Features | December 1, 2022 | By: Michelle Miron

Some clients are being more mindful about sustainability by simply reducing their guest counts, according to Paige McQuillan, designer of this intimate outdoor setting. Photo courtesy of Ashley Rae Studio.

Customers across the globe are starting to put their money where their mouths are when choosing eco-friendly products and services. 

In fact, one IBM study in 2022 found that 49% of customers worldwide have recently paid a premium—an average of 59% more—for a product branded as sustainable or socially responsible.

What does that mean for event planners and tent rental firms? They must pay attention to their business practices and merchandise so customers can see they’re doing their part for the environment. And in some instances, that may be challenging. 

“Today’s executives walk a tightrope, balancing the long-term imperative to protect the planet with the short-term need to preserve the bottom line,” notes researcher Jane Cheung in the IBM report. “In the race to reduce emissions, consumption, and waste—while protecting biodiversity—everything is on the table. Supply chains are being recalibrated. Source materials are evolving. Travel requests are carefully scrutinized.” 

In this piece, we’ll explore how tent manufacturers, rental services and event planners are finding a balance between sustainability and profitability.

Working with Florida floral designer Xquisite Designs/Flowers, JoAnn Moore made this event more sustainable by matching the fresh flowers on the tabletops with reusable faux flowers on the ceilings. Photo courtesy of Donny Zavala.

“We as an industry need to be bold.”

Those in the event planning industry are only too aware of the massive potential it presents for waste and pollution, according to JoAnn Moore of JoAnn Moore Wedding, Design & Event Planning  in Vail, Colo. 

She points to one high-end planner who routinely throws away elaborate fresh flower arrangements after events, and another who once cut down multiple tree branches outside a site so he could design a faux forest inside. A different event manager once swept piles of plastic glitter into the adjacent landscape rather than scooping it up inside the tent. 

Moore, a lifelong environmentalist, says she noticed widespread wasteful practices when she got into event planning more than 30 years ago. She points to stats showing the average wedding generates 400 pounds of garbage and 63 tons of CO2. And she notes that some 2.5 million  weddings are expected in the U.S. this year alone. 

“We as an industry need to stand up and make changes before legislators make changes for us,” she advises. “I love what I’m doing and I have love for my clients, but we’ve done a terrible job creating excess.”

Now “green certified” through a publication known as “The Green Bride Guide,” Moore says her business is booming. About half her clients choose her specifically because she plans eco-friendly events. In her role, she urges concerned-but-busy clients toward water pitchers and reusable drinkware over disposable water bottles or cups; re-plantable tree seedlings or honey jars over throwaway favors; and lodgings certified by over other options. She’s constantly evaluating new eco-friendly products such as biodegradable bamboo tableware, and she favors a Nevada linen service that uses nontoxic cleaning chemicals while recycling stained tablecloths into napkins and other smaller products. 

In one memorable decor alternative she devised, she used reusable fabric flowers to cover a tent roof rather than doubling the environmental impact by matching the fresh tabletop flowers.

“The flowers people could feel and touch and smell were real,” she explains. “And the hung-up flowers looked exactly like those on the tables, so no one knew they weren’t real. Then they were reused dozens of times.

“There’s not just one way to do things, whether it’s a beach, mountain, backyard, farm, ranch or vineyard wedding. Environmentally friendly solutions can be a bit head scratching at times, and there are also a lot of false things claiming to be eco-friendly. But I travel a lot and do a lot of research, so I always know what’s available.”

Moore says green alternatives to wedding staples sometimes cost more, but the difference is manageable for most clients. And some green options are coming down in price as they become more widely used. She advocates “digging deeper and demanding more from vendors. 

“We as an industry need to be bold and stand up and say ‘We’ve got this’—and start reusing, recycling, refurbishing and reimagining the products we use,” she concludes. 

Phil Heidt of CORT Party Rental, which oversaw this elaborately tented event, notes that the northwestern U.S. has been especially proactive in promoting sustainable goods and services. Photo courtesy of CORT Party Rental.

“You’re supporting the local community and their families.”

Paige Events in Santa Cruz, Calif., is another full-service event planning company that promotes eco-friendly choices. Owner Paige McQuillan says she’s spent considerable time educating herself on how to do that and has found multiple “like-minded partners and vendors that can produce products equally as stunning with a much smaller footprint.” 

As a result, she’s able to refer brides to wedding gown vendors that recycle dresses; work with sustainable, locally sourced, organic food vendors; promote the use of recycled paper products for announcements, invitations, programs, menus, napkins and escort cards; and opt for reusable cups, straws and lids. Her number 1 rule? No single-use plastic. She also offers options for floral decor. 

“I can buy organic, locally grown flowers that are free of pesticides and floral foam,” she explains. “An alternative is to use potted plants that can be given to guests as favors—or just planted in the clients’ own backyards.”

McQuillan says interest in eco-friendly weddings seems to be increasing as people become more educated about global warming, especially among clients in their late 20s to mid-30s. And many are happy to learn costs aren’t significantly higher. 

“It can be more expensive to source food and florals locally, but you have to remember you’re supporting the local community and their families,” she says. “You’re cutting back on your carbon emissions to get it all shipped here. They’re not smothered in pesticides. And you can visit the farm your florals or food came from instead of having no idea where in the world something was grown, or if it has been in chemically polluted soil, or what your chicken was eating for dinner.”

As part of her green philosophies, JoAnn Moore is a fan of using and reimagining items, such as this old cowboy boot, for themed events. Photo courtesy of Two Elk Studios, Denver, Colo.

“We like to think we’re the fourth ‘R.’” 

Peak Event Services in Woburn, Mass., rents tents, catering and kitchen equipment, tabletop essentials and lounge furniture for events of all kinds. And that, says vice president of sales Tarryn Prosper, is a green option in and of itself. 

“We like to think we’re the fourth R—rental—after reduce, reuse and recycle,” she notes. “All our products are reusable, and by offering open windows for delivery or pickup, we help limit fuel consumption and vehicle use through route utilization.”  

Some of the firm’s other green choices include the use of eco-friendly cleaning chemicals, the reuse of linen hangers, and use of a custom bagging machine that right-sizes linen wrappings. 

Peak Event Services also works closely with clients striving to uphold zero-waste policies for their events; for example, it’s worked alongside nonprofits to accept unused food, find places that recycle used floor coverings and help clients assess their overall carbon footprints surrounding any given event.  

“Some people roll their eyes in the beginning because they can’t see how we’re going to achieve zero waste,” she notes. “Then they see the steps we can take and realize we can actually achieve that goal.” 

Prosper agrees that adopting green products and services can initially be expensive. For example, the dishwashers Peak Event Services maintains for rental were initially pricey because they use innovative reverse osmosis systems that help conserve water. But they’ve paid off in the long run by eliminating spots on drinkware so it need not be washed more than once. 

In 2018, the company also made a huge investment in green technology by converting its 208,000-square-foot headquarters to solar power. 

When buying fresh flowers and other event supplies, Paige McQuillan strives to work with local vendors and others who prioritize sustainability. Photo courtesy of Taylor Butters.

“We’re always looking for the next product or practice”

Phil Heidt agrees that renting is the eco-friendly choice. Heidt is group vice president for CORT Party Rental, a Seattle, Wash., service that leases everything from event tents to furniture to food prep systems to lighting to linens. 

“We’re always looking for the next product or practice we can incorporate into our business to continue to do our part to lessen our carbon footprint,” he notes. “Small things, like heat-sealing the bottoms of the garment bags that cover our linens rather than tying them in knots, go a long way in lessening the overall amount of plastic needed. We also recycle our used carpet and turf into bales that are shipped to vendors to shave down and make into new nylon products or carpets.” 

All four of the vendors interviewed say they expect demand for eco-friendly products and services to increase in their industries as people become cognizant of the long-term impact of their choices. 

“Our region is constantly seeing new, exciting practices and products that push that agenda forward, and we don’t see that slowing down any time soon,” Heidt comments. “Each successive generation seems more and more aware of the effects our actions have on the environment and how important sustainable decisions are. Who knows what our forward-thinking industry will think of next?” 

Michelle Miron is a freelance writer based in Hugo, Minn.

SIDEBAR: How has COVID affected green practices for event planners and vendors?

In the IBM survey, more than two of three global respondents said environmental issues have become more important to them since COVID.  

The vendors we interviewed said that trend has driven demand for their eco-friendly services. But Heidt noted that some customer concerns since COVID have been difficult to navigate due to misinformation. For example, initially many clients insisted on single-use products like plastic water bottles due to concerns about germ-spreading.

“That was counterproductive to our previous efforts to produce more environmentally friendly events and came from an unfortunate lack of knowledge … on the safety and sanitation methods rental companies already had in place to ensure all products were clean before being sent out for the next rental,” Heidt says. “Since summer of 2020, many in our industry have realized the error in that thinking and have begun again pushing for more green practices, while also being mindful of how that may affect the spread of COVID and other viruses.” 

McQuillan adds that COVID has inspired a drive toward simplicity for many of her clients.    

“You don’t need much to live a happy and sustainable life, and people are using that knowledge when dreaming up their perfect wedding days,” she says. “Guest counts have been much lower, which definitely helps the overall footprint of the event—from the carbon emissions of traveling to get there, to the food and beverages consumed, to the amount of fast fashion worn.”  

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