By Katherine Price, Sustainability Editor: How the industry is making weddings and events more sustainable.
More event organisers than ever before are demanding to know the sustainability credentials of the venues and suppliers they’re working with – particularly corporate clients, who will be considering their own environmental reporting and selecting operators based on stringent sustainability procurement processes.
But it is possible to balance the demands of clients with environmental targets and ensure that representatives on the ground are following procedures?
Moving the dial on food waste
Catering and event management business Smart Group, which is accredited across 50 London venues and owns Evolution London in Battersea Park, is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030 and net zero no later than 2050. To achieve this, it’s zeroing in on its sourcing, transport, and catering.
“It’s no longer enough to say, ‘we’ve got a sustainability statement’,” says managing director Chloe Jackson.
“Equally, we get some clients who make you go through really extensive sustainability procurement process, and then when it comes to the event, they’ll just have what they like. For us that can be quite frustrating.”
She acknowledges that it’s easier to control events at the group’s managed venues, however agency workers are trained in the group’s KPIs and SLAs, and the back of house management and kitchen porters overseeing waste segregation will be Smart Group’s full-time staff, giving the business control over its food waste reduction.
“A lot of that is through menu engineering, educating clients, and training our staff and making sure they’re fully on board,” says Jackson. One trick they are implementing is moving the bins.
“Before, they’d be in front of the pass where staff are clearing and they’d be scraping the food into the bins, but you can’t rely on each individual member of staff if they’re not working for you full-time,” she explains.
“The bins are now behind the clear and the porters have to do all the scraping and clearing and are responsible for making sure it ends up in the right place.”
Getting clients on board
When it comes to getting clients on board with your sustainable vision, meanwhile, she says it’s about making it accessible and taking it step-by-step. “It’s starting off saying, ‘have you considered vegetarian or vegan?’,” she suggests.
The business encourages clients to communicate the ‘story’ behind an event menu, for example where produce has come from, if a menu is meat-free then why, and Smart Group’s ‘no-waste canapes’ have been particularly successful.
“We’ve also been encouraging more and more clients to streamline menus,” she continues. “Before, for example, we’d have had a salmon starter, a vegetarian option, a vegan option and a special dietary option. Clients have been very accommodating and understanding when we say that that’s so many dishes, and you’ve always got spares of all of those. It would be great if more clients would go for a vegan option for everyone.
“We’re really fortunate that some of our really big dinners want to make a stand and show they’re being more aware of the environment and choosing that for everyone. But if they’re not willing to do that then they’re at least having a salmon starter and a vegan option that encompasses all dietary requirements, so you’ve only got two dish options on the night.”
Reframing the expectations
However, Jackson says the group has had “very few” clients willing to go entirely meat-free on main courses. “Hopefully in time that will move along. It’s those little steps to start with, and slowly over the years people are willing to change more and more,” she says.
The business is also trying to reframe the expectation of conference catering and has started leading buffets with vegetable and carbohydrate dishes, while also trying to combat misconceptions that vegetarian or vegan dishes should be cheaper. “Like all of these things, it comes down to what it costs,” says Jackson.
Meanwhile, Danny Pecorelli, managing director of the Exclusive Collection of luxury hotels and venues, says the group has “completely refocused” its meetings offering.
“We don’t put pads of paper in front of everybody – we put pads on the side, that are made from recycled or FSC-accredited paper. We put out Sprout pencils instead of pens, we don’t use any single-use plastic, and all the snacks are either homemade or B Corp-accredited,” he says.
Menus are carbon labelled with vegetarian options in prominent position, and the group has a partnership with OLIO for any food waste. The properties have also stopped offering motorised activities to groups – instead, they offer nature walks, tree climbing, yoga, and the onsite herbalist at South Lodge in Horsham, West Sussex, runs foraging and botanical tincture-making activities.
Low waste weddings
Then there’s weddings. “Wedding waste is a contentious issue, and it’s a big one,” says Wales-based wedding venue consultant Zoë Binning.
“Businesses are more aware of the triple bottom line, so they’re more aware of focusing on economic, environmental and social, rather than purely profit. However, I would say that hospitality and wedding businesses are still slow to the party.
“It’s still a lot of lip service rather than real investment, and what’s really needed is a complete rethink in their approach to day-to-day decisions and operations.”
18kg of single-use plastic waste is typically generated by a single wedding of 100 guests in Britain, according to Sky Ocean Rescue, the biggest offenders being plastic cups, disposable decorations and confetti.
“You would set up all of this beautiful tat and it was invariably plastic, single-use, it only had to last one day so it was poor quality and so often didn’t last the full day, particularly plastic garden games, and at the end of the day you’d sweep it all into a bin,” points out Binning.
“If you look at that across the board, that is a lot of plastic tat. It’s getting wedding coordinators who are on the front face to see that and to advise couples. In the main, couples don’t see it.”
Instead, she suggests it’s about working with couples to achieve their vision but suggesting better, more sustainable alternatives – edible favours that aren’t wrapped in plastic, locally-grown flowers that don’t come with oasis or cellophane, donating them afterwards to make full use of their life, and offering garden games and decorations to hire either through the business or a partner vendor.
Pecorelli says that weddings have proven difficult as some decisions will be outside their control. “We made a very conscious decision to control what we can control but not to be dictatorial. This isn’t about preaching because everyone has a different worldview,” he says.
Binning, meanwhile, tries to reassure venues who might worry that if they tell couples they can’t have certain things, that they will go elsewhere. “I have never heard of anyone picking a different venue because they can’t have plastic flip-flops or garden games,” she says.
She offers a suggestion of how to pitch it to couples: “The way I would approach it during the show round is to say, ‘we’re trying to be as sustainable as we can, we don’t allow flip-flops or single-use plastic and this is why’, and you get them nodding along with you. You’ve got them onboard already without realising. It’s about offering them different and sensible and viable alternatives that are, and this is the key thing, also Instagrammable and beautiful,” she says.
“People still want a beautiful wedding, they want to have lovely photos, they want it to look amazing, they want it to be Instagrammable.”