Why social sustainability matters for events in the wake of COVID-19

Sustainability has become an often-talked-about topic for many industries in recent years, including the event industry. While a lot of people have talked about it over the years, they’ve mostly stuck to environmental sustainability. Today, when someone talks about sustainable events, they more or less mean green events or eco-friendly events. However, broadly speaking, sustainability can be divided into three aspects—economic, social, and, of course, environmental— and all of them are equally important. In this post, we’ll be focusing on the second one, which is also the most overlooked one—social sustainability.

Social sustainability—An introduction

It’s been an unprecedented and unpredictable time for us, with enormous changes we are still adapting to. Living through COVID-19 has taught us a lot—it’s shown us how to be more flexible, more resilient, and more persistent. It has also made us realize how fragile everything is. Considering everything that’s happened in the last months, the most obvious step forward is building a society that’s sustainable—no matter what we do.

According to the Western Australia Council of Social Services (WACOSS), “Social sustainability occurs when the formal and informal processes, systems, structures, and relationships actively support the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and livable communities.” 

For event planners, it’s going to be about understanding the impact their events have on people and societies. This also means hosting events that support progress and equity amongst all participants—attendees, staff, sponsors, speakers, and the local communities affected by it. Simply put, social sustainability is going to be about improving your relationship with the people your event touches.

The 3 key themes of social sustainability (and what they mean for events)

In the coming days, social sustainability will be a key priority in rebuilding communities worldwide. By looking at the social impacts of our actions, we not only avoid negative outcomes and mitigate risk but also increase the probability of success. As events have always been about community-building, it’s only right that we do our part by being socially responsible with the events we host. While the actual plans for hosting such events will vary for different events—what works for a social event or gala will not work for a corporate mixer—the same principles apply.

Here, we’ve discussed three of the basic principles of social sustainability along with some tips on how you can follow them when hosting your events.

Equity

This is one of the chief principles of social sustainability, if not the most important—being fair-minded, giving people their due, and treating everyone equally. When planning events, we deal with a lot of people, and everyone should be treated with respect regardless of who they are and what they do.

With internal stakeholders like your staff and vendors, this means:

  • Fair labor practices

  • Health and safety

  • Good working conditions

  • Work-life balance

  • Equitable pay

For external stakeholders like your attendees and the local community, this involves:

  • Creating a bias-free event experience

  • Facilitating meaningful connections

  • Respecting cultural diversity

  • Handling sensitive issues responsibly

  • Giving back to the local community

  • Patronizing local businesses

  • Acknowledging the broader social impact of your event

With equity, the goal is to create an environment that’s socially and ethically responsible, one that fosters transparency and trust.

Diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are key concerns everywhere, but especially in the event industry. Events bring together a diverse crowd of people from different ethnicities, backgrounds, and abilities, and every single one of them has to be welcomed. When there’s a lack of diversity at events, it leads to segregation and social exclusion. In recent years, even long before COVID-19, people have been showing their dissatisfaction with manels—or male-only panels—for this exact reason. As event organizers, we need a purposeful and intentional plan to host events that mitigate bias in the community.

When we talk about hosting diverse events, everything has to be taken into consideration—the venue, the staff, the speakers, and even the food. Your venue has to be accessible—it should have ramps, elevators, and signers. A diverse workforce of staff and vendors is also important. When you have people of different backgrounds and personalities working with you, you can have multiple perspectives that nurture creativity, flexible problem-solving, and better adaptation. Not just this, they will also be better equipped to handle a diverse audience.

Speakers are the most visible representation of diversity at your event, so it’s important to be mindful of the panels you’ve included. Make sure that you feature a diverse range of speakers, including people from minority groups. Food is another place where event organizers have to be inclusive. Include vegan, halal, and kosher options in your menu.

Without diversity, social sustainability might as well be a privilege of the majority. So take care to host a diverse, inclusive event that embraces differences and encourages community welfare.

Social cohesion

Social cohesion can be defined as “the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper” (Dick Stanley). For events, this means all the people who are directly or indirectly influenced by it. From your client to your staff, from your vendors and suppliers to the local community, all formal and informal connections between everyone involved will influence the social cohesion of your event. Every one of these connections will affect the social impact of your event.

With equity, we concentrated on the benefits for each stakeholder, whereas with social cohesion, we stress how each of these stakeholders and their inter-dependency influences the event and the larger society. This highlights how interdependent everything and everyone is, how a problem in one area can make everything else fall. In a word, everyone depends on everyone; no one is isolated. So the better the social cohesion, the more socially sustainable your event is.

When hosting your event, ensure that everyone is working well together and all partnerships are successful. If your client backs out, you’ve got to answer to your suppliers. If your suppliers don’t deliver, your client will not get what they want—neither will your attendees. So work on being fair to each person separately, but at the same time, make sure they all work well together.

A socially-sustainable event not only benefits you and your client—it also benefits society at large. A stable society, in turn, will help you host bigger, more successful events. Everyone wins in this cycle of prosperity.


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