Reflections on 10 Years of Sustainable Meetings

Many organizations talk a good game about going green or creating sustainability programs, but rare is the company that embraces such tenets down to its core the way MCI has. A global meetings, events and association-management company, MCI walks the sustainable walk from its headquarters in Geneva to outposts in more than 30 countries around the world, including the U.S. The firm's nearly 2,000 employees are actively engaged in greening their own workspaces, offices, neighborhoods and the myriad events they work on.

Celebrating its (so far) 10-year commitment to sustainability, MCI has compiled a report called "A Decade of Dedication," outlining all the good the company has done along the way. Those numbers are truly impressive: In 2016 alone, MCI employees put in 5,732 community-service hours and raised more than US$4.5 million in direct and indirect funds while supporting 61 community projects around the globe. Also in 2016, 100 percent of MCI's preferred global suppliers and 22 percent of the company's entire supply chain are compliant with MCI's responsible-procurement policies.

M&C spoke with MCI's sustainability director, Guy Bigwood, right, about the company's green practices.

You were already working with MCI when the sustainability policy was put in place. How did you take on the overall role for the company?
I became the sustainability director because I complained to [MCI CEO] Sébastian Tondeur that we didn't have one. He said, "Good! You're the sustainability director!" It's been a long journey and a good journey.

How is the industry as a whole doing on green meetings?
What gets me are two things: We're still in the debate of "I'd like to do it, but it's too expensive." It's not. The other is organizations do two, three, five things and say, "We've done it! We've collected our badges and we're done!" It's a constant battle.

There were years of hand-holding our team, the suppliers, the clients. Now sometimes we get a bid, and it's sustainability all the way through and that's cool. The market's moved a bit.

How do you get buy-in from all of MCI's far-flung global offices?
Every office has a sustainability champion who forms a sustainability team. We have 106 champions, they collect the data and send it in several times a year. Our emissions went up this year, but our goal is to cut it by 20 percent by 2020.

You have to build a culture of sustainability and social responsibility. You get your teams involved in stuff, social action, community work. You just keep going at them with a constant stream. That seeps into the culture. We're not a big top-down-focus company. We try to give every office its own creativity, and not every office has the same approach to sustainability. You let them find their own approach.

Is there any competition to be the best?
We have a report-card approach. I check each office on 20 points and score them and compare them to each other. I have a very simple approach. I put the scores of everyone up on the screen during the managers' meetings, and people get a slap on the back and there's an awards program, but if you don't live up to it, you get shamed. We make it very public. We want them to improve. We recognize the office that gets the best score [the Leadership in Sustainability award] as well as the creativity of addressing sustainability [the Innovation in Sustainability award]. It works quite nicely.

Do you have a favorite event you've worked on, to push the sustainability envelope?
The Danish Maritime Forum, an event for 200 people, doesn't have a big budget, and over the last three years we've taken them on a sustainability journey, and we've saved them a lot of money: $32,500.

We also just did a very large online travel company's annual event, a megaproduction, a festival. It's so over-the-board fantastic and flamboyant. But it's one of those projects we love every year, because you can do whatever you want and use all your production toys. It's a multiday event, 8,000 people. In many ways, it goes against what we talk about in sustainability. It's excessive. This year we really really worked at it. We integrated sustainability on a different level, working with every provider on how they build and make production sets. The artistic company went out and sourced all the artists' clothes from second-hand shops and made chariots from old bicycles and old boats. We worked a lot on the food side of things, working storytelling into it, using local ingredients and talking about a healthy, balanced diet. We switched to recyclable, sustainable serviceware. We contracted with a nonprofit organization to bring in a team of Syrian refugees who built amazing displays out of old tires and other recyled materials. Lots of volunteers made sure participants were recycling. It was amazing.

We did have a quiet zone showing a film, but we had stationary bicycles in the theater, and the only way to see the movie was to pedal the bicycles to power the screen.

We changed attendees' perception of how they view their company. The most powerful tool to communicate with a team in a very tangible way is through an event.