With COVID-19 going from a pandemic to an endemic state in early to mid-2022, we are beginning to see an uptick in conferences, concerts, and other events being organised in Singapore. Already, events like the Singapore Grand Prix Formula 1, Standard Chartered Marathon, and even National Day have returned back to their pre-pandemic scale.
Broadly, mass events can be categorised as MICE events, and are pivotal drivers of our economic growth. Thus, we can expect a future increase in MICE events, higher footfall, and consequently higher energy consumption and waste, which is a significant obstacle on our path to net-zero by 2050. With upcoming, existing or even new events coming along, how might we encourage profit-driven, growth-driven event organisers to go green? Let's explore the issues from the perspective of different stakeholders.
As the leaders of the Singapore Green Plan, the Singapore government is likely to be interested in addressing sustainability concerns caused by more MICE events. What could their approach look like? Looking at current measures, it is clear that the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has already taken comprehensive steps to ensure that "sustainable events" are clearly defined. These sustainability guidelines for the Singapore MICE industry offer concise, measurable and effective actions that event organisers can take to ensure that their events are sustainable. While they serve as an excellent reference point for organisers who may wish to go green, guidelines are what they are - just guidelines. As they are not legally binding, its optional nature makes profit-driven organisers less likely to accept or conform to them. Here are some suggestions on how the STB can better leverage their guidelines to ensure greater conformity.
Currently, the STB also provides financial incentives to MICE event organisers in the form of grants and tax deductions. For grants, their eligibility will be evaluated based on the event's "content, brand, and delegate profile", while for tax deductions, the event has to be AIF approved. The eligibility criteria for AIF is vague, mentioning that "international standards" are to be met and the emphasis being placed on generating trade and economic spin-off rather than achieving green goals.
To incentivise sustainable practices, the STB could consider making the guidelines a requirement for grant and AIF approval instead. With this in place, the intention of giving financial aid to event organisers can be pivoted from lowering costs and making MICE events more profitable to instead help organisers offset costs that stem from investing in sustainable infrastructure.
As with most government policy, the STB could take a progressive approach towards implementing these guidelines by offering tiered incentives based on the level of adherence to these guidelines. Currently, the sustainability guidelines come at both "basic" (e.g. use digital or reusable signage) and "intermediate" (e.g. eliminates PVC from materials) levels, which can be leveraged by offering better grants and tax cuts to offset the greater costs from going the extra mile in ensuring sustainability. The size of these rewards can be progressively reduced after doing calculations to determine the amount of investment needed to implement these changes.
At first, the grants and tax cuts could be sized to make it profitable for event organisers to ensure that these events are sustainable. Afterwards, they can be reduced to ensure that they help organisers to break even or just to offset some of the costs.
Why should we offer incentives first? By invoking Newton's first law of motion, we know we have to first overcome inertia before making changes. Contextually, this manifests in the form of high costs when building the foundations for sustainable infrastructure. Afterwards, tapering off the financial aid makes sense because the cost of maintaining sustainable practices is lower than the cost of changing the status quo and implementing new practices.
While conceptually sound, it is harder to remove financial incentives in reality as people are already anchored with financial motivation. Thus, we may have to think twice about tapering off grants and tax cuts, as we might reasonably expect a proportionate fall in adherence to sustainability guidelines without these incentives in place. Even though they come at no additional cost to the organisers since the foundation for sustainable events has already been laid. What can we do to overcome this issue?
Change is constant. This saying is cliché but it's also true. As time progresses, the expectations and standards for sustainable events will inevitably change. As such, it is imperative the STB revise their guidelines regularly so that it remains relevant to the spirit of sustainability. For example, the intermediate requirement of "using transportation by hybrid/fuel efficient/electric vehicles at warehouse & delivery" may be revised to become a basic one in a few years, as the need for renewable energy becomes increasingly exigent [https://www.seforall.org/news/new-un-brief-calls-for-urgent-energy-related-measures-for-long-term-sustainable-development].
Regularly revising the guidelines on a regular e.g. annual basis could enable the STB to pivot their focus to different aspects of sustainability. This allows event organisers to manage the transformation process with greater ease, as they are not bombarded with a sudden slew of changes all at once.
By having the flexibility to update their requirements, the STB could, for example, choose to emphasise on waste and energy management before pivoting the focus towards human resources and transport in future years. This would help make the changes seem less daunting and hopefully make event organisers more receptive towards them.
Instead of having the government setting standards which may sometimes be overly rigid, industry partners themselves could set industry-specific standards, which are more likely to meet the industry-specific sustainability demands. This can be attributed to industry partners already having in-depth knowledge of their events’ behind-the-scenes operations, making it easier for them to accurately identify areas for improvement. With the upcoming alliance between STB and six key industry players to set revised sustainability standards for MICE events, we should expect these events to be held to more sustainable standards.
It is obvious that one key action the organisers can take is to cooperate with the aforementioned changes that the government might implement. Understandably, these changes may not be welcomed by organisers as it would negatively impact their bottom line. In order to drive underlying change that lasts, organisers have to truly commit to making sustainability a key priority. What does prioritising sustainability over profits mean? Why should organisations do it? How should they go about doing it? I answer the what, why and the how in detailed articles on my blog.
Statistically, readers of this blog are unlikely to be government officials or MICE event organisers, and more likely to be an event attendee. So, what can you, the reader, do?
To advocate change in business-related MICE events, you can push for change in company-organised MICE events by going to your sustainability department and suggesting the aforementioned organisational changes. If your company doesn't have a sustainability department, you could try to get senior management to hear your suggestions by highlighting these issues to your superiors during performance reviews or weekly/monthly one-on-ones. This will help you stand out for advocating change that you believe in, by strengthening your personal brand.
Admittedly, there is limited impact an individual can make through personal change. However, there is still value in pushing for sustainable events at work as part of shaping a new corporate culture, which starts from the hearts of the people and not from a top-down mandate. Taking micro-actions like advocating for sustainably organised events is the first step towards organisational change.
Aside from business MICE events, there are also leisure ones like concerts, e-sport tournaments, etc. Should the government choose not to make the STB guidelines a requirement, we have the responsibility to be more selective about the events that we go to. As the event-goers, we often have to cough up hundreds of dollars to attend these events, generating lucrative profits for event organisers. By making a conscious choice not to attend them, sustainability becomes a consumer-mandated requirement for organisers to hit their bottom line. This creates a financial incentive for them to enact changes to make their events more sustainable.
Admittedly, there is no incentive apart from our own moral conscience to boycott unsustainable evens. Thus, there will inevitably be people who are apathetic about the sustainability of these events and continue to attend them, enabling event organisers to get away with flouting the STB guidelines. Nonetheless, local sentiments are shifting; Singaporeans are becoming more environmentally conscious, so there is still hope that enough of us can cooperate and choose to save both money and the planet by choosing not to attend unsustainable events.
Critics of my argument may contend that imperfect information makes it unfeasible to screen for unsustainable events. Unlike the government, we do not have access to data regarding how sustainable these events are, so we cannot make a reasonable assessment of how green they are. This causes a greater propensity for us to blindly boycott events which is a lose-lose situation.
I believe that imperfect information will not be a problem, because the organisers will have the incentive to publish this data if it believes it will attract more attendees, boosting their revenue. If sustainable events can credibly signal their eco-friendliness by publishing their data and practices, all the more they would do it.
Another view that pessimists might hold is that my viewpoint is highly idealistic; we will never create enough incentive for organisers to go green. I beg to differ, because humans are not entirely self-centred, and some organisers and performers truly believe in sustainability, so they become trailblazers for them. Take rock band Coldplay, which has won multiple prestigious music awards and earn millions of dollars performing in concerts all across the world. However, maximising profit is far from their top concern, as they instead choose to hold sustainable concerts through initiatives such as a dance floor that collects the dancers' energy and stationary bikes which power the performance itself, amongst other things like a green framework that ultimately aims to restore our rapidly deteriorating environment through the concert funds they collected. It wouldn't be unreasonable to predict that in a few years time, others will follow suit and pivot to this new concert model.
COVID-19 has changed the way we live: work-from-home, improved hygiene standards, and trade/diversification. Hopefully, it will also change the way MICE events are held here, where sustainability becomes organisers' top priority.
Ryan is currently serving his full-time national service in the Singapore Armed Forces. An environment and finance enthusiast, he is keen on making an impact by sharing his ideas through writing for Green Nudge and on his blog. In the future, he hopes to study economics in the UK and use his education to help the economy go net-zero and beyond.
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