On Wednesday morning at the November edition of Event Huddle, we were asked to join an expert panel to discuss the state of sustainability in the event industry. New owners and hosts of Event Huddle, Ministry Venues, posed the question “In a difficult economy, is sustainability a realistic priority?”
Our Director of Sales and Marketing, Mark Maher along with Cathryn Goddard from event florist’s Pinstripes and Peonies, George Prince of the Royal Albert Hall, Rick Stainton founder of award winning global agency Smyle and of course the event industry’s very own David Dimbleby, Kevin Jackson, assembled on stage at The Ministry’s 79 Borough Road to offer their insight.
As is always the intention of Event Huddle questions, the phrasing provoked some passionate opening remarks from the panel, who unanimously agreed that “without a planet, we don’t have an event industry,” let alone an economy or indeed a panel discussion to talk about any of it, so sustaining it had better be a realistic priority. The audience of course agreed and showed their appreciation for some passionate opening words from the panellists.
This set the tone for an hour of impactful conversation where, unlike many Event Huddles, everyone was pulling in the same direction. It’s not the norm, because the idea of Event Huddle is to address contentious issues, where opposing views come together to cut through the nonsense and find answers. This topic, however, united a room of event professionals and produced some genuinely useful takeaways, but perhaps more importantly ignited positivity, optimism and new inspiration to make positive change. Rick Stainton challenged each person to go away and make one behaviour change to positively impact the planet. It felt like everyone was ready to do just that.
As we all know, motivation only gets us so far (and lasts for so long), so starting new habits is vital if we are to keep the momentum going after an event like this. The panel managed to sprinkle in some excellent practical takeaways along with the big picture thinking and motivational sound bites. Here’s a few general points that we have adapted to the catering world, which we think will help us move the event industry into a more sustainable place:
Communicate both ways along the supply chain
Communication is so often undervalued or misused and it’s vital that we communicate more in both directions along the supply chain if we want our events to be more sustainable. A catering specific example of how better lines of communication can lead to a more sustainable event lies in the tasting experience. Cooking with the seasons is one of the most effective things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. Typically, a corporate event tasting will take place 3-6 months before the event itself, for weddings more like 9-12 months in advance, on average. Therefore, unless the tasting and the event are a year apart, it’s very unlikely for the ‘in season’ ingredients at the tasting to still be in season for the event (because they take place in different seasons). On top of that, with global warming (the irony!), seasonality changes from year to year, so the availability of ingredients isn’t always a formality. A widely accepted expectation in our industry is that the pictures taken at the tasting perfectly match the dishes served on the day, indeed those pictures will appear on most event run-sheets. A very small, yet seemingly untaken, step would be to allow the caterers more freedom when finalising the menu. The onus here is on both parties, the caterer must communicate the options better ahead of time so that the client understands, for example, which vegetables might be replaced, and which replacements could be used to keep the balance of the dish. Ultimately, the purpose of a tasting is to choose dishes which will be enjoyed by the guests at the event, so providing the food experience on the day is an amazing one, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much if the asparagus changes to sprouting broccoli? If we can start to shift expectations a little and move to a place where caterers have the freedom to make post-tasting menu changes, in order to align with the seasonality of ingredients, we will have made a very simple, yet effective step to becoming more seasonal and reducing our carbon footprint ass an industry.
Think about reducing waste rather than recycling better
One question we are asked all the time is, how do you make sure things go in the right bins? The honest answer is, with great difficulty, because it requires changing human behaviour across the board. The way it works is, we communicate the recycling system, make it clear and easy to understand, then continuously give feedback. However, what we should really be thinking is, how do we reduce the amount of stuff that needs to go in the bin? There’s an amazing restaurant that’s just opened near our kitchens in Hackney Wick, which produces zero waste, the kitchen has no bins! The founder, Doug McMaster, is the messiah of zero waste and his new restaurant, Silo, is a shining beacon of an example that it’s possible to do better. Doug says himself in his new book, also called Silo, that implementing these systems was incredibly tough and often caused unfair stress for his staff. He’s not saying everyone needs to be zero waste, it’s a hard road, but he’s setting the example and that’s enough to make us look at how we can edge closer to the great work they are doing. Part of that has been working with local food charity Plan Zheroes to redistribute excess food to places where there’s a demand for it, we’ve donated over 5000 meals in the past two years. We’ve also started to work with our suppliers to reduce the packaging that they send to us as well as switching our single use plastic to biodegradable alternatives. Our cups, meal boxes and cutlery can now go into our food waste, which becomes compost for Hackney parks. Recycling is great, but it’s far from a perfect system, only about 9% of all plastic gets repurposed, the rest still goes to landfill. Really, we need a change in mindset, so that we are thinking about waste ahead of time and minimising it altogether.
Can we compromise together?
Presentation is one of the primary ways we judge food, for some the way it looks is just as important as how it tastes. Expectations around how food is presented have encouraged innovation in lots of ways. Everything from cutting vegetables into new shapes, adding colourful garnishes to the plate (in some cases inedible ones), the designing of new plates, even making the plates themselves edible. It’s wonderfully creative and can be great fun for us, as caterers, to experiment with these things. There can, however, be a trade-off between innovation and sustainability, unless the innovation is done with sustainability in mind. If we are continuously trying to push the envelope and stand out with the way our food looks, without considering this trade-off, it can lead to significantly more waste. Of course, food can be sustainable and look good at the same time, Silo are proving that, but when we place all the emphasis on ‘the wow factor,’ it sets a president for overindulgence and potentially careless innovation.
A simple example – When we prepare dauphinoise potatoes, we do so in a large ‘gastro’ tray and then we cut this into identical rectangles. For each rectangle to be the same, the edges of the large ‘gastro sized’ potato need to be trimmed. The only reason we do this is to make sure every single potato is the same shape on the plate. It doesn’t make it taste any better, but we understand that there is an expectation for consistency in presentation. Of course, we could push the agenda and use the edges anyway, in some cases we do, but opening lines of communication about these things might help us to do it together, with way less friction. Perhaps we can get to a place where we all, as consumers, recognise an attempt at minimising waste, just as readily as we notice a perceived flaw in presentation.