Most associations express low levels of interest in investing in environmental sustainability initiatives.

Do associations risk an opportunity to drive change in their industries if they fail to make sustainability a priority now, or have environmental issues stirred up too much backlash?

Can associations provide additional value to their members while ensuring their ongoing relevance and thought leadership by embracing sustainability?

Environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) was a hot topic at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos this week, and the backlash has reportedly driven many companies to eliminate it from their annual reports and internal operations. Should associations have a stronger commitment to environmental sustainability?

Given the polarity of views, the related costs, and the differing levels of interest on behalf of various industries regarding environmental issues, it makes sense why many associations may be hesitant to prioritize sustainability-based practices within their organizations. A mid-January Avenue M text poll and LinkedIn poll on the topic of sustainability reveal that a majority of associations have either a low commitment (35%) or no commitment (29%) to environmental sustainability. In contrast, 16% of associations shared that they have a moderate commitment, and 19% reported having a high commitment to sustainability.

However, most scientists agree climate change has huge implications for our society and human health. At the American Geophysical Union (AGU), an organization that promotes Earth and space science discovery, climate change is a top priority that unites all their scientists. “There isn’t a single aspect of society that isn’t being affected by climate change,” said Janice Lachance, Interim Executive Director at AGU, which is why “AGU enables [scientists] to collaborate and find international research partners to publish and publicize their findings [on climate change] to help the public and policymakers fashion appropriate solutions.”

Additionally, the issue around trade show waste (on average, events produce 2.5 pounds of landfill waste per person per day) and the importance of adopting more sustainable practices has been on meeting planners’ radars for years.

When asked for more information about why their organizations have made sustainability a priority, one participant from a trade association said there are “Compelling business reasons, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Another shared that, “Sustainability is a critical issue for the members we serve. In addition to investing significantly in programs and resources, we have committed to ‘walk the walk’ in our own operations.”

A panelist who said their organization has a low commitment to sustainability said it isn’t a huge issue for their members. Similarly, another panelist shared that “it’s just not on anyone’s radar.”

Associations have a valuable role to play in leading members and industries toward more sustainable practices. As trusted conveners and information sources, associations can raise awareness of sustainability issues, share best practices, and promote transparency. By helping members understand the risks and opportunities, even when environmental issues aren’t on their radar, associations can help their members become more resilient and more prepared to weather changing preferences and behaviors.

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For more insights on sustainability, read Avenue M’s quick summaries of the following resources, and click the links below.

Circularity: The Biggest Shift for Trade Shows in 2024

While corporate America may be pushing back on ESG, the events industry appears to be embracing sustainability metrics in hopes that it will soon become a standard practice in the industry. Recent surveys show attendees care more about sustainability, and by marketing their green efforts as a unique value proposition, organizations can set themselves apart and potentially increase attendance. The key is building in sustainability from the initial strategic planning of events. More and more trade shows are likely to market their sustainable best practices as a way to attract attendees and exhibitors.

Nearly half of CEOs fear their companies won’t survive 10 years due to AI and climate change

History is littered with stories of once-dominant companies that no longer exist because they didn’t adapt to changing behaviors, preferences, and new technologies. Today is no different. In a survey of more than 4,700 CEOs worldwide, taken during the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, 45% of respondents shared their concerns that their businesses may not exist without reinvention. Not surprisingly, the top issues they believe will impact their companies include the role of AI and climate change. One key takeaway from the article is the importance of taking climate risks into account in financial planning.

The Comprehensive Business Case for Sustainability

The time is right for positive and effective change, but we learned from our January 4, 2024 text poll that not all associations say they have a demonstrable edge to compete in today’s environment. While many organizations understand the need to adopt sustainable practices, many executives are often hesitant to center their business strategies around sustainability. However, research has shown that sustainable companies perform better financially, with higher sales growth and returns on assets. Additionally, consider the following reasons why your association should prioritize sustainability:

  • By adopting sustainable practices, organizations can potentially foster innovation of new products and processes, build member loyalty, and retain talented employees who care about corporate social responsibility.
  • Individuals increasingly favor buying from sustainable brands and will pay higher price premiums for their products. Sustainable products can command 20% higher prices.

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Contributors: Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE & Valerie Atencio
Image: Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE