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How to make your fundraising events more sustainable – and why it's worth the effort

Sustainability isn’t merely a buzzword. Here, two organisers of large-scale events tell us how they manage to keep their footprint impressively small.

Volunteers handing out compostable cups to runners

Climate change, according to the United Nations, is “the defining issue of our time” – and over the past few years there has been a growing awareness that we all need to change our day-to-day behaviour to reduce our impact on the environment. However, minimising one’s environmental footprint is a huge challenge for organisers of large fundraising events, which require considerable investment of resources to run smoothly for participants, spectators and sponsors.

Yet with a little research and forward planning, it is possible to make large fundraising events highly sustainable. It’s a huge logistical and creative challenge, of course – such events often involve thousands of people travelling, creating a mess, and requiring food, drink and all manner of other materials that have to be produced, packed and transported.

Hugh Brasher and Persephone Deacon-Cole know these challenges inside-out: the former is the event director of the Virgin Money London Marathon, the most popular marathon event in the world, while the latter is the project lead at the Royal Parks Half, another event leading the way when it comes to thinking about sustainability.

For Brasher, making the Virgin Money London Marathon more sustainable is a unique challenge. "It's 26.2 miles across a city; it’s not contained in a stadium. You’ve got three quarters of a million people coming to watch and they’re consuming food and drink," he says. Since the Royal Parks Half takes its runners through Grade I-listed public spaces, sustainability has been at the event’s heart since its inception in 2008. This year it became one of the first mass participation events in the UK to entirely ditch plastic bottles, a year ahead of schedule.

Sustainability and innovation go hand-in-hand

In 2019 the Virgin Money London Marathon trialled several innovative new sustainability policies. "We did a huge amount of trials," says Brasher. "We did trials of bottle belts, capes, compostable cups, seaweed capsules and closed-loop recycling. And when we got the data back it was fascinating to see what worked and what didn’t." The Royal Parks Half, meanwhile, has been at the forefront of innovative sustainability policy since its inception. Deacon-Cole explains that the runners' T-shirts have long been made with bamboo and recycled polyester, and the medals are made from FSC-certified wood. "We moved from a printed runners' booklet to a digital one that could be downloaded," she adds. "And rather than send out packs containing T-shirts [before the race] we switched to a finishers' T-shirt, which saved 87kg of plastic and took out the additional haulage."

Bold ideas need good communications

"For the 2019 race we converted all of our water stations to biodegradable paper cups," says Deacon-Cole. "It was [initially] quite an unpopular move, because runners actually prefer the grab-and-go situation of a plastic bottle," she continues. "And we also made the move to remove isotonic drinks from the route, which saved a huge amount of liquid wastage because runners tend to just take a small amount from the bottle and then discard it. So those two moves combined removed over 160,000 plastic bottles from the course, and because we put a robust plan in place around our communications, people got on board and they could see that what we were doing was for the benefit of the environment so we had very little negative backlash."

Start small and scale up

A notable success in 2019's Virgin Money London Marathon sustainability trails were the bottle belts, which are made from more than 90 per cent recycled materials and specially designed to carry a 250ml water bottle. "We found that the people with the belts were using 45 per cent fewer bottles on the course," says Brasher. "Rather than taking a sip and discarding the bottle, they were taking a sip and keeping the bottle with them to drink whenever needed. We'll be promoting the belts extensively for the 2020 event."

A sustainable event is a popular event

"I think participants are drawn towards environmentally-friendly events," says Deacon-Cole. "We surveyed our runners, and 82 percent said that the environmental credentials of an event were now playing a part in their choices. I think we've positioned ourselves in a way that people who are concerned about the environment might be more likely to choose our event."

Sustainability can help attract like-minded partners, too

"We're very fortunate that we work with some excellent partners who are very invested in what we do,”"says Deacon-Cole, who believes that the Royal Parks Half's sustainability credentials have made it a logical match for like-minded corporate partners. "Royal Bank of Canada, for example, are very interested in providing safe drinking water around the world while Runners Need will recycle your running shoes after the race and give you a money-off voucher [in return]."

One partner Brasher and Deacon-Cole have in common is Virgin Money Giving, the official fundraising partner of both events. "We feel passionately about being involved with organisers and events who are also working towards a more sustainable future," says Jo Barnett, executive director of Virgin Money Giving. "Our ambition at Virgin Money Giving is to embed sustainability into all our practices. Like our parent, Virgin Money, we are committed to combating climate change and in line with the Paris Agreement we are aiming to have 'net zero' carbon emissions by 2030."

Some compromises may be necessary

While sustainability is key, event organisers must keep an eye on the bigger picture – you don’t want to compromise the character or reputation of the event, which might have a knock-on impact on the amount of money raised for good causes, or negatively impact the experience of participants on the day. "You have to look at this very holistically and try to avoid knee-jerk reactions," says Brasher, who points to travel as an area where a drive towards sustainability needs to be balanced against other considerations. "People travel from all over the world to take part in the Virgin Money London Marathon and that invariably involves air travel. Over 450,000 people applied to run the event and I think around 370,000 of them were from the UK alone, so we could be a UK-only event [and cut out much of the air travel]." But not only would a less global race compromise runners' experiences on the day and perhaps impact its reputation as a world-leading sporting event, it would also have an economic impact. "Those hotel rooms help create employment for people. We bring approximately £130 million benefit to the economy," says Brasher. "Bringing people into London is an important part of the mix."

Your sustainability work is never done

"We are always saying 'what more can we be doing?'” says Deacon-Cole. "Every time we think about doing something, we put it through the filter of sustainability and see what it is that we could do better." The Virgin Money London Marathon, meanwhile, is working towards a big target: to ensure the race is at zero waste to landfill by December 2020. "We're confident on achieving that goal," says Brasher. "But we believe there are other things we need to do that are just as important, and we’ll be announcing some of our plans soon." Keep your eyes peeled.

Small events can also be sustainable

There are many things smaller charities and individual fundraisers can do to reduce their events' footprint. Deacon-Cole recommends looking for small innovative start-ups to partner with to try out new ideas. And after that, it’s just about doing all the little things that add up to make a big difference. "There are so many changes people can make at a smaller level," she says. "Can you use reusable cups? Can you minimise the amount of paper you need? Can you be mindful about travel and how people get to your event? Doing anything is better than nothing. I heard a quote that sums it up nicely: 'We don't need a hundred people doing recycling perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.'"

Sustainability is a group effort

Event organisers such as Brasher and Deacon-Cole can only do so much. For an event to be as sustainable as possible, everybody has to do their bit and make meaningful changes to their behaviour. For runners this might mean using bottle belts and making an effort not to waste liquid, in training as well as on race day itself, while spectators should use recycled cardboard for their signs, avoid balloons and dispose of their waste responsibly. We can only make fundraising events more sustainable when everyone is on the same side.

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