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How High-Footprint Industries Can Embrace Sustainability

wwa_mgmt_mikeyBetween the 1,000-horsepower racecars and the thousands of fans who travel from far and wide to get there, NASCAR events have a carbon footprint close to that of a city.

Several years ago, at my last NASCAR race, I was working a client event on the midway, where the sponsors typically promote their brands to consumers through experiential marketing. Within a half mile radius of where I was standing, branded 18-wheelers surrounded me, air conditioners were blasting, tractors were hauling racecars, marketers were handing out plastic and paper and samples.

Any sane person might think this situation was environmentally unsalvageable. At this point, I could say without a doubt that I didn’t feel good about the impact my industry was having on the environment. And nobody was doing anything about it.

Sometimes when companies feel as if they are past the point of environmental return, the easiest option is just to ignore the problem. The fact that the experiential marketing industry was built on extravagant, bold, and high-footprint “activations” left people not knowing where to begin (or if they should even bother). Making large-scale events more sustainable seemed like a huge undertaking, and no one was sure how tangible the returns would be.

But, once we took stock of the events and campaigns we were producing and figured out how to reduce their carbon footprint, our clients’ response was overwhelmingly positive. For many, going green isn’t an issue of what’s right or what’s wrong. It’s an issue of manageability and efficiency. Like anything, introducing sustainability to a traditionally high-footprint industry is a matter of breaking down the greater problem into manageable components, until you’re able to get the job done.

Identify the attitudes, beliefs or practices in your industry that can be turned around.

In our industry, we’re accustomed to dreaming up intricate campaigns for clients that involve many moving parts – and tons of materials. There were a few misconceptions that a lot of us bought into, which held the industry back from being greener. 1) Clients would be unwilling to pay the higher premiums often associated with the use of sustainable materials. 2) Grand events couldn’t be orchestrated with the level of detail and innovation needed if done the green way.

It was risky, but we decided that the only way to make a change, to borrow from Nike, was to “Just Do It.” We wanted to set an example for our industry by showing everyone that sustainable experiential marketing events could be done, and done well.

Make it easier for your partners and customers to share your commitment to the environment.

The majority of companies and consumers will tell you that they care about the environment. But, in a bad economy, programs like sustainability are sometimes considered non-essential to the bottom line. I’ve found that often, the biggest obstacles to achieving sustainability goals are education, capacity and cost.

By providing stakeholders and clients with a clear and simple plan of action that helps justify the cost of a sustainability program, we can help to remove these barriers. Giving people the infrastructure and resources to accomplish their goals will empower them to make sustainability more of an integrated reality than a line item.

Build enthusiasm among team members.

Much like customers and partners, employees must feel excited and empowered to make environmental initiatives work on the ground for them. Most big ideas – including sustainability – begin at the executive level, but take an entire company to implement every day.

Everyone from the CEO to the intern should be thoroughly invested in making green philosophies actionable. Whether it’s an internal recycling and public transportation push, or an external movement to overhaul an industry, it’s important to get everyone in your company revved up to support its sustainability goals and learn how to do it the right way.

Don’t be afraid to start now…or start small.

Despite the economy, consumers’ interest in being “green” is still there. Of the 1,000 consumers surveyed by the nonprofit organization Green Seal in February 2009, 82 percent said that they were buying green despite the economic downturn. But as the standard-setting bodies and early adopters of the green movement have seen, people can easily be turned off by the thought of being condemned for not doing enough.

The phrase “not doing enough” isn’t in my vocabulary. If all of our clients did at least something to protect the environment, it’s better than nothing. The key to making our sustainability program work is offering our clients several different options for what they can do to come on board, without pressuring them into making the decisions. After all, if we turn off our clients and the consumers that attend our events, we really wouldn’t have a business. What we can focus on is making our campaigns better than they were before – time after time.

Mike Hersom is President of ignition Inc. He currently is leading the development of the experiential marketing industry’s first set of sustainability standards.

Mike Hersom
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One thought on “How High-Footprint Industries Can Embrace Sustainability

  1. Excellent! Great words Mike. As it is said, raising a Hummer’s mileage 2 MPG is far more impactful than raising a Prius’ 2 MPG. High footprint industries are a great way to make a lot happen quickly, and the voluntary shift in such an extreme industry as NASCAR could encourage others to renew their efforts, try again, or activate a previously unconvinced demographic. Good luck.

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