Towards More Sustainable F2F Museum Conferences

Today’s Guest Post is by Dr. Lynda Kelly. Kelly has been working in the evaluation and visitor research fields since 1994, the digital realm since 2007, and the museum industry since 1987. She is now an independent consultant in Australia and runs LyndaKellyNetworks

The year? 1997. The conference? The NSW branch of the Australian Association for Environmental Education Conference at the University of New South Wales. The subject? Something around sustainability, biodiversity and education.

Antenna on Unsplash

Even though this event occurred over 20 years ago now, and I only have vague recollections around the themes, what has always stuck with me was the efforts made by the conference organisers to hold a fully sustainable conference – and the only one I have ever attended. So, what did they do to try and achieve this goal? A range of simple ideas:

  • No printed program, but the program displayed on a large television screen (bear in mind this was pre-Internet / mobile apps so no digital facilities)
  • BYO lanyard, conference bag and coffee cup (also pre-Keep Cup time)
  • Any printed materials were on recycled paper (again, bear in mind that printers weren’t that sophisticated then either so double-sided printing was a difficult option)
  • The supplied ‘conference note-taking booklet’ made out of recycled paper
  • Tracking all conference waste that wasn’t recyclable (via a wire basket placed at the entrance to the conference space) to see how we did

While these ideas may seem quaint now, I have re-visited this experience in the light of this blog post about how we can think more creatively about conferences and conference attendance in the era of climate change.

Just say no?

Bob Janes’ post on the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice blog, Museums Conferences, Air Travel and Global Warming – A Modest But Necessary Proposal, argues that more professionals should just say no to attending conferences, especially when air travel is required and find other ways for presenting papers, workshops, etc virtually. I have to say that while I admired this stance for the 2016 Museums Australasia Conference (held in Auckland, New Zealand) where he presented via video-link, as a delegate it was a pretty unsatisfying experience, especially as there were no opportunities to catch-up informally at various social events, which is one critical component and benefit of conferences.

Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Personally, I don’t think that dialing in to a conference would work for everyone (especially in Australia where internet connections are patchy at best, particularly in regional areas like where I live!), so perhaps we need other ideas?

Bob’s post also created some hot discussion on the Coalition’s Facebook group, from those who see conferences as a key way to network and connect with their peers, specifically for emerging professionals, as well as a source of much-needed income in many cases. As Susan Spero commented:

This is quite complicated on so many fronts: some of the museum professional organizations depend on conference fees to allow them to do the other work they do each year. Their budgets depend upon our getting into airplanes and seeing one another. For places like Western US, travel has to happen for people to gather together as a community. Web conferences don’t work for those crucial in-between conversations that build relationships. Offsets seem more critical to me in this case: go and offset your travel.

It is also worth reading Sarah Sutton’s comments on Bob’s blog post, where along with some useful suggestions, she pointed out that:

It seems the conference habit – ours and the host organization’s – is hard to kick, but we have the creativity, ingenuity, and savvy to create and test alternatives that can become a replacement for many of the world’s conferences.

Although I agree with Sarah that the conference habit is hard to kick, I also believe that there are many legitimate reasons to still hold conferences – as humans we naturally want to meet people in the flesh, especially now as digital technologies make us even more disconnected!

Coupled with this is the necessary issue of conference sponsorship, which brings a whole other set of other problems as sponsors are usually encouraged to provide goodies, printed material, or lanyard/conference bag sponsorship that adds significantly to potential waste collateral (let’s be honest – how many of you leave these brochures, etc., in your hotel room?).

Face-to-face AND sustainable?

So, how could we start thinking about making conferences more sustainable, while still meeting the human need for face-to-face connection, as well as sponsor needs for recognition?

conference 1

The recent Museums and Galleries Australia 2018 Annual Conference is a great example of thinking about how to minimise waste. Their formal Sustainability Policy noted the following actions:

  • conference satchels made from sustainable jute, with part of the profit contributing to landscape restoration
  • name badge paper specially made with embedded herb and native flower seeds to plant later
  • delegates offered the opportunity to opt-in to an electronic-only program
  • limited number of paper handbook printed on 100% recycled, carbon neutral paper
  • catering provided by local social enterprise companies
  • use of fully compostable crockery and cutlery
  • each delegate given a reusable Keep Cup for the fair-trade coffee cart
  • two local food charities nominated as recipients of unused food from each day

What more can we do?

While this was a sterling effort, and more conferences are really trying to address the waste issue, I believe there are other ways to be more sustainable as suggested below, and I’m hoping this blog post will spark some more.

conference 3

Conference organization

  • Consider only meeting F2F bi-annually, with localised meetings on the off-year – this will also address the travel miles issue raised in Janes’ blog post
  • Think about how you travel to the conference – try alternatives
  • Digital program rather than printed one (or option for delegates to purchase a printed program, with digital one free)
  • Option to purchase conference bag
  • BYO lanyard, or make your own conference badge out of recycled materials
  • Dedicated conference blogger/s and tweeters to provide real-time updates and daily reports for those following along online

Conference venue and catering

  • Provide keep cups for coffee and tea, and water stations with glass, not plastic, cups
  • Encourage delegates to BYO refillable water bottles
  • Cut down on provided meals, or even cut out a morning or afternoon tea (having seen food waste first hand many, many times)
  • Choose caterers that demonstrate sustainable practices (such as limited use of paper/plastic, donating leftover food to charities, etc)


  • Think about different sponsor benefits rather than giveaways in conference bags – these might include more free registrations, creative logo displays, mentions throughout the conference, speaking opportunities, re-usable pull up banners placed around the conference venue
  • Limit giveaways at trade shows to items that can be re-used (i.e. no packaged lollies…)

As an added bonus, many of those ideas will also save money, given that cost is always, without exception, complained about in conference evaluations.

A final suggestion is to talk to conference delegates. Ask them what they would be willing to pay extra for, or even forego in order to achieve a sustainable conference – I think we’d be pleasantly surprised!

To conclude, should we just say no to conferences? While Janes’ post really raises some important issues, I don’t think we should just say no – we should say yes, if the organisers can demonstrate they have made every effort to be sustainable, and that we take responsibility for our own actions before, during and after the conference by just saying no to wasteful practices.


Dr Lynda Kelly has been working in the evaluation and visitor research fields since 1994, the digital realm since 2007, and the museum industry since 1987. Dr Kelly has a comprehensive knowledge of audiences, learning / education, visitor and market research, new media and digital technologies, with over 30 years’ experience working across both State and Federal government. in 2016 she semi-retired to a small farm south of Sydney, Australia, and now runs LyndaKellyNetworks a consultancy specialising in learning, audience research, digital production and programming across the cultural sector and government. 

This Post Has 0 Comments

  1. Robert R. Janes

    Many thanks for your thoughtful comments on this important issue, Lynda. I’m pleased to learn that my absence at the 2016 Museums Australasia Conference (held in Auckland, New Zealand) helped to stimulate your thinking about long-distance jet travel – a definite challenge to the sustainability of the planet. I agree with you about in-person contact – there is nothing to replace it and, I, too, missed the opportunity to see you and our colleagues. Nonetheless, our civilization needs our intelligence and our assistance, and long-distance jet travel is an obstacle to long-term sustainability. Despite the ongoing consequences of climate disruption and climate change, Mother Earth will continue to evolve and adapt, with or without us. What we need to worry about is the future of our civilization and world we have built — our children, grandchildren, and their children’s children’s children.

    To do address the threat of climate change and all of its consequences requires personal sacrifice and, as I wrote in my earlier blog, many museum professionals seem to have difficulty in understanding this – as does the bulk of mainstream society. Happily, some in the academic community have given conference travel some serious thought, and there is now a plan for a nearly carbon-free conference. It goes far beyond homemade badges, water bottles and vegetarian lunches – please see:

    My question is this – can we develop the foresight and courage as museum workers to lead the way and model the behavior that will truly change the way we do business? I am hopeful that we can and please stay tuned, as there are a lot of valuable and important initiatives underway. I believe the slumbering giant – the museum community – is now awakening.

Leave a Reply