Transforming Events: SAP's Sustainability Journey
Five years ago, SAP's event manager, Jenny Bittmann, was handed a mission: make SAP events kinder to the environment and weave in elements of diversity, inclusion, and social responsibility. With her team in the Sustainability department and beyond, they worked out a strategy and guidelines to nudge their events towards a greener path.
In a recent talk, Jenny shared what's been working well and where they're still fine-tuning things.
Q: What's been a big win in making SAP events more sustainable?
Jenny: One big win is getting everyone to pay attention to this important issue. When folks from big companies like Google and Amazon come up to us at trade shows like IMEX, asking how we're making our events more sustainable, it feels good. It shows we're on the right track.
We're also now measuring our impact with real numbers. Looking at our last SAP Sapphire conference, where we spread things out in the U.S., Spain, Brazil, and online, we cut down on CO2 emissions by almost 24,000 tonnes compared to the days when we stuck to one central event in Orlando, Florida. That's like skipping 2,200 around-the-world flights.
Little victories count too. At SAP TechEd in 2019 in Barcelona, we ditched single-use plastics entirely, stopping three tonnes of waste. Imagine a room 10 by 10 meters, one meter high – that's how much waste we saved at just that event!
Jenny is quick to point out that all this success comes from everyone chipping in, from SAP's Global Events team to teams in different regions.
Q: What are the challenges you're dealing with?
Jenny: The tough part is that our global plan and specific ideas can't always be put into action the same way everywhere. In Brazil, for example, being hospitable often means serving up the best meats. Trying to make a menu 40% vegetarian caused a headache for the local team. But they found a middle ground by picking meats with a smaller impact on the environment.
In some parts of Asia, it's normal to give small gifts to speakers as a thank-you. So, we had to think of alternatives. For example, instead of the usual giveaways, we thought about giving tree-planting certificates as a unique gift.
These situations show we often have to think outside the box together and find new solutions. It might be extra work, but it can also spark creativity and even change how people see things.
Q: What are you aiming for in the next year?
Jenny: We want to cut down on waste even more and recycle more. No more plastics we can't use again, and we want our branding stuff to use materials that are good for the planet. When it comes to travel, we're aiming to cut down even more. We're also trying to get more women on stage, work with social enterprises, and build up social partnerships.
Even if it means more work for local teams, it's heartening to see so many of my colleagues giving their all to make things better. I hope more will join in!
Advice for Going Green at Events
Q: Any tips for folks who want to make their events more sustainable?
Jenny: Be brave enough to try things differently – and better! For example, at our recent shareholders' meeting, we ditched plastic bags, notepads, and pens, and guess what? People didn't mind. We just thought about it and realised with everything going virtual, shareholders didn't need those things.
Question the things you've always done. When we banned disposable drink bottles at SAP TechEd, nobody complained. People loved the idea of getting good-quality bottles and refilling them at water stations. It also supported a water project, and everyone thought that was great.