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Q&A: Informa's Ben Wielgus on Driving Sustainability

After three Informa events reach the new EIC green standard, the company’s head of sustainability reflects on the challenges of change.

When the Events Industry Council announced on Earth Day, April 22, the first Silver, Gold, and Platinum achievers of its Sustainable Event Standards, Ben Wielgus felt especially proud. Of the four events recognized by EIC, Informa (the parent company of MeetingsNet) operates three of them: Greenbuild International Conference & Expo; Natural Products Expo East; and ArchitectureBoston.

Even so, Wielgus has little time to reflect on the achievement. As head of sustainability for the largest B-to-B events producer in the world, he’s focused on implementing the sustainability tactics from those three events across Informa’s entire portfolio: roughly 500 trade shows and 1,000 conferences. What’s more, he must work to develop the next sustainability initiatives that will make Informa’s events less taxing on the environment, as well as ones that will benefit the community in each host destination.

MeetingsNet: In which areas do your show managers find it most difficult to be fully sustainable?
Ben Wielgus: Each show finds certain areas simpler to implement than others; however, there are a few common challenges. One is finding an effective way to ensure more trash from the show floor gets recycled. There is such a mix of food and beverage, consumables from outside the event, and trade-show waste that it can be difficult to guide attendees and exhibitors to make the right recycling choices. 

Another challenge is trying to manage the unavoidable carbon emissions caused by an event. Switching to green energy at the venue, more efficient logistics and materials usage, and suggesting efficient travel options can certainly help the overall goal, but ultimately a lot of people still need to fly to our events. On the other hand, many events can offer very efficient ways to do multiple things under one roof in a way that saves on total flight travel in the long run. Specifically, the more we can “festivalize” events so that many things can be done in one place, the more we can help address these areas.

MeetingsNet: Which regions around the world have notable developments with their sustainability practices and their ability to assist show managers in the effort?
Ben Wielgus: Each region we work in seems to have particular strengths—Europe on sustainable energy and commitment to the broad agenda; the U.S. on reusing stands and charity fundraising; and Asia on recycling and reuse, at least in certain markets. I feel like Europe is really accelerating its work on this agenda, but the U.S. and Asia aren't far behind, with a great ability to innovate.

In general, events that score well on sustainability have built relationships over the long term with their partners, suppliers, and communities in whichever region they operate. 

MeetingsNet: Will all of Informa’s shows adopt all the sustainability practices of the three events that EIC recognized?
Ben Wielgus: Having a hand in 1,500 events does have its challenges when it comes to sustainability, but our size also gives us the chance to work with specialists, partner more regularly with specific venues and contractors, and develop useful tools that we hope can help the whole events industry. Informa is using what we call Event Fundamentals to help all of our events adopt higher sustainability standards, and then we’re working with 50 of our largest or most enthusiastic events to help them go much further. The ISO 20121 and EIC event sustainability standards are two tools in the toolkit we'll be drawing on, and I'm sure we'll keep using a mix of them when it's right for each event and its key stakeholders.

MeetingsNet: What else should conference and trade-show planners think about as they aim for maximum sustainability? 
Ben Wielgus: ​Actually, we must not forget the ability of the right initiatives to inspire the audiences and the markets we serve. For me, it's the link with content and customers—how our events can be a model for the sustainability efforts of our attendees and vendors and their industries—that can be really powerful.

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