Having co-chaired two major fundraisers in Toronto in the last year – the Canadian Opera Company’s Operanation and the Design Exchange’s DXI – I’ve seen firsthand how these events come together. There are many considerations, from shoring up sponsorships to showcasing dynamic entertainment, that require an organization’s and event committee’s focus. But one element that certainly needs more attention is the sustainability measures that these grand soirées can implement. Addressing the abundance of printed collateral, swag bags and excess food is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg.
“The problem, or the challenge [with sustainability], is that a lot of people are overwhelmed by it,” says David Tikkanen, program head at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, which has a sustainable event management program. “So, they just kind of say, ‘I’m not even going to go there because I’m afraid I’m going to do something wrong.'”
There are many courses of action that could be implemented to lessen a large-scale event’s environmental impact. Tikkanen cites catering considerations such as ordering from local and organic vendors, ensuring flatware and dishes can be reused and crafting menus so excess food can be donated. This is especially important when you consider that Canada has one of the highest amounts of food waste in the world, according to a 2018 report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.
There’s the form of invitation to consider (digital versus paper) and what, if anything, guests should take home with them at the end of the evening. According to Toronto-based event organizer Alison Slight, the average gala hosts between 500 to 1,000 people, so that’s a lot of ephemera.
“There’s all of these traditional items that [event planners] believe we can’t change, or [guests] will get really upset," Tikkanen says. "And generally, what we’re seeing is people try something different with an event and the attendees really like it.”
Yet, it’s not just eventgoers who need to undergo a change when it comes to feeling as if they’ve received their money’s worth after a gala. Emilia Ziemba, donor programs and events manager at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery, has worked on four of its Power Ball fundraiser parties, and has seen modifications in how some elements of the event are handled, in particular with printed materials. She says maps and single-use signage have been ditched at the 21-year-old annual event and adds that only a few printed invites go out now and are treated as “works of art” rather than mere RSVP-reminders.
Still, there’s a continuing rationale that someone throwing, or attending, a lavish party for a good cause needs to feel an element of luxury and surprise and the key to greening these events is to shift the notion of what luxury is.
Andy King, co-founder of the New York-based event planning company Inward Point, says his mindset about events changed several years ago; though he recently became a viral sensation for his participation in the ill-fated Fyre Fest, King’s event-planning career has spanned 25 years and many major functions for Wall Street. “[You] could imagine how wasteful they were,” he says.
He shares one of the incidents that was a (hopefully LED) light bulb moment for him in terms of examining the impact of orchestrating such parties. He was working on one for an investment banking firm, when the wife of the company’s chairman called him a week before the gala. “[She] asked me what I was doing next Tuesday and I said I was planning the party,” King says. “She said, ‘Block out Tuesday because I’ve chartered a 747 and I want you to fly to Amsterdam.” She had ordered 150,000 orange tulips for the occasion, so when “guests drive up,” King says, “all they’ll see is orange tulips as far as the eye can see. Of course, the tulips were dead in three days.”
Now, King and his colleagues, who work with clients including the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, are focused on being “as close to zero-waste” as possible with their events. Removing all plastic and paper elements are just the start – there’s also partnering with local sorters for waste management and working with local florists or succulent providers for decor elements and gifts (in lieu of jaunts to Europe for blooms). His company has also held farmer’s markets at the end of events instead of passing out swag bags. “You can take these very high-end galas and still make them sexy and cool, but also do the right thing,” King says.
It’s that kind of thinking that has put Sarah Jay, a fashion-focused environmental and social advocate based in Toronto, at the centre of a conversation about another wasteful practice that goes hand-in-hand with high-end events: dressing for them. Jay was recently nominated for the Canadian Arts and Fashion Award’s Fashion Impact award, and to utilize the evening’s platform and push her own values, Jay donned a dress made from a reworked duvet procured from Value Village.
“I just knew that I needed to feel right on that night and there was a bit of pressure for me,” Jay says about approaching her outfit. “I thought that I might wear what I wore last year because I felt so good in [it],” Jay says. “And what a radical act in fashion, to wear the same thing twice.” But after setting her sights on the bubble gum pink material and enlisting the help of Tailoress of Toronto, Jay set a course for helping gala-goers rethink their party wardrobe.
“I had the most wonderful moments with people that were drawn to me by how it looked, and then … I told them about the process and told them, ‘This is a $12 duvet.’” The cost was of course more significant with the involvement of a professional hand in crafting the actual outfit – creating custom clothing can costs upwards of thousands, even more if you’re not using thrifted textiles like Jay – and because of this, it’s not necessarily an accessible solution for many. For this reason, as well as that of sustainability, growth in occasion-dressing rental businesses such as Toronto’s The Fitzroy and Atelier Privé in Montreal has swelled in recent years.
Jay’s dress emphasizes how personalized the mission to make galas more sustainable can be and that every bit of effort is worthy in the end. This is something Jessica Puskar, last year’s project co-ordinator for University of Toronto’s Green Gala, considered when organizing the event, held to recognize sustainability initiatives and advocates on the St. George campus. For example, the ability to offer guests options for how to arrive and depart from the party is about convenience and choice. “Does it have green travel options?” Puskar says of the importance of a gala event’s location in regards to its sustainability checklist.
Perhaps expecting a gala attendee to jump on the subway might be a bit of stretch mentally now, but if we want to make sure the very causes that these parties support can exist for many more years to come, it’s truly the least we can do.
Editor’s note: (Dec. 13, 2019) An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling of Alison Slight's name. This version has been updated.