Greening Your Holiday Party

The holiday season is a time when many give thought to the idea of gratitude. This makes it an appropriate time for an organization to emphasize environmental sustainability during office holiday parties and year-end celebrations, seeking ways to minimize its impact on the environment and maybe even giving back.

"I think there is still this misconception that people have, that if you're doing a green event, it must be more expensive and difficult for your clients. But that's just not the case anymore," says Isabel Schechter, owner of Attention To Detail Event Productions, based in Chicago. "There are a lot of ways that people can integrate sustainability and social responsibility into their holiday parties in little ways."

Planners looking to make sure that the mistletoe isn't the only thing that's green at their holiday parties can consider a few of these suggestions from green event experts. 

Stick with electronic invitations if possible, using a service like Evite or Punchbowl. Though if it's the kind of event that calls for a physical invitation, Erika Piquant, owner of Kansas City, MO-based Eco-Posh Events suggests "tree-free" products that are made from 100-percent post-consumer materials. "There's a company we've used called Cards of Good that have the best line of holiday cards - they're printed on wood veneer made from discarded wood," says Piquant.

Companies like Tiny Prints and Green Paper Studio offer cards and stationery - as well as gift-wrapping - made from recycled materials that can allow for elegant and eco-friendly communications.

The right venue makes a big difference. Planners should look for a space that is known for its sustainable work and will make it that much easier to handle the meeting's logistics in an eco-friendly way. Hollie Dunn, president and senior event coordinator of Tempe, AZ-based Thalia Events, adds that planners should also "find a venue that's either near the office or that can be reached with mass transit, and encourage attendees to take it."

"See if the venue already has its own decorations up for Christmas," says Piquant. "If you could have them take care of it instead of putting your own all the better." Dunn says a major decoration to avoid is fresh flowers. Instead, she suggests seeking out clay flowers, poinsettias, and other holiday flora, which are reusable and of much higher quality than the fake blossoms many might be familiar with.

"Another thing you can do if you're not interested in going floral is to get a whole bunch of globe ornaments and put them into a glass canister," adds Dunn. "These are very budget-friendly and very eco-friendly." Since these are standard ornaments many employees themselves may have extras of, it might even be worth putting out a request before the event to see if anyone has extra ornaments they are willing to donate.

If possible, the holiday party should use actual dishware that can be washed and reused rather than just thrown out. "Utilize real cups and dishes and avoid disposable ones whenever you can," says Piquant. She adds that should it be necessary to go disposable, at least try to use products made from recycled material or are easily compostable.

Where possible, planners should consider sourcing any dishware, decorations, and other supplies from local groups if the cost is equitable. "If I'm doing business in a community, I want to make sure our event can add to the health and sustainability of that community," says Schechter. "I'm a big fan of shopping at and supporting local business."

Seeking out a green caterer is key. Schechter gives the example of City Provisions, a local sustainable catering company she often uses in Chicago. Part of their sustainable approach includes serving only food that is seasonal. "You can't get a tomato from them in January," Schechter says, adding that it's key to communicate that the caterers are aiming for a seasonal menu and showcase the benefits of this. "There can be a perception, as soon as you say 'we have restrictions' - even if it's just based on the time of year or when something's going to be freshest - for the response to be, 'Restrictions? That means I'm going to suffer!'"

More likely, a holiday party would be serving up winter and late-fall fare like squash, root vegetables, and comfort foods. If logistics allow, consider plating the individual meals, rather than going buffet style, which inevitably leads to wasted food.

For the materials that do need to be thrown out, consider turning the trash area into what Schechter calls a "resource recovery station" that puts the focus on recycling as much as possible, clearly labeling what can be reclaimed. Planners should also consider composting. "If we have disposable paper cups or paper plates, we make sure they are all compostable and have someone who comes in here and takes the material," says Schechter.

A holiday party almost always includes a little something for the attendees to take home with them and remember the evening by. Piquant recommends working with a sustainable provider, whether the planner is seeking out organic or recycled products, or ones that benefit the environment in some other way. Instead of a clunky tchotchke, consider a photo booth where attendees can get a photo they will want to hold on to, or providing services like a 15-minute massage.

Any kind of gifting also creates the opportunity for a company to source items from a nonprofit group where the proceeds benefit a social or environmental cause. "There are a lot of different ways you can go about it, but figure out which nonprofit you want to be donating time or money to and reach out to them right upfront to get the conversation going early," says Dunn. She adds that it is also important to note on the gift you provide to employees that explains the social benefit created by the gift, which is likely to boost its value in the eyes of employees.

While attendees enjoy getting something to take home at the end of a holiday party, this kind of gathering is also a great opportunity to ask attendees to give back. "You can do something simple like a canned food drive or select a specific nonprofit that you want to donate some time or money to and connect that to the event," says Dunn. She adds that they have worked with the Environmental Fund for Arizona in the past and finds that social responsibility boosts the entire experience of the event for attendees. To give it an added holiday twist, the donations can go into some kind of Santa bag or some other container that ties back to the season.

To give these kinds of drives the most impact, preparation and communication before the event are key. Piquant gives an example of a magazine client for whom she created a green event for where, "in all the literature and on all the invitations, we encouraged each of the guests to bring canned goods or dry goods and we donated it to a food bank cause," she says. "Or something like Toys for Tots is a great way for people to get into the Christmas spirit, and it's something that the guests can grab from home."