What you can learn from Bern about organising sustainable events

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The embassy in Bern is a frontrunner when it comes to organising events sustainably. Flowers for displays are grown locally, participants are sent cycling directions, and meals are prepared using local, seasonal ingredients, with nothing wasted. Ambassador Hedda Samson is enthusiastic. ‘Sustainable choices are self-evident for us,’ she says.


When Hedda Samson became head of mission in Bern three years ago, she saw that embassy staff were already doing a lot to become more sustainable. ‘There was a compost bin,’ she says. ‘There were official bicycles and sustainability was clearly a criterion in procurement. This enabled me to hit the ground running.’
Management assistant Milou Mumenthaler had been posted to Bern the year before. ‘All staff at the Bern embassy are actively involved in sustainability,’ she says. ‘The operational manager explores the options and we discuss the importance of sustainability at our weekly meetings. We went on a team outing to a recycling plant. Sustainability is also a major issue in the city of Bern itself. We’ve had climate marches here too.’

Network
The Netherlands was one of the founders of the Greening Embassies Network, currently comprising 16 embassies, the Swiss foreign ministry and the municipality of Bern. The embassies inspire and learn from each other. The most practical tool that the network has produced so far is a comprehensive Checklist for sustainable events, covering everything from contracts with suppliers to not wasting leftovers. The Dutch embassy uses the checklist all the time. ‘We send out invitations digitally,’ says Milou. ‘The same applies to catering orders. We don’t despatch paper notes anymore.’

By bike or public transport
People invited to an event receive directions to get there by bike or public transport, encouraging them to use these modes of transport. The embassy prefers to organise events in the garden, with a single caterer supplying all the food and drink. That, too, reduces food miles. ‘We ask the caterer to use large platters instead of several small containers,’ says Milou. ‘Most of the dishes are vegetarian, and we ask the caterer to use seasonal ingredients. It’s important to keep waste to a minimum, so we need to make an accurate estimate of how much we’re going to need.’
The embassy also makes other sustainable catering choices. For instance, at a restaurant next door to the chancery asylum seekers were being trained to work in the catering industry. ‘We often got them to cater our events, so we could support the initiative,’ says Milou. Wherever possible, the embassy works with social and innovative concepts of this kind. It also carries out extensive screening of its suppliers to find out what kind of organisation they’re dealing with. The embassy rarely hands out giveaways, even at major events.

A relaxed attitude
The embassy has a sustainability team that ensures sustainability is reflected in all aspects of its operations. Waste is separated, and at lunchtime the tables are often filled with recyclable containers of leftovers from the evening before – either from meals staff have prepared themselves, or from an embassy event. Avoiding food waste is a priority.
Both Hedda and Milou feel that sustainability should be promoted in a relaxed way. ‘I’m no saint,’ says Hedda. ‘You have to feel comfortable with the choices you make. We don’t want to put people under pressure, but to inspire them to take a different approach.’ Milou made smart little bags from a worn-out banner, to be used for promotional purposes. This was a cute and inspiring example of recycling.

Bags from recycled promotion banners

Milou’s most important tip for other missions is to learn from others. ‘Ask other embassies what they’re doing,’ she advises. ‘You’ll get a lot of standard answers, but there’ll be some interesting new ideas too. You can make good use of them.’

Cycling diplomacy
Hedda Samson has promoted cycling from the word go. Whenever possible, she leaves her car behind and peddles from her residence to the embassy on her bright orange bike. ‘And it makes my day if I pass my driver cycling in the opposite direction,’ she says. She also uses cycling as a tool of diplomacy. ‘They can really learn something from us when it comes to cycling infrastructure,’ she continues. ‘I nearly get run over at least three times a day because the cycle paths aren’t clearly marked, or suddenly end. Swiss engineers have now visited the Netherlands to learn how to design a city that’s safe for cyclists.’