'IATEFL and its environmental impact: how are we doing?' by Jon Burton

8th October 2019

The impact that we make on the environment has become, rightly, an increasingly important topic of discussion for us all. Whilst we all clearly have a personal responsibility to make a difference in what some are calling this ‘climate emergency’, so do organisations. Here is IATEFL’s school report!

Perhaps a good starting point when reviewing how IATEFL can have less of an impact on the environment is our own Head Office. From here we can move on to how we function as a year-round membership association of 4,000 members, and finally take a look at our big flagship event, the annual international conference. In doing this we can hopefully share ideas with other organisations in the same way that we ourselves should, and do, learn from others.

Head Office initiatives

IATEFL has been addressing its environmental impact in a whole range of ways for many years. At Head Office this includes simple things such as using one communal printer/photocopier for the limited printing we do (rather than individual printers), and old computer equipment is donated to relevant charities. Recycling of paper, boxes, containers and food waste is also undertaken, with our shredded organisational paperwork ending up being used locally as beddings for animals. Our heating is set on timers to ensure it is not wasting energy overnight, at weekends, and in areas of the building and times of the year when heating is not required. Some of our staff members car share into work each day, and this follows through to our expenses policy for staff and volunteers which encourages the use of public transport whenever possible, rather than car usage, when travelling to IATEFL events and meetings. Week to week, and for our committee meetings held at Head Office, we use tea towels, Tupperware pots and plates, cups, glasses and cutlery to avoid disposable and throw-away alternatives. All of these small initiatives, we believe, add up to a larger combined impact.

Association-wide initiatives

As an association we have significantly reduced the amount of paperwork, forms and letters we print and post to members, and have introduced digital versions of most of our publications for those who prefer that format. This also extends to the percentage of members who now join and renew online, without the need for the printing and sending of paper forms. The printing we still do is on forestry commission assured sustainable paper and using natural (as opposed to synthetic) inks.

Two current initiatives we are actively investigating are the use of potato starch or sugar cane based wrappers for the postage of membership publications rather than plastic wrap or bonded paper envelopes, and also the use of biodegradable membership cards for those members wishing to continue to receive one. Members not requiring a card will soon be able to opt out and have all their membership information sent only by email. Both of these alternative products are quite new and we are currently testing whether they provide a reliable alternative.

The annual international conference

Clearly one of the biggest opportunities for us to make a positive impact, but also one of the most challenging, is the annual international conference. Organising an event over five days, with over 3,000 participants, and with a large exhibition and careers fair brings both opportunities and challenges when it comes to our environmental impact. For us, just looking for opportunities to make a difference as they present themselves doesn’t work; environmental impacts need to be an integral consideration throughout each stage of the planning process and in all our dealings with the venue, with suppliers, with exhibitors and of course with our delegates. Here are some of the most significant ways we have been making the conference more environmentally responsible:

  • Recycle bins for delegate badges and programmes, as well as around the venue for all other waste
  • The use of recycled cardboard signage for delegate information where appropriate / possible
  • Reusable cups for delegates, replacing the previous reusable bottles so that they can be used for both hot and cold drinks
  • Water stations at the venue for delegates to refill their own cup or container
  • IATEFL pens made from recycled cardboard
  • Delegate badges without needing clear plastic badge holders
  • The introduction of a shorter ‘App Supplement’ programme, using far less paper, for those who prefer one
  • A PDF version of the conference programme, and a conference app, for those who would rather not have a programme
  • A book swap for delegates
  • Encouraging speakers to share their handouts and PowerPoints online, rather than printing out lots of copies in order to give to delegates
  • Encouraging exhibitors to think and be more environmentally aware, and sharing our environmental objectives with them
  • Having an ‘Eco Sponsor’ to champion delegate engagement on how, they too, can make a difference
  • Delegate bags made of cloth, rather than plastic, which can then be folded up and reused as shopping bags
  • Delegates can print an attendance certificate whilst at the conference, rather than us printing one for each delegate or sending them out afterwards by post

Venues too are making significant changes to how they function in order to be more sustainable. For instance the Liverpool ACC, venue of the 2019 conference, has its own Environmental Task Force dedicated to minimising the venue’s effects on the environment. This includes having a ‘zero to landfill’ status, being partially powered by five wind turbines, about 40% of the water used to flush toilets being rainwater collected on the roof, and high efficiency and motion controlled lighting throughout the venue. These initiatives have enabled the venue to be awarded the ISO14000 international environmental standard in recognition of the sustainability of its events. The venue for next year’s conference, Manchester Central, has also been awarded this standard. Having said all this, there is clearly still an awful lot to do, and there are also some areas which are far more challenging to address. For example,

  • some members continue to prefer or require printed publications, conference programmes and membership cards;
  • the conference continues to be (and to work best as) a face-to-face event which delegates travel to (although we now also have an annual web conference each year too);
  • conference programmes and delegate bags continue to be expected and appreciated by many delegates, and delegate badges are required for the management of the conference. These also provide important opportunities for sponsorship and advertising, which helps pay for the conference and to subsidise the delegate fee;
  • whilst many committee meetings happen online, IATEFL still has a small number of its meetings face-to-face in order to allow greater personal collaboration between key volunteers, and provide important networking opportunities;
  • not everything can become virtual and digital as some members struggle to have a reliable and cost-effective connection to the internet and adequate IT equipment;
  • the provision of online resources and services has its own impact on the environment with the demands of computers and web servers in terms of their power requirements, the natural resources they require, and the heat they generate;
  • there are not currently always ‘eco-friendly’ alternatives to everything we use, and where there are these can sometimes be simply too expensive to be a viable alternative currently.

IATEFL’s trustees have recently made the decision to add an environmental strand to the association’s current strategy in recognition of its significance, and in order to encourage us to continue to investigate, reflect upon, and seek new ways we can reduce our impact on our planet. This ensures such considerations stay at the heart of everything IATEFL does. Along with this is the importance of us continuing to examine and learn from how others are addressing such issues, as well as sharing our own initiatives with others. Finally, as IATEFL is a membership association of English language teaching professionals, we should also encourage members to share how they too are making a difference inside and outside the classroom.

In concluding, our school report should probably say that we are working hard, progressing well, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. Such improvement will require commitment and a need to work together.

If you can think of something else we might do, please email your idea to: [email protected] with a subject of ‘Green Idea’. Whilst we won’t be able to respond to each person individually, every suggestion will be recorded and carefully reviewed. Thanks for your help!

Jon Burton, IATEFL Chief Executive has been working for IATEFL as Chief Executive for nearly three years, before which I had been a teacher, teacher trainer, quality auditor, director of studies, language school principal and finally the principal of a state further education college. I’ve been lucky enough to have lived and worked in Spain, France and the UK, and to have visited many others on various projects.