There’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that states no problem can be solved at the same level of awareness that created it. For those concerned with sustainability, then, the 2015 Milan World Expo presented something of an ethical and philosophical conundrum. Widespread criticism of the mega-event has been a useful reminder to event planners of the importance of securing social license to operate.
The Milan Expo, titled, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life!”, billed itself as the first “green” World Expo, having complied with ISO 20121 criteria. At the surface, it seemed laudable. However, sustainability is a multifaceted endeavour, and includes social and economic considerations in addition to environmental ones. For its failings on all counts, the Milan Expo was opposed (sometimes violently) by poverty and labour activists, students, and even the Pope, for being wasteful, ineffective, and inappropriate. In short, unsustainable.
Guiseppe Sala, CEO of Expo 2015, proudly announced that they would be “the first Universal Exposition to use tools that can help us to better manage our environmental, social and economic issues.” He declared that the Expo’s Management System for Event Sustainability allowed the pursuit of “important goals for Milan Expo 2015,” that is, “efficiency, involvement and external transparency.”
However, efficiency, involvement and transparency are exactly what were alleged to be lacking. Even before 2014, when seven people affiliated with the Expo, including a senior manager, were arrested on corruption charges, the No Expo movement had protested the choices made by organizers and accused the Expo of wasting public funds “without producing measurable benefits for the country.” Alberto DiMonte, a No Expo activist and an author of Expopolis, an investigation into the event, claims “the Expo never created jobs—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most of the work [at the Expo] is volunteered, with no adequate wage.” According to his research, the Milan Expo cost Italy at least 10 billion euros of public money, “in the midst of a national economic crisis.”
The Expo was presented as a way to boost Italy’s struggling economy by attracting visitors and investing in infrastructure. “Like the Olympics, host cities are often decked out with new buildings and invest heavily in infrastructure, like highways and public transport, ahead of the show.” Some legacies from Vancouver’s Expo in 1986 include the Skytrain, Science World and Canada Place. However, critics like DiMonte insisted that “the net benefit for Italy will be much smaller than what is estimated, and likely negative.” DiMonte acknowledges that “of course, the effect of more investment is larger spending and GDP. But the real question should be: can we have spent money better, in more productive ways? And to this last question, my answer is a definite yes.”
These concerns echo the Vancouver Olympics protests. Indigenous and anti-poverty activists in Vancouver were deeply dismayed about the city hosting a multibillion dollar event while people lived and died in its streets, and were concerned about the ways the Olympics might further harm Vancouver’s most marginalized residents, such as through the Shelter to Assistance Act, or, as it came to be known, the Olympic Kidnapping Act. While the Vancouver Olympics performed well on many sustainability indicators, some activists felt that its presence in Vancouver was inherently incompatible with the principles of sustainability and social justice it claimed to espouse.
That sense of incompatibility marred the Milan Expo – the dissonance between its theme and its execution. One protester, “Luca,” referred to the theme chosen by expo organisers as “an alibi,” and claimed that the “expo infrastructures… were originally agricultural soils.” Luca called this “the big initial contradiction of the expo.”  “The expo does not aim to resolve the problem of global hunger,” she stated, nor does it “address the question that many ask: Why do people not have access to food and water? The expo does not answer this question because the very same expo organizers – big corporations – are the reason why people cannot access food and water.” 
Forbes suggested that “if you can get past the bravado and bloat (and the nagging feeling that the dollars spent could have been put towards more actionable uses to tackle the issues)…[the Expo] is an entertaining global classroom,” not terribly effective, but harmless.  Others see it as more insidious. For people like Luca, the problem is not that the Expo’s treatment of food insecurity issues was simply ineffective, but that it perpetuated them by engaging in a “culture of waste,” and reinforcing and legitimizing the corporate, industrial food system that is arguably the root of the problem.
With sponsors like Coca Cola, Nestle and McDonalds, the Expo’s agenda was sharply limited. Eluxe’s Chiara Gabardi, who described the event as having “the spirit of an amusement park and… fast food consumerism,” criticized the Expo for not addressing what she considered “the greatest threat to our food supply:” GMOs. “Not a word about them here,” she noted. Gabardi was also pointed out that even though Michelle Obama, “who has always been a strong advocate for healthy nourishment” attended the conference with her daughters to “promote good nutrition and combat obesity…not a single speech demonized corporations for adding harmful ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup, to their foods, and little was said indeed about how … going vegan or vegetarian is probably the simplest way to feed the world.” 
Perhaps that is what made the Milan Expo so unpalatable — the contrast between its stated purpose and its effects. It did not look to the future, but remained rooted within the outdated structures of industrial agriculture. Einstein might say that the problem of food security cannot be solved by the champions of the processes which contribute to it. If an event intended to promote food security fails to address major contributors to food insecurity, consumes local human, capital and environmental resources, and by virtue of its scale leaves an enormous (if minimized) carbon footprint; if its very function is undermined by its structure; if it is not simply a failure, but an iteration; is it any small wonder it was so vehemently protested?
Before this turns into a tirade against agribusiness, let us turn our attention back to its implications for sustainable event planners. Mega-events like the Olympics, the World Cup, and Expos will always have their share of detractors with criticisms of varying validity. Does this mean that we should cease holding large events that bring joy and inspiration to people all over the world? Of course not. However, in order to avoid adding insult to injury, organizers must do their best to address and mitigate these concerns. Below are five recommendations for planning a sustainable event on any scale that goes beyond looking good on sustainably-sourced paper.
Secure social license to operate: The Milan Expo, a massive public expense in a crippled economy, was rejected by many Italians exhausted by austerity measures, and was criticized for not providing adequate measurable benefit in relation to the resources it consumed. Addressing the concerns of the host community, instead of bulldozing over them, is imperative for securing social license to operate.
Strategic CSR: Be strategic in the ways you reach out to the community. Find the intersection between the ways in which your organization affects society and vice versa.  Don’t be insulting by exacerbating perceived offences. Learn from Milan: don’t launch an event dependent on unpaid labour on Labour Day.
Don’t let sponsorship commandeer purpose: Yes, big sponsors are necessary for big events, but if they are incompatible with your purpose, either reframe your purpose or find a way to make your event viable without that sponsor. If the event would not otherwise be possible, there is a case for accepting incongruent sponsorship. But if accepting it means your event will be possible only in a compromised form that does not fulfill its stated function, perhaps it is better not to accept. Having a clear code of conduct and ethics policy could help navigate some of these questions.
Transparency: The icing on Milan’s poison Expo cake was the corruption scandal, which deeply damaged its reputation. Practicing transparency wherever possible can help preempt such scandals… unless, of course, (as is too often the case in Italy,) they’re true.
Consider a 4th “P”: Purpose, Philosophy, Politics, Problem, Power. Whatever you want to call it. Take a deeper look at your event and its significance, because a LEED-certified venue does not a sustainable event make. What PHILOSOPHY does it espouse? What PURPOSE does it fulfill? What’s the POINT? Ask yourself, does this address or exacerbate a fundamental PROBLEM? This fourth P is not a discrete category, but rather, lives in the relationships between People, Planet and Profit. It’s the common thread that weaves through them to produce sustainable and coherent events.
“Pope warns of ‘Culture of waste’ as Italy opens Milan Expo 2015,” NBC News, May 1, 2015. Accessed January 25, 2016 at http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/pope-warns-culture-waste-italy-opens-milan-expo-2015-n351886
 Milan Expo 2015, The First Universal Exposition with a Certification for Event Sustainability,” Expo 2015, January 6, 2015. Accessed January 25, 2016 at http://www.expo2015.org/archive/en/milan-expo-2015–the-first-universal-exposition-with-a-certification-for-event-sustainability.html
Benedetta Argentiere, “This is what the 30,000 protesters against the Milan Expo are complaining about,” Quartz, May 6, 2015. Accessed January 23, 2016 at http://qz.com/396930/this-is-what-the-30000-protesters-against-the-milan-expo-are-complaining-about/
Kayleena Makortoff, “Expo 2015: Has Italy wasted this multi-billion dollar event?” CNBC, May 1, 2015. Accessed January 25, 2016 at http://www.cnbc.com/2015/05/01/has-italy-wasted-this-multi-billion-dollar-event.html
Ludovica Iaccino, “Expo Milan 2015: Hundreds of students protest against food exposition,” International Business Times, April 30, 2015. Accessed January 26, 2012 at http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/expo-milano-2015-hundreds-students-protest-against-food-exposition-1499139
 Nancy Gagliardi, “The Hits and Misses of Expo Milan,” Forbes, August 6, 2015. Accessed January 25, 2016 at http://www.forbes.com/sites/nancygagliardi/2015/08/06/the-hits-and-misses-of-expo-milan/#7230c7d125e9
 “Video Message of the Holy Father for the Inauguration of Expo Milan 2015,” May 1, 2015. Accessed January 26, 2016 at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/pont-messages/2015/documents/papa-francesco_20150501_video-messaggio-inaugurazione-expo-milano.html
 Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi, “Expo Milan: Green or Greenwash?” Eluxe Magazine, n.d. Accessed January 24, 2016 at http://eluxemagazine.com/homestech/expo-milan/#sthash.jSozOOEx.dpuf
 See Dan Barber, “How I fell in love with a fish,” Ted Talk, March 2010. Accessed January 26, 2016 at https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_barber_how_i_fell_in_love_with_a_fish/transcript?language=en
 Elizabeth Henderson and Mariela McIlwraith, Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility in the Meetings and Events Industry. John Wiley and Sons: New Jersey, 2013. p. 122