Grassroots volunteers for greener AFS events - How can we make our events more sustainable?

Food. Flights.


Paper. Plastic. Waste.

Recycle. Reuse.

Materials. Alternatives.

Information. Awareness. Promotion.



These are some of the keywords from the discussion that we, the volunteers of AFS, are currently having about how we can make AFS a more sustainable organization.

When I heard there would be a UNESCO Youth Forum dedicated to the topics of Sustainability and Climate Change I had to know more about it. I guess it had always been an important one to me, given the fact that I live in a country with a dramatic relationship with nature and various renewable resources. Even so, I had never really considered the possibility that I myself could actually do something to contribute to the well being of our planet.

Funny thing how I have always spoken about “walking the talk” without actually considering that once our mutual goal of world peace would be achieved we might not even have an earth to walk on anymore.

When I was selected to be one of AFS´s representatives at the forum with my dear friend Marcelo Lopes I did a lot of research and brainstorm to be well prepared to speak the voice of the 40.000 AFS volunteers around the globe. To do so we created a survey to collect the input of as many volunteers as possible and later a platform on Facebook to discuss our ideas, our personal experiences and of course, how AFS could be a more sustainable and eco friendly organization. This group now counts almost 200 volunteers actively engaged in the discussion and more volunteers are getting involved every day. The link to the group can be found at the end of this post and everyone is invited to join us and be a part of the discussion.

In order to put our ideas into actions I want to share with you some main points of our discussions about more sustainable AFS events. We hope that organizers of AFS events all around the world will take our suggestions into account and help us reach our goal of making AFS a more sustainable organization. The suggestions are divided into five different categories, the first two: Food and Travel being the most impactful followed by Materials,  Venues and Information and Actions where each action might have less impact but in the end all positive changes count.

Food: Food amounts in average to 30% of each person's ecological footprint. Sustainable eating is an important topic among volunteers. Many of us have dedicated to versions of vegetarian and/or local eating habits and we would like to see more efforts on providing sustainable, local food in AFS events.

Our suggestions:

  • Take sustainable practices into account when choosing the right caterer for events.
  • Ask for seasonal fruit for coffee breaks - Even if the caterer cannot provide it at the time of the event, you have raised their awareness.
  • Aim for locally sourced, seasonal, organic ingredients that are low on meat and animal products.
  • Make vegetarian options available to all participants, not only those who sign up for it.
  • Introduce vegetarian day where all meals are vegetarian - Or two!
  • Donate leftover food to local charities.

Travel: AFS is an international organization and we need to be responsible when it comes to traveling. Reducing travel by rather finding local volunteers or staff to do what has to be done and taking sustainability into account when organizing travels are the first two steps towards making a positive change in this category.

Our suggestions:

  • Carefully explore if travel is indeed needed. Is there anyone local that could do the task instead of flying volunteers or staff across the world for it?
  • Introduce transportation alternatives to participants before they start organizing their travels.
  • Use trains/busses/walking/bicycle (where possible) instead of air travel
  • Encourage participants to share a car if driving - This of course does not apply for exchange students at orientations but other kind of events.
  • Address the "glorification of flying". That is how we talk about flying in a glamorous way without mentioning how harmful it is to the environment.
  • Use an inclusive language - "Your trip here" instead of "your flight here". This can help to shift the participant´s perception.

Materials: "Recycling is good, reducing is better" is our motto here. In AFS we use a lot of different materials that can often be recycled, reused or reduced. This might not be as impactful as reducing travel or offering sustainable catering but should be considered as well.

Our suggestions:

  • Recycle all materials that cannot be reused and try to produce less waste.
  • Use recycled paper and other materials.
  • Avoid single use plastic plates/cups/cutlery and if you need to use those, look for alternatives that are made of natural materials/recyclable/compostable.
  • Encourage participants to bring reusable water  bottles.
  • Find alternative solutions for paper evaluations.
  • Reduce printouts and think if  a product, handout or leaflet is really needed. Try to use online tools instead for information and documents and offer to send them to participants electronically afterwards instead of printing them.
  • Reduce the amount of giveaways. Instead of a bag full of cheap short-life elements aim for useful and sustainable things that participants can also use after the event is over - Reusable water bottles are a good example.

Venue: Suggesting ideas to the venue can make an impact even if they will not be able to grant you all your sustainable wishes. Just asking promotes our cause and hopefully has an impact on the event itself.

Our suggestions:

  • When choosing a venue, look for one which is already committed to protection of the environment and sustainability
  • Ask the venue to provide new towels only when needed, not every day.
  • Avoid having rooms cleaned everyday if it is not necessary
  • Organize trainings in open air when possible to avoid usage of power and air conditioning.
  • When selecting a venue keep in mind the sustainability of the transportation needed to get there.

Information and actions: Having participants from all over the world comes with a lot of positive impact on the people and the organization, but also a negative impact on the environment. Knowing your facts, promoting sustainable actions at the event and in the participants´ everyday lives is a great way to make a sustainable impact inside and outside the event.

Our suggestions:

  • Spread awareness on sustainability during the event and explain why the sustainable actions have been taken. Why do we not have bottled water, etc.
  • Raise awareness on local environmental problems.
  • All actions matter - Consider sustainability throughout the whole organizational process and find different ways of promoting it.
  • Remember that small actions can have a big impact - Encourage switching off the lights, reducing usage of heating and AC, not wasting food, etc.
  • Encourage participants to take part in the sustainable development of the event so they also take ownership for the positive results and will take home ideas for their own events.
  • Measure the event's Carbon Footprint for a comparison in following years.
  • Talk about it - All sustainability effort should be embedded with clear communication to participants about why certain measures are taken.
  • Be open for ideas.

Last but not least it is worth mentioning that using sustainability for advertising purposes without actually acting on them can turn out even worse than not using them at all. In order to avoid such accidents I recommend setting reasonable goals regarding the sustainable development that are tailor fit to each event. This is what I will be doing at the 2016 EFIL VSS where I have taken the responsibility to increase the sustainability of the event.

For me the UNESCO Youth Forum was a springboard into acting more environmentally responsible both on a personal level and in my AFS work. Now I hope that to you, dear reader, our suggestions and dedication will be that kind of inspiration. In order to follow the discussion on sustainability and be a part of the change, join us, the AFS Sustainability Heroes, on Facebook: and check out the results of our survey attached to this post.

We look forward to attend sustainable AFS events in the future and to see our ideas come to live. This is the time to create change. This is the time to see our dream of more sustainable events and a greener AFS come true.


Alma Dóra is an Icelandic volunteer and returnee from an AFS Year Program in Italy, 2011-2012. Alma has been two times on the Reykjavík chapter board, has trained at all camps and orientations on a local level and is both a part of the Icelandic and European Pools of Trainers. Alma was one of two youth representatives of the AFS network at the 9th UNESCO Youth Forum on Sustainability and Climate Change in Paris last autumn which was the beginning of her interest and passion for environmental matters and the sustainable development of AFS. She is currently one of the coordinators of the Sustainability Heroes discussion platform on social media where AFS volunteers exchange ideas and input on environmental matters.

  • This is a wonderful initative - thanks for sharing this here!

    I am wondering only about the travel initiative: AFS INT is talking about tapping more exclusive markets... why are we not offering e.g. a high school exchange by sail boat? A transatlantic journey as the start into and the end of your life's adventure should both be exciting and rather exclusive... or what about a cargo ship trip to Asia (just imagine: a cargo ship branded with AFS travelling around the world!)? Also, the intra-continental exchanges (at least within small Europe) could be done by train - although it would increase the efforts for all AFS partners (and their vols...), as we would have to stage two welcome and departure events.... just thoughts I'd love to VolVoices to consider and develop... ;-)