Written by Sara Guo I 3 min read

Hackathons, the hub of innovation and creativity, have become integral for companies striving to stay ahead in the dynamic technology landscape. Yet, as we navigate the landscape of sustainable business practices, how can hackathons be more sustainable?

Large-scale business conferences and events can have a significant carbon footprint due to various factors such as travel, accommodation, catering, and logistics. Research suggests that the annual carbon footprint for the events industry is responsible for more than 10% of global CO2 emissions. Moreover, a study at Cornell University found that spatially optimal hubs for hybrid events have the potential to slash carbon footprint and energy usage by 60-70%.

It's clear that when large-scale business conferences are done poorly there can be devastating impacts on our climate and the environment. That is why it is crucial to make sustainability a core consideration right from the very start of the planning process. 

Our team helping a participant at BMO's Destination Digital

Keep Sustainability Top of Mind during the Planning Process

Drawing inspiration from Google's Sustainability Marketing Playbook, the journey toward sustainability begins with a simple question: 

"How will you ensure this project is in alignment with our sustainability goals?" 

By ingraining this ethos into the planning process, we set the stage for a hackathon that not only drives innovation but also minimizes its environmental impact.

Consider Moving to Virtual Hackathons

The most low-carbon way of hosting a hackathon is to host it fully virtually. We organized a hackathon for Google x Capgemini’s first-ever generative AI hackathon that was fully virtual this year, bringing together 1000+ employees to re-imagine how generative AI can be used in the retail and finance industries. This made the event more accessible and allowed employees from 29 countries to participate, all from the comforts of their home or local Capgemini office.

Capgemini participants brought the energy in the “How to Pitch Like a Pro” workshop

Global participation, cost savings, and flexible timing have made virtual hackathons an attractive platform and offering for innovation. Yet, challenges arise in the absence of real, in-person physical interaction. Technical hurdles and time zone coordination are real issues that hackathon organizers must deeply consider, along with security concerns of having participants competing from a non-company-owned location. 

Team dynamics are also fiercely compromised. There is just something about the energy and atmosphere of an in-person hackathon experience that cannot be replicated in a virtual setting.

Local Locations for Global Hackathons

If your company values the magic, energy and experience of an in-person hackathon, consider organizing hackathons across local in-person office locations. This not only supports a more sustainable approach but also fosters inclusivity, allowing participants from around the globe to engage without the need for extensive international or domestic travel.

An example demonstrating this is our client, McDonald’s, and their hackathon, Burger Hack where multiple offices across cities such as Sydney, Debrecen, Pune and São Paulo became a center for participants to let their creativity shine.

If you would like to learn more about McDonald’s global hackathon and see more of the in-person creative magic first-hand, you should definitely check out this video:

Digital Communication and More Sustainable Event Supplies

PDFs Instead of Paper

Move away from traditional paper documentation by opting for PDFs when creating hacker and organizer information packs and other essential reading materials. Distributing information electronically significantly reduces paper waste and promotes a paperless environment. Even for something as simple as file sharing, making sure to compress files before sending can go a long way.

Virtual Signs and Recycling Lanyards

Embrace technology with virtual signage to convey event details, schedules, and important announcements. Lanyards and name tags should be recycled to help reduce the need for single-use plastics. Finally, you should incorporate QR codes on lanyards for quick access to digital resources and schedules.

The use of virtual signs was implemented all throughout the BMO Hackathon, Destination Digital. All paper that was used from the event was recycled.

Recommendations for Paper Waste Reduction

Introduce guidelines to minimize paper use, suggesting double-sided printing when necessary and encouraging participants to use digital versions of documents. 

Sustainable Swag + Prizes

Choosing Environmentally Friendly Swag Materials

Opt for swag materials made from recyclable sources. Consider innovative options such as Prevented Ocean Plastic to showcase a commitment to cleaning up our oceans. These materials not only reduce the demand for new plastics but actively contribute to environmental conservation.

Offer High-Quality Items that People Will Love and Use, Not Trash

One of the best ways to keep our planet and ocean clean, is to design and create high-quality swag items that people will actually cherish and use in their day-to-day. During our events, we’ve designed and created useful swag items such as drink bottles and laptop sleeves, which have stood the test of time and been used functionally by participants and organizers in their everyday lives.

We team up with swag providers, such as Swag Up, who offer premium high-quality brands and sustainably sourced items. Their catalog makes it clear, which items are made from recycled materials and come from brands, such as Cupanion, or Known Supply, that have transparent impact programs in place to help consumers know where and how their swag items are manufactured. 

Providing Low-Carbon Memorable Experiences

Consider offering low-emission experiences as an alternative to low-quality swag items. These experiences, carefully curated to align with sustainability goals, provide participants with memorable moments rather than physical items that they do not need. Some examples of low-carbon memorable experiences, include our Spikeball competition, marshmallow tower building exercise, customized trivia and live scribing (of the Top 10 finalist solutions). This not only reduces environmental impact but also adds a unique and cherished dimension to the hackathon experience.

A truly memorable and exciting experience for participants at BMO’s Internal Hackathon, Destination Digital

Digital Gift Cards and Prizes

At Onova, we leverage innovative solutions like Tremendous to send participants digital gift cards and prizes. This digital approach not only eliminates the need for physical shipping, but also aligns with the modern, tech-driven spirit of hackathons. Digital rewards not only support sustainability but also offer participants the flexibility to choose rewards that suit their preferences.

Community Involvement

Catering Solutions

When planning catering for the hackathon, consider sourcing food and beverages locally. Forge connections with internal catering companies, local restaurants, or food suppliers to not only support regional businesses but also reduce the carbon footprint associated with long-distance food deliveries.

Incorporate Local Initiatives

Consider aligning your hackathon with existing local sustainability initiatives. This could involve supporting community-led projects, participating in environmental clean-up efforts, or contributing to local causes that resonate with the hackathon's theme. By integrating with local initiatives, you demonstrate a genuine commitment to making a positive difference in the community.

Environmental Impact Assessment and Being Open to Improvement

Beyond celebrating prototypes, conduct a thorough environmental impact assessment after each hackathon. Evaluate waste generated, energy consumption, and carbon emissions to identify areas for improvement. A commitment to continual improvement is crucial for fostering sustainable practices.

Questions to Think About In Your Next Hackathon

  • What are the nice-to-have items that can be eliminated or replaced to reduce our carbon footprint?
  • How can we implement effective waste reduction strategies during the event?
  • How can technology be leveraged to facilitate virtual collaboration among participants?
  • What initiatives can benefit both participants and the local community?
  • How can we work with internal catering companies to reduce food waste?


As companies increasingly adopt more sustainable operations and as ESGs (Environmental, Social, and Governance factors) and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) become topics of everyday discussion, hackathon organizers must follow suit. Creating a sustainable hackathon is not just about innovation; it's about responsible innovation that considers the environmental impact of every step.

By asking the right questions and incorporating sustainable practices from the outset, we can nurture innovation responsibly and pave the way for a more sustainable future.

Interested in seeing how we can support you and your business in your innovation initiatives? Book an introductory call with Victor Li, Founder & CEO of Onova.
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