Restarting the Sustainability Conversation

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The reopening of the exhibit and event industry is generating new attitudes and new priorities. What priorities? Health and safety, of course. But the conversation around sustainable exhibitions is restarting in an industry that has been described as the most wasteful after construction. During the COVID-19 stay-at-home period, we tapped our personal resources, and the environment reaped the benefit. We drove less, we didn’t fly, we WFH’d, and baked bread. We took better care of ourselves, we appreciated the simple act of taking a walk or calling old friends. Although the economy suffered, the waste that we all took for granted was reduced.

While guidance to protect the health of exhibitors and attendees is in development, the time is right to determine what sustainable practices we can bring to the reawakening of the face-to-face industry.

The phrase, “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” has been part of the environmental conversation for a while, but currently, it is taking on a greater significance. “Recycle” is the last word for a reason—when we can’t reduce or reuse, we should recycle. Our new mindset is teaching us that conserving our resources helps manage waste. Part of conserving our resources is demanding transparency—in pricing, in event design, in materials, and in responsible practices.

During the COVID quarantine, the more or less philosophical question everyone asked was: What can I control? We learned there are many things we can’t control, but that is not necessarily true when you are an exhibitor. Particularly at this moment, exhibitors can voice concerns and take charge of the conversations around sustainability. There will be changes going forward, and among those changes, a sustainability platform for the exhibit industry should rank near the top.

“We design ways to do more with less.” S’well Advertising Campaign

As an exhibitor who pays for space and services, you can demand an accounting of the environmentally friendly practices show organizers and contractors are implementing. One bright spot that came up during a sustainability breakout during Exhibitions Day 2020 is that general contractors have pledged to discontinue the use of foam core. What other areas can be changed in the interest of promoting sustainable exhibiting practices? Here are a few ideas.

  1. The time has long past for technology to replace much of the paper that exhibiting generates. Consider:
    • Presentation handouts can be emailed and read on a device.
    • Venues can do away with individual printed menus. We have become very accustomed to ordering via a device.
  2. What about swag and show bags? Dumpsters at exhibition venues are filled to overflowing with unwanted giveaways when a trade show ends. And where are these items sourced? Many of these promotional items are produced overseas. What is the environmental impact of shipping items across the ocean? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.) Can you “reduce” in this case—either with a donation to a good cause or an item that is useful and packable? Even better, ask show organizers for bespoke sponsorships that will enhance your brand and contribute to a recovering world.
  3. Water in throwaway plastic bottles—the ultimate environmental nightmare. You can find them at every event. Water stations where attendees can refill their water bottles—a useful giveaway, by the way—would help to put an end to this practice once and for all and create more sustainable exhibitions.
  4. Food is another area of colossal waste. Food safety is a genuine concern, and ordering only what you need should be another. What type of food is on offer? Fair trade coffee? Food that meets the dietary needs of all attendees and is appropriately labeled? Food that can be redistributed when it is left-over? (Make arrangements for distribution before show opening.) And if show bags are still a fact of life, food kitchens appreciate those as a donation.
  5. Holding an event in a venue that is accessible for most exhibitors and attendees is a good move going forward. “Accessible” means a site that most attendees can reach easily on a plane or other transport. Once in the city, the ideal destination is one that can be reached from the airport or train station via a (shared) taxi or public transportation. Venues requiring attendees to rent cars and drive two hours should be a thing of the past.
  6. And speaking of transportation, consider providing a shuttle service from the airport to cut down on those car rentals (another excellent sponsorship offering).
  7. Why are we still using badges and lanyards? Many shows urge recycling them, but how many of us think about recycling when we’re running to catch a plane home? A QR code that attendees can load to their phones could replace badges.
  8. Speaking of plastic, how many hotel key cards are sitting at the bottom of your suitcase? Like the badge holders you find once you get home, hotel key cards are being replaced with phone apps. Technology has already solved the key card problem. Yes, they are regularly offered as a sponsorship opportunity, but can’t sponsorships be more creative and meaningful?
  9. Then there is carpet. According to one industry source, carpet makes up between 3% and 5% of the trade show waste in landfills. Ask show organizers what percentage of the carpet is recycled. How much of the carpet and padding are composed of recycled materials? Some convention centers, such as the Las Vegas Convention Center, have instituted recycling initiatives specifically for carpets. And it’s okay to ask if there are alternatives to carpet at any given show.
  10. Encourage your shows to have a virtual component. Many people simply refuse to travel as we once did. Virtual doesn’t replace face-to-face—if nothing else, that fact is abundantly clear post-quarantine—but a hybrid event can help you reach a potentially larger audience.
  11. Include your sustainability mandate in every RFP you issue and every contract you sign. Building awareness starts at the individual level. Or to quote CB Bhattachary, the H. J. Zoffer Chair in Sustainability and Ethics at the University of Pittsburgh:

If COVID-19 has taught us anything about how to surmount our socio-environmental challenges, it is that each one of us – as individuals, companies, or governments – needs to take ownership of our future. Being a bystander is no longer an option.

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