If you’ve stuck around after the end of a trade show, you know what it can look like: trash cans overflowing with paper, banners, and unwanted swag. Badge lanyards cast aside. Plates of food left uneaten. Historically, sustainability at trade shows has not been the top priority for most exhibitors and event planners, but that’s changing.
Consumers are calling for companies to clean up their acts as sustainability becomes even more front-of-mind. Gen Z is leading the charge, but it’s not purely a generational shift. More than two-thirds of respondents in the CGS 2019 U.S. Consumer Sustainability survey said product sustainability is important to them when making a purchase. In addition, consumers are willing pay more for sustainable products, and are more loyal to brands that embrace a sustainable ethos.
For companies looking to take steps into crafting a more sustainable events program, it can seem daunting — and potentially expensive. We spoke with Peggy Brannigan, Senior Program Manager for Global Sustainability at LinkedIn, and Dr. Elizabeth Bagley, Director of Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences — experts on event sustainability who are working collaboratively with other large institutions to improve the industry — about how companies can rethink sustainability at trade shows and events, from the event planning and the exhibiting side, in a way that fits their brand and their budget.
Align Your Goals
In many cases, companies will already have sustainability and corporate social responsibility as part of their goals and core values, but when it comes to implementation, events aren’t at the top of the priority list.
“It takes, as a company, asking ‘How do we rethink events to align with our brand values?’” says Bagley.
When you’re exhibiting at a trade show, you’re not just presenting a product or a service, you’re telling your brand’s story — and your choice of design speaks volumes. Attendees are savvy: they will pick up on good-faith sustainability efforts, as well as superficial attempts at greenwashing.
“Implementing an event in a thoughtful sustainable format will send a strong signal to customers that the host is aware of the need to operate responsibly and is taking a leadership position in delivering innovative green events,” says Brannigan.
How to Make a Meaningful Impact
Where can exhibitors and event planners make the biggest impact? Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet when it comes to sustainability at trade shows.
“The footprint of an event depends a lot on the size of the event as well as the location. Some things like how waste is handled is very locally specific. For example, using compostable containers doesn’t help if you’re in a place that has no municipal composting program,” says Bagley.
But there are key areas that companies should focus on, including choice of venue, décor and signage, and food and beverage.
For event planners, Bagley recommends seeking out venues that are powered by renewable energy and have thoughtful approaches to reducing food waste, and being strategic about location to reduce the impact of transportation to the event.
“There’s a lot of education that is needed around flying and fuel efficiency of aircrafts. It turns out that taking multiple connecting flights can really increase emissions. For planners, can you hold the event in a place that has a lot of direct flights?” says Bagley.
For exhibitors, talk to your exhibit partner about décor and signage options that can be made from upcycled materials, use energy efficient lighting, and opt for digital displays for content over single-use pamphlets when possible.
You don’t have to be a NASA engineer to figure out that smaller setups inherently use fewer materials, from the build of your booth to requiring less food and decor. Smaller also equals less electricity and a big drop in post-event waste. While bigger might seem better in terms of wow-factor, there are several key advantages to a smaller footprint.
Forging a trail to sustainability at trade shows, Patagonia employs a pack in/pack out mentality, much like its audience does when hiking and camping. This shift in mindset incentivizes having as little to pack out as possible. The benefit goes beyond the show floor: having smaller properties also means less packaging materials and easier transport. Combined, all these factors can put a measurable dent in your booth’s environmental footprint.
Right-sizing also applies to giveaways. We all want to be generous hosts, but generosity can easily turn into waste. Overdoing it on snacks, swag, and brochures might stave off the panic of running out of something, but, more often than not, running out is just fine.
Busting the Cost Myth
Trade shows are an investment, and every company is looking to get the most for their money. Brands are often held back by the idea that taking a more sustainable approach will be more expensive, but this doesn’t have to be the case.
“Some of the sustainable options actually will reduce costs, and some can be cost neutral,” says Brannigan. “Opting for a nice single high-quality sustainable swag option could be equally or less expensive than giving each attendee a bag full of single-use items — and the attendees are much more likely to appreciate and remember it, especially if you provide an explanation for why you’ve made this sustainable choice.”
Thinking ahead and making long-term investments, for example on high-quality booths that can last multiple seasons, can save considerable money over time and reduce waste — the challenge is changing the way the industry thinks.
“Event planners are generally very tactical. They want to get things done, on time, on budget, and that’s that. Sustainability people, on the other hand, are systems thinkers who look at how things work together and take the long-term picture into account,” says Bagley. “Bringing the two worlds together can be very powerful when trying to solve a problem.”