The exhibition industry is synonymous with waste and poor environmental concerns. To combat this, the industry and its stakeholders have put a greater emphasis on sustainability however it looks as though Covid-19 has the biggest impact of all.

Covid-19 has prompted a rapid and yet positive shift in terms of the environment thorough the decrease in pollution, which should encourage the exhibition and events industries to keep momentum. Many exhibitions and trade shows are migrating to digital platforms for 2020, offers environmental advantages. For example, travel reduction is a key benefit which in turn has seen reduced levels of pollution worldwide.

The positive progress that’s been made has brought to the surface many questions and there are many aspects of exhibition production which can benefit from environmentally responsible attention. Will Covid-19 be the much-needed catalyst? Do events and exhibitors want to undo all the progress that has been made? Can the delegate experience prosper from a sustainability-first mentality?

Sustainable planning is crucial

Historically, stands, booths and sets have been constructed to look the best they can with little consideration as to what happens next. They are often deconstructed and thrown away which generates considerable waste – not to mention nullifying the other sorts of value the materials or structures can provide such as repurposing elsewhere.

Over the last couple of years ‘single-use plastics’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘eco’ have become keywords used throughout social media, news and advertising. This increase in awareness has had a positive impact on the industry and greater thought has been put into how events and exhibitions are created more sustainably, though there’s still more to do.

When exhibitions return, every brand, exhibitor and event organiser will have to factor in sustainability as a priority and include within the design from the start. If it isn’t at the forefront during the design phase, it’s incredibly hard to implement further down the line.

In terms of production, there are many methods of creating a sustainable exhibition stand, from a modular framework and flooring with reusable graphics and floorcovering, to custom stands that have minor modifications to enable them to be utilised for different builds.

Leica Exhibition Stand

On a small scale, the Leica stand pictured above is constructed from a modular framework that forms part of large set of fit that can construct many variations of stand. We are working to create sets of graphics for each stand that are stored and re-used year on year. The flooring is reused along with the covering and we have constructed several plinths which are stored in the warehouse for sustainable and efficient use.

The use of recycled and recyclable materials alongside FSC products when creating a custom stand make an immediate and positive difference. It’s important to leave natural finishes intact too, which ensures the materials can be reused or easily recycled.

Not everything is materials related either, thought needs to be given to the carbon footprint generated by the stand, event logistics as well as personnel. Effective carbon footprint reduction is the result of careful planning with logistics companies or internal fleets to ensure the greenest route of travel and efficient freight loading.

As we’ve discussed, sustainability should be inherent across all aspects of an event, not just a nice to have. As an example, furniture is often as cheap to purchase as it is to hire but you are left with the furniture at the end of an event. If after an event there’s leftover furniture, perhaps a local school or charity could benefit from a donation – not only is it environmentally responsible, it’s benefitting the community.

Adjusting delegate behaviours and expectations

Virtual events are fantastic for audience engagement although they can’t evoke the same feelings as live and in-person events. Humans thrive on face-to-face interaction and while digital events have positive impacts on sustainability and convenience, they don’t provide the F-2-F element as effectively. Although Covid-19 has somewhat forced the rise of virtual events due to legislation banning mass gatherings, they will continue to be vital for events though not necessarily as the main spectacle.

Giveaways and literature have long been the swag that delegates emerge from exhibitions and trade shows with; from bags to pens, USB drives and even that new ‘eco’ mug. While the initial thought is to maintain brand front-of-mind awareness post-event, many of these items end up in drawers, cupboards or even in the bin. Consequently, these giveaways could be labelled as an environmental issue in themselves.

More thought and consideration need to be given to interactive displays, gamification, VR, AR, digital competitions and virtual prizes, giving attendees a great reason to visit the stand without weighing them down with tangible goodies, which are likely to end up unused and discarded. Engaging in this way will reflect positively on the brand in the long run and demonstrate a forward-thinking mindset.

Working together

The success and effectiveness of sustainability within events is undoubtedly a collective effort, every stakeholder has their part to play; from brands and organisations, to the creatives and delegates too,

We as an industry need to self-regulate and if we continue to work towards the same goal this will provide numerous benefits, such as driving down prices of previously expensive sustainable materials. This is a work-in-progress and initial meetings between agencies, stand builders and other event professionals to discuss consolidating knowledge have already taken place but there is much more to do.

Integrating highly interactive and engaging technologies such as Pavegen’s kinetic flooring can be a huge draw to an event or stand. The premise is simple, to create renewable electrical energy via harnessing the power of footsteps – not only does this generate electricity, it’s also likely to encourage more walking. Pavegen supplies both permanent installations and experiential activations and can power off-grid applications such as lighting, data capture and transmission, and environmental monitoring.

Monitoring

As well as self-regulation, it’s possible for companies to work towards certifications for Environmental Management and Sustainability in Events, ISO 14001 and ISO 20121 respectively. These are quickly becoming pre-requisites for larger events and show potential clients how proactive the company is when it comes to being green.

Local certifications can also be achieved, many local towns are endeavouring to become ‘plastic free’ and do their part for the cause, whatever certifications exist to positively impact our environmental output are only a good thing.

We are always looking for ways to improve our environmental performance and Identity is proud to be ISO 14001 accredited, a plastic free champion and frequently invests in carbon offsetting programmes, though our work is far from over.

Exhibitions beyond Covid-19?

Once the world moves past Covid-19, the exhibition industry is extremely likely to experience disruption and it might take a while to return to ‘normal’. Social distancing, reduced overall numbers and restricted delegate movements around the venue are just some of the aspects which are likely to be affected.

On the other hand, brands will still need to engage with their audiences and those audiences will want to engage with their brands, live and in person. This means brands, organisations, event organisers and event specialists (like us) will need to champion and drive home the importance of sustainable exhibitions, trade shows and live events as a whole. Virtual events will accompany the main shows and offer a more sustainable option, free from travel and drawer-destined swag, vital for those wanting to attend but aren’t able to.

The Covid-19 pandemic has unwittingly provided a real launchpad for sustainability in exhibitions (and events overall) and it’s vital we don’t undo the positive steps that have been made.