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  • Writer's pictureEleanor Loveday

Can events be a sustainable part of marketing?

The good, the bad, and the greenwashed.

 

It’s been a strange time for many of us marketers recently. While businesses battle through the ongoing economic and political storms, budgets and planning can be one of the first things caught in the wind. Rightly or wrongly, it’s a story that many of us will know far too well.


Staying consistent throughout this is the attention brands are drawing to sustainability. You can’t go far these days without seeing ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’, ‘biodegradable’ or [insert other bold enviro-ethical claim] plastered affront a product. In many cases, the emphasis on sustainability comes from a genuine effort to make change for the better. In others, it’s a box-ticking exercise or worse – a series of misleading claims that conveniently omit important detail about how sustainable the product or business really is. Sadly, events can be a similar story, with ‘greenwashing’ rife across our industry.

 

Because of this, it’s even more important to us that we genuinely advocate real change and take responsibility for the future of events in marketing. That means talking openly about sustainability in events, being honest about where progress is yet to come, and taking purposeful action to address the problem. It means taking accountability beyond our own ‘direct’ impact and looking at the bigger picture.

 

After all, for events to remain a valuable and viable part of modern marketing we believe they must be sustainable.

 

An exhibition stand for Aviva at the 2023 BIBA Conference, featuring biophilic design.
AVIVA’S BIBA stand draws on multiple aspects of our sustainable practice, from reduction of waste such as carpet, reusable architectures and recycled graphic media.

We know there is a green gap across the events industry.


Without depressing everyone, we also know we don't have all the answers right now. There are still limitations within venues, processes, and industry practices that need to change to be truly sustainable. But positively, we’re working on it.

 

For now, our first step is being honest about the 10% portion of our projects that are not reused or recycled. The next is to bridge this gap, offsetting our impact by partnering with Ecologi. This extends from production to all installation, travel, and logistical impacts a project may have. Going beyond our impact alone, we make each project climate positive and attribute this to our clients, who by working with us, help to support a wide range of global climate action initiatives. These include carbon reduction, avoidance & removal, re-wilding, as well as community programmes and education. This will remain a key part of our approach until we see a permanent shift to climate positive events.

 

So where does real sustainability in events start?


As with most problems, we need to admit there is one. By making everyone involved more aware of the industry issues around sustainable practice, we can seek better solutions. In fact, this was something UFI emphasised back in 2008, setting out the sustainable development mission statement for events globally. Research has revealed several areas of focus; of these, waste management in exhibitions and events remained a perennial and significant challenge. If you’ve ever walked through an event during breakdown, this perhaps won’t come as a surprise. The research subdivided the challenges of waste management into three areas: Exhibition Stands; Engaging Stakeholders and Working with Exhibitors & Visitors.


The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals

Clearly our central focus is on exhibition stands, but often the challenges posed for engaging stakeholders, exhibitors, and visitors are around awareness and implementing structures to improve sustainability. We can make a difference here too by being more aware of the choices we are making in our event marketing. It’s not about planning to install a bio-reactor into your stand (although it would certainly turn heads), it’s the small things that matter too.


A great example is ‘Lionel’, the robot that ExCeL introduced to draw the lines for their exhibition flooring. Of the six million tonnes of single-use exhibition carpet that is wasted every year in the UK, ExCeL estimate that Lionel the robot will significantly reduce this number, as well as eliminating the need to fly in international flooring companies for events. In October 2023, the organisers of Solar & Storage Live took this one step further by deciding to forgo an exhibition carpet altogether. Changes like this add up.


An exhibition stand for R&B Switchgear at Solar & Storage Live 2023
R&B Switchgear's custom exhibition stand at Solar & Storage Live 2023

So, ask questions of sustainable options and be curious about the better ways something may be delivered to visitors, whether it’s a coffee or a pack of marketing collateral. As paying customers yourselves, exhibitors and visitors have power to demand more of venues and organisers.

 

Simply talking about improved, ethical and sustainable practices helps to make them a priority from the ground up – so let’s talk about it, so we can do something about it.


Smarter strategy, more sustainable events

 

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again – it starts with strategy. But not your event strategy, your marketing strategy. The simple, sexy, structured strategy that events slot into. The one for the whole year. That one which, when you get it right, makes you the marketing maestro that management trusts to work with bigger budgets and take bigger swings in creative.

 

Asking questions like ‘why are we exhibiting?’, ‘What do we need to achieve to make the event successful?’, 'how does this fit into our wider brand strategy?' are essential to making events a sensible and sustainable choice.

 

An exhibition stand for Naturediet Pet Foods at Crufts 2024

And while asking the questions is important, asking them at the right time is just as valuable.


For instance, if you’re having the conversation two weeks before each exhibition, you’ll risk becoming too zoned in on the one event and creating more waste or inefficiencies. You might end up having to dispose of your exhibition stand prematurely or over-ordering and wasting marketing collateral because you didn’t leave enough time for proper planning. Instead, reviewing your event marketing as part of your annual planning or strategy review will keep you organised. This doesn’t mean you can’t be agile and creative, but it does mean a far better foundation to work from.

 

With the support of a responsible events partner, you’ll be able to plan your events in a way that reduces unnecessary waste, with re-usage in mind, looking at the bigger when it comes to sustainability. And not only will you be making better choices for the planet, you’ll likely be saving cost along the way too.


A climate-conscious approach to events

 

An infographic showing the life cycle of an exhibition stand, from resources and processing to end of life, reuse and recycling.

For a more holistic approach to sustainable events, we use ‘Life Cycle Thinking’ rather than just focusing on whether something is made of wood, plastic or cardboard. By understanding your goals and needs, we can select the best and most sustainable approach based on need and not just whether it looks ‘eco’. Across the life cycle of most products or materials, there is consideration of extraction, manufacture, packaging and transportation, usage and end of life. As an example, aluminium architecture requires a lot of energy to acquire, manufacture and transport, however it’s durability often means this impact is spread across a longer life when used effectively.


This is why our aluminium architecture has served us for decades as a durable strong skeleton in stand builds where other materials would have been used up 100s of times over. This is actually the origin of plastic bags, created to replace paper bags which gave up on multiple uses or when they got wet. The problem came when how we used these plastic bags changed, and brought a disposable attitude to a material intended to reduce pressures on our planet.


Our custom-modular approach naturally lends itself to working more sustainably.


Creating an inventory of architectural items we can draw on across projects means that again their impact is spread out. It also saves our clients money and the core components being reused are unrecognisable thanks to the creative designs we weave around each exhibition stand structure. Investing further in responsible solutions, from UV printing technology to graphics made from reclaimed plastic bottles, we’re carefully curating a range of more sustainable medias, inks and stand dressing materials.


Our approach also has the concept of ‘reducing’ consumption built in, encouraging clients to consider a life cycle within their event management to connect with suppliers who share our focus on smarter sustainable solutions from lead capture to coffee. Speaking of which, do consider The Barista, a sustainably minded and superbly caffeinated company offering a top-quality option for on-stand hospitality who we regularly partner with on event projects.


An exhibition stand for Aviva at BIBA 2023

Despite this longer read, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do to make a difference in the pursuit of more sustainable events. However, if we’ve shared anything, we hope it’s the importance of talking about sustainability in event marketing.

 

If you’re planning an event, exhibition or brand experience and would like to talk about how to make it more sustainable and more successful too – please do get in touch, we’d love to help.

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