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  • Writer's pictureAlex Cosham

How can events be a sustainable part of marketing?

We can probably all admit to being rather distracted recently. Marketers have had little certainty save for knowing more uncertainty was on the way. Speaking as events professionals, we can certainly relate, emerging from a post-lockdown hibernation, enjoying our early honeymoon and now figuring out where the industry and indeed interest in events truly sits. It's a very odd time for many businesses to say the least.

However it seems that despite this vast detour from our day to day, a collective focus on the ethical and environmental implications of our choices as consumers has emerged. More time to ponder our product and brand choices, paired with sharper focus on the planet wide implications have arguably pushed this point home. Despite new pressures perhaps pushing the other way, we recognise the need to bring a sharper and smarter focus on sustainability into our industry. After all, for events to remain a valuable and viable part of modern marketing, we believe they must be sustainable.

'It's easy right? Just paint it green…’

You can’t go far these days without seeing ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’, ‘biodegradable’ or ‘[insert other bold enviro-ethical claim]’ plastered affront a product. Sadly, events can be a similar story, with ‘greenwashing’ a growing feature pre-covid that is resurfacing again.

A personal gripe are the brands cosying up to the LGBTQ+ community during pride, only to show next to no advocacy anywhere in their operations. This rainbow-washing highlights the need for brands to be educated on causes and go far beyond changing the colour of their logo. But whether a green logo or a rainbow one the problem remains the same, actions speak louder. So we cannot just paint it green. Not only have consumers appetites for ethical products and practice become greater, so too has the sensitivity of their bull-shit-o-meters when it comes to brands living up to their claims. So as events return, it is important to us that we genuinely advocate real change and take responsibility for the future of events in marketing as well as where we are making progress and where it is yet to come.

We know there is a green-gap in events and honestly we know we can't offer all the answers right now. We're working on it though. For now, our first step is being honest about the 10% of our projects that are not reused, recycled or reduced. The next is to bridge this gap, offsetting such impact in our partnership with Ecologi. That is, until this temporary bridge becomes 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 to making events more sustainable. 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.

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. For example, when ICC Sydney scrapped complementary mints, 520,000 plastic wrappers avoided landfill. The little things add up when you know what to look for. So ask questions of sustainable options, 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 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 with bigger budgets and building their business. (The marketing strategy Image Development specialises in simplifying and super-charging for our clients)

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.

Working smarter also involves education on the wider aspects how we can build more sustainable exhibition stands without sacrificing your brand codes and distinctiveness. To do this effectively we use ‘Life Cycle Thinking’ rather than just focus 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. This issue came in how we used these bags 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 UV printing technology and carefully curating a range of responsible and more sustainable medias, inks and stand dressing materials, we ensure that 80 to 90% of every project is reused, recycled or repurposed. 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.

We’ve no doubt that as events renter the marketing mix, making them more ethical, responsible and sustainable is crucial to the future of this extraordinary marketing medium.

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 events.

If you’re planning an event, exhibition or pop-up 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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