Exhibitions can be highly eco-unfriendly events - creating mountains of packaging and paper waste. But consumers increasingly demand that businesses demonstrate their eco credentials - and are steering clear of those that don't. Rachel Miller reveals how to stay sustainable when exhibiting
Exhibitions, by their very nature, are not the greenest way to market your business. Bringing all those exhibitors, stands and visitors together in one place involves a lot of travelling, before the event even begins.
Then piles of handouts and cheap freebies are pressed on visitors, to be shoved in a carrier bag and later - guiltily - thrown away. Even stands themselves are often single-use - simply left behind after the event, to be put into a skip.
Cutting down on exhibition waste
However, exhibitions are becoming gradually more sustainable, thanks to the efforts of forward-thinking venues and stand design companies. “In the past, exhibitions have been completely wasteful,” says Peter Forse, director of stand design specialist Apex.
“When you went to a big venue before or after a show, the thing that struck you straight away was the amount of waste. In the past, all the packaging, such as bubble wrap and cardboard, was thrown into a general-purpose skip. Now venues have facilities for recycling different materials.”
The acres of carpet that are put down on stand floors and in aisles are more likely to be recycled these days, too. “Venues typically used a type of cord carpet which was designed to be used for a few days and then thrown away,” explains Forse. “Now, people have woken up to the fact that carpet can be recycled. Also, some shows have got rid of carpets altogether, and simply paint the concrete floor.”
Sustainable exhibition stand design
But perhaps the biggest change of all is that most exhibition stands are now built to last. In the past, it was not uncommon for companies to build bespoke stands that were only designed for one event. The whole lot would end up in a skip after the show.
“Companies have moved towards reusable stands,” says Forse. “Custom-build has not totally disappeared, but modular stands are much more common. Even those using custom-build designs don’t throw them away after one use anymore - they tend to keep them and reuse them for a number of events.”
Modular stand systems are not just more environmentally-friendly - they can be easier and cheaper to store and transport. “Modular stands have come on in leaps and bounds,” says Forse. “Before, they were seen as boxy and uncreative. Now they are much more up-to-date and offer interesting features.
"It’s more common now to use a modular base, and add some customised features - that’s something we do for a lot of clients.”
Reduce your reliance on printed handouts
Marketing techniques have also changed. The days when businesses printed and distributed thousands of brochures, to be pressed on every visitor (whether interested or not) are long gone.
Today, you are more likely to use a simple marketing flyer that directs people to your website to read more, perhaps with a scannable QR code, or to take a potential customer's email address so you can send them relevant marketing material that way.
If companies do have brochures, they often post them to interested prospects after the show, rather than handing them out indiscriminately, knowing most will end up in landfill.
Ten ways to stay green when you exhibit
- Choose a long-lasting, reusable modular stand.
- Re-use bespoke elements for multiple shows.
- Lay fibre-mixed carpets that can be recycled, or put down carpet tiles that can be re-used.
- Choose other materials for your displays, such as plastics and cardboard, that can be recycled.
- Use timber and paper materials from well-managed forests (with Forest Stewardship Council approval).
- Install low-wattage lighting or LED energy-efficient lighting.
- Use organic compound-free adhesives.
- Look for “green”, water-based paints.
- Don’t produce tons of printed marketing materials - email your brochure to potential clients, or use scannable QR codes.
- Promote your green credentials and spread the word about sustainability.