The tip of the iceberg

iceberg of trash

Sustainability has been hitting the headlines, but is the industry doing enough?

When EN decided to write about sustainability, we mentioned it to a few people within the industry.

Responses ranged from ‘oh, fantastic!’ to ‘you want to write about sustainability for this industry?’ and pretty much everything in between.

The fact is that the exhibition industry is, by its very nature, incredibly prone to excess and waste. The equivalent of entire towns are built in a matter of days, and torn down in even less. Hundreds of thousands of pounds and months of effort and preparation all boil down to a matter of days.

No wonder it’s difficult to find time to think about sustainability.

“Everyone is busy, no one’s got any time, everyone is on the treadmill of life,” says Bev Ridyard, marketing manager at Positive Impact, a not for profit set up in 2005 with the vision of working towards a sustainable event. “People think it’s expensive, people think it’s time consuming.”

“I think people are wanting to be able to do the right thing, but they also want to show and measure the impact. Small, combined steps by people over a long period of time will make a really positive difference to the world. It all adds up to a lasting legacy.”

“I think the exhibition industry is one that has an awful lot of waste,” adds Sam Rowe, CEO of Ignition. “Historically, I’ve seen skips at the end of exhibitions full of everything: the carpet, all the material, everything just being skipped.”

But have times changed? Is the industry moving in the right direction?

EN spoke to a number of event professionals, from the contractor, supplier, venue and organiser sides, to gauge what the industry was already doing, and how we could progress further in our aim to put on sustainable, and environmentally conscious events.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

“I find the industry to be totally uninterested in finding an initiative,” Martin Cairns, commercial director of Reeds Carpets, tells EN. “They want to be led; they’re waiting for someone to do something and they’ll jump on the bandwagon.”

Back in 2006, Reeds Carpets’ supplier ran out of the carpet they normally used. The supplier had an alternative in stock, but it didn’t have the usual foam on the underside.

“We realised that the rolls were actually great,” Cairns explains. “They were lighter, and we could throw the carpet around a lot easier. And, if the foam was gone, we could potentially do something with the product afterwards. At that point we were spending a shedload of money landfilling stuff.

“Being a private independent company, we always try to do it ourselves. We started to investigate the possibility of turning our carpet back into plastic and selling it onto the plastics industry, which we managed to do by 2008.”

Fast-forward to the present day, and the industry is in a strange kind of middle ground when it comes to recycling and waste.

“My opinion of exhibitions is that we are massively creatures of habit,” says Cairns. “The first thing a lot of customers say to their suppliers is ‘what did we do last year?’ I hear it so many times. Every time we go for a show. No one thinks out the bubble, especially when it comes to floor covering.”

As both individuals and companies, he continues, we all want to be green. But as soon as doing so begins to involve excess cost or time, people can be prone to taking shortcuts. 

“We need to find ways within the supply chain to accommodate the cost of it.”

Plastic not so fantastic

At the start of 2017 plastic hit the headlines in a big way. Specifically plastic straws. 

In a flash, public opinion turned against its erstwhile ally, and as one the world called for the removal of plastic from fast food chains, bars, restaurants and, naturally, events.

Of course this is easier said than done, but increasingly many exhibition organisers have been able to reduce or replace the amount of plastic being used at their events.

“We’ve always been aware of how much we threw away at the event in terms of plastic bottles,” says Rebecca Sawyer, event director at Completely Group. “With our event everything’s included free of charge; delegates pay to attend but throughout the day they get free breakfast, teas and coffees etc. When things are free people tend to over-use. We had 330ml bottles of water and we were noticing that people were just taking a sip and leaving it. We noticed that we were throwing away 8,000 bottles a year. This year we decided to make a change to get rid of plastic bottles and bring in reusable bottles for all the delegates.”

Sawyer and her team partnered up with LandSec, one of the UK’s biggest landlords, who sponsored compostable, recyclable water bottles. Rather than providing an unlimited amount, the Completely Events team instead gave each visitor a bottle and installed water fountains around the show floor.

Fruit juices were offered in jugs, and biscuits and cakes were no longer purchased in individual wrappers.

“It has been an extra cost,” admits Sawyer “But it’s good for us to have that and it be recognised that we are making a difference. It’s made people who attend the event more aware. It’s one day, and that much waste for one day was something we wanted to reduce.”

Meanwhile, down in Cornwall, Hale Events MD Mike Anderson was having a similar realisation.

“In Cornwall the coast is a huge part of their economy,” he tells EN. “At our Cornwall show we were informed about a campaign called the Final Straw Campaign. We supported it at the show by giving them some space. But there was this real dichotomy onsite; one of the visitors arrived and said, ‘you’ve got plastic bags!’

“One of our magazine companies supplies them to us, and we’d just brought the box as usual and put them out for buyers. It really made us go, ‘we don’t just want this to be a gesture and a marketing tool; we want it to be something genuine’.

“I thought, ‘can we do this? I think we can’. We can do away with – maybe not all in one go – nearly all of the plastic, and certainly the single use plastic. Plastic is something that I’m sure we will have at the show in one form or another – and will for many years to come – but if we can do away with those items that are disposed of within a few minutes, or a couple of hours like the wallets for the badges, then let’s see if we can do it.”

Waste not, want not

Of course plastic is not the only form of waste in the industry, although it has arguably become a focus for efforts towards sustainability.

“With the events industry it is essential to have systems in place to reduce this impact,” says Paul Weston, health & safety manager at drp. Exhibitions can cause considerable waste and significant consumption on resources like energy, water, and raw materials if not managed properly.

“Sustainability is all about efficiency and effectiveness; it’s about working smarter not harder, and as a business it’s about using the right people with the right skills, with the right equipment to do the right jobs, giving consideration to environmental, economic and social impact of the project and finding a balance.”

Lou Kiwanuka, whose operational management company EventShaper is very much at the coal-face when it comes to running events, witnesses waste happening in various contexts within the industry.

“We’re leaps ahead in some ways, because we’re constantly reusing things,” she tells EN. “But our biggest challenge is vehicle movement and the amount of vehicles we put on the road. It’s one area where we could definitely make some improvements. But to do that we’d need quite a bit of industry change.”

The movement of plant in and out of venues is a particular source of frustration, as plant from one supplier is moved into a venue for one show, just to be moved out and replaced with similar vehicle from a different supplier for the next.

“Perhaps there’s an opportunity for venues to put in fuller services and opportunities for plant to be kept on site, so you’re not constantly getting plant dropped off and picked up at every show,” suggests Kiwanuka. “Finding the commonality of events is where I think we could really make a difference.”

Another vehicle-related bugbear is transporting equipment and products to and from events.

“If we were to take the shipping model and apply it to exhibitions – obviously we’ve got huge amounts of contractors who are based in the same parts of the country,” continues Kiwanuka. “We’ve got all these trucks coming down from Birmingham to London, and half of them aren’t full.

“At the moment the industry doesn’t have a good enough solution that’s financially viable for the logistics contractors to offer an opportunity there. It will be interesting to see how much technology plays a part in reducing our inefficiencies. I think it’s going to be massive to see how that’s embraced and how solutions are found.”

Does she get the impression that companies in the industry are passionate about sustainability? Asks EN.

“It requires industry change to make it different and I don’t think on that level it’s important. I think it’s important for marketing, I think it’s important for individuals. I haven’t met an individual that wants to throw things away. I think it boils down to the fact that it’s not being spoken about on the right levels.”

Looking at the last ten years, have things been moving in the right direction overall?

Kiwanuka pauses…“No.”

Looking to tech

“Like so many things, cost can be a huge hurdle,” says Martin Hurn, MD of Futurebuild Events. “The cheaper options are always sadly the least sustainable. However this is beginning to change and sustainable options are becoming more viable form a financial point of view.

“I think digital signage should be the way forward, but again the cost of this is a lot higher than traditional options. That’s particularly true when you factor in the venue’s electricity and – if needed – LAN connection costs. When you have a large-scale show, these costs add up and end up being up to ten times more expensive than simple printed signs.”

From a logical point of view it’s easy to see how tech could potentially have a positive impact on sustainability – saving on paper, plastic, printing and more.

Chris Dillon, event & safety manager at the Crystal in London, credits tech with helping to make the building one of the greenest event venues in the world. Some of the key technologies used by the building include photovoltaic panels, strategic glazing, ground source heat pumps and natural ventilation.

“Also, using this technology we are able to capture accurate data from which KPI’s can be generated to continuously improve building efficiency,” adds Dillon. “This is supported operationally by a real time booking system with the application of iPads to reduce printing and paper usage, plus providing a structured and consistent process for all stakeholders.”

The next generation

It’s clear that the topic of sustainability divides opinion within the industry. It’s both a cheap option and an expensive option, a priority and an inconvenience. But it’s possible, says EN Thirty Under 30 member and GES sustainability manager Tom Revell, that the younger generations might be the answer.

“There is definitely a change in attitude within the industry, as well as in society as a whole,” he argues. “Research suggests that 50 per cent of millennials will buy from and use sustainable companies. With 75 per cent of jobs being occupied by millennials by 2025, it seems only natural that the trend for valuing sustainability will become more apparent.”

“But this trend is by no means isolated to millennials. The whole demographic of the industry seems to be moving towards sustainable practices across their businesses.”

“The exhibition industry as a whole is moving in the right direction with impactful and exciting projects being implemented by companies across the industry,” adds Volker Höntsch, group supply chain & sustainability manager, UBM EMEA. “But progress could and should be accelerated in order for us to avoid any delay in attaining a sustainable events industry.”

The size and complexity of the exhibition industry means that tracking its overall sustainability efforts is an incredibly difficult and convoluted task (trust us). Even the many contributors to this feature cannot begin to represent the diversity of the sustainability efforts in even the UK exhibition industry.

What does seem clear – to EN at least – is that having a conversation about sustainability is important, as is understanding the views and perspectives of stakeholders across the spectrum of contractor, supplier, venue, and organiser. In exhibitions perhaps more than any other event sector, one person’s waste may be another’s valued product, and without communication it’s almost impossible to identify where productive relationships could be formed. A combined effort may well have more impact than hundreds of disparate attempts to be sustainable, but that would take buy-in from across the industry.

What do you say eventprofs, shall we try it?

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