Before the pandemic, only a third of countries were on track to achieve the United Nations target to sustainably manage forests and halt biodiversity loss.
10m hectares of forest are destroyed each year and two billion hectares of land is now degraded, affecting some 3.2bn people. Evidence suggests that animal trafficking, and in particular the movement of 370,000 pangolins used for Chinese medicine, may have been responsible for transferring Covid-19 to humans. Our contribution as an industry to helping to meet these goals is crucial, as many of the raw materials we use in exhibitions today can directly affect our forests and the countless species of animals that rely on them.
Attitudes towards sustainability are changing, and how our planet has responded to Covid-19 has only fuelled this further. This has been an important time to stop and think about what is important to us, our families and the world around us.
EN partnered with GES to deliver a roundtable looking at a ‘Blueprint for Event Sustainability’ to assess where we are as an industry, and what we need to do more of to help protect our planet. Key people from some of the world’s most prominent exhibition companies gathered for the debate.
Where are we now?
Jason Stead, MD (EMEA), GES, believes the industry is generally in a good place.
He said: “We are already a pretty sustainable industry. We already use lots of the parts to deliver a show again and again. We have a business model that brings lots of people together in one go. I’ve been a buyer for 20 years and the amount of airmiles I did seeing suppliers I can now do six months of work in four days. Apart from reusing materials, Covid-19 has made us look at how we rewire the business and challenge that habitual thinking. Because a lot of our events are annual, it is so long before the next one that we do not often focus on solving some of those things right in front of us. We worked hard with Informa to get rid of PVC at their shows. Everything we print now is with water-based ink on fabric and we recycle all of that fabric. Even the flooring, which is one of the biggest challenges with millions of meters of that being used every year, gets recycled.”
Jason explained that GES investigated what happened to the carpet being recycled in Poland and discovered that it was being used to make hotel slippers.
Stead added: “This is a good opportunity given that we all have limited revenues coming in to understand how we become more efficient and efficiency is generally quite green because you find better ways of doing it. Transport is still a challenge. It personally hurts me when I see wagons and trailers leaving our compound with a couple of stillages on them because someone phoned in for an extra 40 meters of wall, so we are trying to bundle things together.”
Kerrie Kemp, operations director at Informa, a company at the forefront in driving sustainability, explained that they have been working on improving sustainability since 2013.
She added: “We had some big ambitions as a company. We have just been carbonneutral certified, we are pushing for waste-free features at our events and we want to be PVC- and plasticfree at all of our events.
There is a very distinct difference in approaches to sustainability between the UK and Europe versus the Middle East events and emerging markets, not just necessarily from approach but local capabilities and what is available to us.”
Piers Kelly, operations director at Reed Exhibitions, gave an honest assessment of where they are as a business.
He said: “We are further behind than Informa. We were quite early adopters when the first British Standard came out for sustainable events and then the ISO Standard and I’m not sure if we went about it in the wrong way by working for the standard rather than it working for us. Over a period of time it petered out and we dropped individual activities from different shows, but over the past year we’ve reformed a sustainability group and we have quite a large team across the business that is getting well organised. I think we’ll start catching up with some of the work GES and Informa have been discussing.”
“We see a variation globally and we have a lot of shows overseas and we are hugely dependant on the local venues and local suppliers and we have to use what they have got and it is difficult to influence change if we are dropping in once a year.”
Victoria James, event director for Bett (Middle East) at Hyve Group echoed the general sentiment that the business is at the mercy of local suppliers.
She explained: “It’s really hard to push the sustainability agenda when the infrastructure is not there. Hyve Group London can do an awful lot of work we are a bit stuck to keep up with the ambitions of our head office around sustainability.”
Iain Pitt, MD at Clarion Events energy portfolio, believes that the industry is slowly getting to grips with part of the problem but highlights international travel as the biggest culprit.
He added: “What we are talking about is type one emissions, which is our emissions and our sustainability of our shows, but no international benchmark for sustainability looks at type one emissions.
Our events are a massive contributor to type three emissions where people travel to come to our events. I think we as an industry need to evolve the conversation because we are just beginning to get ahead of type one but what about type three emissions? We as an industry need to look at ticket prices to offset against travel and we need to start considering that.”
Mike Seaman, MD at Raccoon Events believes we are still in the dark in our understanding of the current situation and he believes that the industry needs a sustainability strategy.
He added: “I don’t think we actually know the state of it at the moment. We as an industry are very clever in some areas and bringing people together for one experience is more sustainable than spreading an event out over a longer period of time. I do not think we have a cohesive sustainability strategy. We’ve just launched a new outdoor show and we want to be carbon neutral in three years and the reason we have done it over three years as opposed to one is because we want to enter into a properly talked through and measured strategy that’s endemic to our business.
“It’s great that carpet is being recycled in Poland, but do we actually need that carpet? Should it even be there? What’s the carbon footprint of that product being flown over to another country to be recycled?
“We are going into five areas of measuring: we measure ourselves as a company and the overall contribution of the event, we measure the insetting of our suppliers, exhibitor behaviour from when they arrive to when they go home and everything they order in between and the same with visitors. The final piece is around offsetting.”
Anna Anson, owner of the Ops Squad, a freelance operations and health and safety company, believes that the industry needs to consider local suppliers and contractors.
She added:“We have a lot of overseas contractors and wouldn’t we be better off trying to promote local contractors for local events? There are plenty of stand builders around Birmingham and London, but we are bringing in people from all over the world to come and build stands.”
Jeff Lee, head of operations at GES, explained GES looks at the materials they use.
He added: “For laminate, it is very difficult to recycle but what we found was that there were local charities that that laminate can go to and we work with a charity that takes that laminate and puts it into local housing. We then looked at how we recycle vinyl and we worked with our supplier to ensure the end product that gets chipped into other plastics that then gets moulded into other products.
“One of the difficult materials is the recycling of carpet and the mix of materials that goes into that carpet and one area was the high oil cord carpet that we use quite a lot of and we couldn’t find anywhere in the UK that could recycle it even though we are asking our supplier to build a recycling system in the UK.”
How are attitudes changing?
Kimberley Barnes (Evans), event director for the Life Science portfolio at Clarion, said that attitudes are changing and that there is a demand for virtual events because it reduces travel and benefits the environment.
She added: “I think that everyone is on this and young people are very passionate about sustainability. People are looking at things in a different way because of the low amounts of travel and the other good news for the environment.”
Seaman explained that consumers want events that are sustainable.
He added: “It is a must have now. We have got to stop looking at this as a race to the bottom, this is a commercial opportunity and buyers are willing to spend more for a sustainable solution and organisers need to take note of that. If you raise the water level, then everyone floats higher.”
Tabitha Neill, operations manager at EventShaper, added: “There is a lot of worry around how Covid-19 could affect sustainability and we are going to have to pay a lot of attention to what those areas are and make sure that in those areas we are able to meet we are doing them well.”
Who is responsible for regulating sustainability?
Miriam Sigler, director at Ways and Means, explains:
“This is one of the big sticking points. It’s easy to say it is the contractor’s problem, the venue’s problem, the organiser’s problem and it is one of the hot potatoes that someone will happily through to someone else. It is a collective responsibility. I was quite enthused following an ESSA update that one of the five working groups coming out of government was how to recover the economy in a green and sustainable way, and I think Covid-19 is allowing us the throw out the rulebook and start again.”
Stead added: “It is all of our responsibility and if we do nothing the government will tax us further down the road. We have to think about what the government is going to do if we do nothing.”
Seaman explained that this is the organisers responsibility.
He added: “This is squarely the organisers responsibility. The moment we stop beating suppliers up on price then suppliers are not going to choose a more sustainable option as it is more expensive for a supplier to be sustainable but it is beneficial for an organiser to deliver a sustainable event because we know that buyers are more willing to pay more for a sustainable product. For my events consumers are willing to pay 30% more for a more sustainable product. The organiser has to see the commercial value in it and feed it down the supply chain.”
Sigler argues that it is harder for smaller organisers to implement robust sustainability measures.
She added: “I work with a lot of smaller organisers who I cannot get to pay an extra 5p per square meter and are still stuck on prices from 1980. We have to be able to present cheaper or equal value options to make it worthwhile.”
Stead believes that a change in attitude is needed.
He added: “I think there is a price point that is acceptable and I think that many organisers need to take a look at their proposition and ask if it is a valuable one rather than I just make the show cheaper to get to the following year. I read but I accept it as a challenge.”
Judith Wilson, event director at Eventit, believes that events can influence change across other industries.
She added: “The people that are coming into shows are from all sorts of different industries and we can influence them with products and sustainable practices to take back to their own industries.”
Matthew Lambert, owner of Maelstrom explains that it is a tough struggle to convince clients to choose the right path.
He added: “Trying to get some of our smaller clients to do stuff is really difficult and it does take a lot of time. The first year we were looking at a carbon neutral show but because we were a smaller operation you don’t have the time to do it all. We are going to be engaging with the exhibitors and trying to bring them on board but we know that someone will turn up with vinyl in the first year. We will try and stop it but they will argue that they already have it and that is fine for year one but by year two and three we will argue that they will need to get rid of it responsibly and it is part of an education process.”
What is the solution?
Victoria James, event director at Hyve Group believes the industry could benefit from bringing in experts from outside.
She added: “There are external organisations and bodies that could moderate what we are doing as an industry and they could tell us what we should be focusing on.”
Seaman added: “Sharing best practice. We worked with the team at IMEX because they had an exhibitor accreditation programme and we had a chat with them because we had a shared objective. It is like when Volvo discovered the seat belt, they didn’t use it to their advantage because they thought it was important to share the idea.”
Kemp added: “The Event Industry Council has just created the Sustainable Event Standard which has a set of criteria events can score themselves against. It is something Informa is involved in.”
What can we take away from this roundtable?
Pitt believes we need to consider the bigger problems.
He added: “We have just started on this journey but let us not forget that our shows through travel and energy consumption are massive polluters.”
Lee believes sharing showspecific knowledge is vital.
He added: “Transparency is key, pre-show and post-show and what we are seeing over the past couple of years is post-show analysis around how sustainable events are.
Certain clients will come to us and ask for that report and others don’t, and we send it to them automatically so they can see the carbon footprint of their show, so we try to be as transparent as possible.”
Kelly explained Reed Exhibitions is looking at their tendering process and gathering an understanding of how events are performing. Sigler believes pricing is the only way we can make a difference for smaller organisers.
Neill believes it is all about presenting choice.
She added: “There are so many other options out there on how we can make events more sustainable and we need to share the things we can be doing from looking at the menus for catering and sourcing local ingredients and also showing the foodbanks that we can use in those areas. We could even look at the speaker programmes and use speakers that don’t need to fly or travel long distances to the shows.”
Barnes explained that we should source more materials locally but recognises that Covid-19 is a huge challenge to focus on.
Wilson believes we should recycle our materials and use them at other events.
James believes we need to identify where the problems are. She said: “We need to work out what are those biggest polluters are for the events industry and make a list of them and we attack the biggest contributors.”