Sustainability in events: Why does it matter & how do we achieve it?

Updated: Mar 7

We can probably all admit to being rather distracted for the past year and a half. Speaking as events professionals, we can certainly relate, only now emerging from an enforced hibernation. 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 implications of our actions on the planet have fuelled this consumer-wide shift. So even as we rub the figurative sleep from our eyes and look to the simple question of ‘how can we make events again?’, it seems we can’t really answer that question without also considering ‘how we can we make events sustainable?’

An Interlude – ‘Just paint it green…’

You can’t go far these days without seeing ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’, ‘biodegradable’ or ‘[insert other bold enviro-ethical claim here]’ plastered affront a product regardless of whether it actually is. Sadly, events can be a similar story, with ‘greenwashing’ of certain practices a growing feature pre-covid that is bound to resurface again. Brands cosying up to the LGBTQ+ community in pride month with rainbow facades, only to neglect any real world advocacy have been similarly accused of rainbow-washing. In both cases the problem remains the same, actions speak far louder. So no, we cannot continue to paint it green, or blue or rainbow coloured, without first putting in the work behind the scenes too. Not only have consumers appetites for ethical products and practice become greater, so too has the sensitivity of their lie detectors when it comes to brands living up to their claims. Therefore as events return, it will be key that we genuinely reflect the values our audience expect of us. However distant your brand may feel from the consumer, this change is likely to continue permeating all the way to even the most secluded of B2B businesses.

If doing right by your clients and business isn’t motivation enough, there’s always the bigger picture…we all quite like this planet we live on, so we need to take action so we can keep doing that. Plus, we really like events and the connection they bring…but we want the future of them to be even better. That means making them more sustainable.

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. It seems now more of us want to listen. 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.

UN SDG Poster
UFI's Sustainable Development Mission directly connects with the UN's Sustainable Development goals - setting out the wider importance of ethical, environmentally aware and empathic business practice

Clearly, we have a focus on exhibition stands (more on that in a minute) 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 strategies. It’s not about planning to install a bioreactor 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 , 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 Strategies = More Sustainable Events

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again – it starts with strategy. Asking questions like ‘why are we exhibiting?’, ‘What do we need to achieve to make the event successful?’ will help focus strategy and save waste from the start. You can get a head start on this with our events advice resources here. Working smarter also involves education on the wider aspects of how we work sustainably, and in this case build more sustainable exhibition stands. To do this we want to use ‘Life Cycle Thinking’ rather than just focus on whether something is made of wood, plastic or aluminium. By understanding your goals and needs, we can select the best and most sustainable approach based on need and not 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 appropriately). This is why our aluminium architecture has served us for decades in some cases, used as a durable strong skeleton in stand builds where other materials would have been used up 100s of times over.

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 you’d never know what core components were being reused thanks to the creative designs and spaces we create around this custom-modular nucleus. Investing further in UV printing technology and carefully curating a range of responsible and more sustainable medias, inks and stand dressing materials, we’ve ensured 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 events and connect with suppliers who share our focus on smarter sustainable solutions from lead capture to coffee. (Speaking of which , do take a look at ‘The Barista’ and ‘Request Shed’ as two such examples of smarter, sustainable (and superb) events services.

We strive to find dedicated partners that share our values as well as commitment ot service, sustainability and the overall success of client's events

We’ve no doubt that as we restart events, making them more ethical, responsible and sustainable with become a central part in the future of our industry. We also have no doubt that 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 stopping to think about sustainability in events and having conversations to make it a talking point for all involved in shaping the future of events. Just as the time and focus brought by covid has given rise to a more ethical consumer attitude, so too can time and focus create change in our 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.