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April 16, 2008

SUSTAINABLE EVENTS:A growth industry?

Rather than a paragon of environmental friendliness, the events industry has traditionally been more of a hazard to the future of the planet. Yet despite this there is a growing trend towards making events more sustainable. So what’s driving this development and how realistic a goal is it?

“The evidence suggests that more and more event organisers are seeking to reduce the impact of their events on the environment and we are increasingly seeing companies who specialise in running sustainable events,” says The Exhibiting Show’s John Sanders.

However, he believes that the word ‘sustainable’ can be misleading. “It suggests running an event with zero impact on the environment,” he says. “The reality is that, to start with, it is about reducing and minimising the environmental impact of an event. We should also remember that the objectives of sustainability are three fold: environmental, social and economic. Sustainability is about balancing these factors, not just reducing the environmental impact.”


People power

Kerstin Shields, chief executive of live marketing agency Out of The Blue, which specialises in organising sustainable events, puts the reason for this growing green movement down to changing consumer attitudes. “Consumers are starting to think with their feet and question their brands, demanding responsible product delivery and sourcing,” she says. “This means that the environmental impact of everyday business activities are increasingly seen as risks that can affect consumer confidence and consequently financial return.”

Live events can provide the ultimate consumer touch-point for these issues, providing companies with an opportunity to not only communicate, but also to demonstrate first hand, their commitment to the environment. However, incorporating sustainability into events is no mean feat.

“Production solutions, the constant demand to produce and destroy quickly, budgetary restrictions, the need to source from overseas, not to mention some health and safety legislation, have all served to place pressures on the industry that often make sustainable solutions impractical,” says Shields.

What’s more, it’s not just one or two key elements of an event that need to be changed to engender sustainability, but a whole host of them.

“To genuinely produce sustainable events requires a complete rethink and re-evaluation of every element of event production,” explains Shields. “From the power supply to wood supply, paint toxicity to vegetable inks, cardboard instead of polyboard, local produce versus fair-trade, wooden cutlery instead of plastic, and china and glass instead of disposables. Then there’s recycling and transportation to think about – the list just goes on and on.”


Where to start

However, Sanders comes up with some practical suggestions to kick off the sustainability process. “We need to think about the structure of our events and the way we work,” he says. “The operations managers will be key to this change – how they work with contractors and venues and use their knowledge and expertise to reduce waste and emissions. How do we schedule construction? Can we help contractors reduce the miles they travel? Can venues offer them increased storage on site to cut down on unnecessary journeys?

“What you can do will very much depend on your particular event, but offsetting is something that should be considered,” he continues. “Work with suppliers to use re-usable or recyclable materials. Use paper bags not plastic ones. Encourage exhibitors not to give out huge amounts of literature, but collect leads instead, and use recyclable carpeting (the two biggest causes of waste in exhibitions are carpeting and exhibitor literature). Also you can encourage visitors to use public transport where possible, and provide recycling bins on site.”

Undoubtedly, in the short term, creating sustainable events is a more difficult and expensive option. But as demand grows, supply will respond and ultimately the price will drop. “If clients support us now,” says Shields. “The entire industry will develop and change, resulting in a sustainable industry that is responsibly producing events while protecting our environment.”

Look out for our case study on the ultimate sustainable event, Future London: Footprints of a Generation, later this month.

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