The concept of ESG means striving to find a balance between economic results, transparency, social interests and the environment…how can Trade Shows achieve this?
Trade shows are back with a bang and the majority of us are delighted to be in-person again. Virtually attending a show was certainly better than the alternative of no show at all, but nothing beats the buzz, the personal connections, the networking opportunities and the excitement of travelling to a real live trade show.
But what about the less positive impacts these large events may have on the environment? Or on local communities? Now that big events are back we can’t ignore the problems of the past, especially in this era of heightened ESG awareness.
ESG awareness in the events sector
In a recent whitepaper on sustainability for the events sector it was revealed that 94% of event organizers and suppliers believe that sustainability will become a key component in their decision-making strategy over the next few years. Indeed, the Events Industry Council lists the following under their values: “Ethical, Transparent, Inclusive, Innovative, Responsible” – a good foundation for meeting ESG requirements. And their definition for event sustainability states “Sustainability for events means taking action towards preserving our natural environment; promoting a healthy, inclusive society; and supporting a thriving economy.” (Event Industry Council, 2022).
This all bodes well for the industry’s commitment to ESG. However, the findings also show that only 48% of the respondents (events planners, venues and suppliers) consider their organization sustainable, and more than half of them believe that the events industry isn’t doing enough to be sustainable or effectively prioritizing sustainability.
Events industry is big business
Trade shows are a key component of many industries, providing a platform for businesses to showcase their products and services, network with other industry professionals, and stay up-to-date on the latest trends and developments, and event planners are keen to provide high standards for these events. Shows can be very profitable. And the exhibition industry in the United States is booming – it brings in revenues of 13.2 billion dollars every year. There is no doubt, trade shows are big business.
But the concept of ESG means striving to find a balance between economic results, transparency, social interests and the environment.
How can that balance be achieved?
Finding that balance could begin by adding a virtual component to an in-person event. A hybrid show might be a good compromise and an effective way to decrease carbon emissions and waste, and it also may provide more ROI due to increased reach and scalability.
Adding a virtual dimension to an in-person event will boost inclusivity; some attendees might not be able to travel to the venue due to disabilities, lack of means of transportation, or finances. The virtual format removes these barriers and opens the doors to a bigger and global audience without adding to CO2 emissions.
Environmental – Energy Consumption
Research has shown the three main sources of carbon emissions of in-person events are related to plastic and other waste, food production and travel.
Steps such as using eco-friendly materials or a commitment to no plastic on location, for example, plastic-free lunch packaging and water in cardboard packaging are becoming more common. Implementing recycling and composting programs, and reducing energy (e.g. reducing lighting intensity by 50% during event move-in/move-out periods, powering off escalators on low-traffic days, converting lighting fixtures to energy-efficient LED lamps) and water consumption (e.g. utilizing low-flow toilets and using products certified by the EPA WaterSense program which use less water and save energy).
Plant based food options can reduce carbon emissions and waste by-products. Studies have reported the average in-person event wastes between 15%-20% of the food it produces, while a 3-day conference for 1,000 attendees not only can create up to 5,670kg of waste (out of which 4% ends up in landfills) but can also lead to 530 metric tons of CO2 emissions.
An event can maximize recycling of excess materials, including carpet, techno trash and cables. Use of cleaning products that are low in harmful chemicals can support healthier indoor air.
Many trade show organizers now use digital signage, apps, e-tickets and QR technology for information and business cards to reduce paper usage. Additionally, organizers are also working to reduce their carbon footprint by investing in renewable energy, reducing travel by partnering with hotels and restaurants within walking distance, and encouraging attendees to use public transportation.
Social – Local Communities
Another important aspect of trade shows and ESG is their impact on local communities. Many organizers are now taking steps to ensure that their events have a positive impact on the communities where they are held. This can include things like working with local vendors, suppliers, restaurants and hotels, offering work to local residents of the area , community outreach and education programs, and supporting local charities and non-profit organizations. For example, some trade show organizers have started partnering with local schools and educational institutions to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities and to help them develop skills and knowledge that will be useful in the future.
Trade shows can provide a learning opportunity by promoting products and services that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible. A show can be a platform for businesses to share information and best practices related to sustainability, which can help to spur innovation and encourage more companies to adopt sustainable practices.
Governance – Personal responsibility
But the responsibility doesn’t just lie with the event planners; it lies at our door too – the personal responsibility of the attendee.
We, the attendees, can make a difference. Air travel is the most polluting thing we commonly do and it is the most likely way we will attend an international trade show. Aviation is responsible for an estimated 4% of human-caused global warming so when we choose to fly, we should start to habitually choose the most eco-friendly airline and consider paying a contribution towards a ‘green seat’ (Climate Neutral Group ) to offset CO2. The highest CO2 emissions from aircraft are produced during take-off and landing, therefore we should choose direct flights when possible – transfers are best avoided. And on this subject – cities can organize to host these events together in groups of similarly themed shows so that attendees only need travel once. This year, for instance, Las Vegas is hosting the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s KBIS ( Kitchen & Bath Association’s Kitchen and Bath Industry Show® ), the NAHB International Builders’ Show, the National Hardware Show (NHS), the Las Vegas Market and The International Surface Event (TISE) : SURFACES | StonExpo | Tile Expo all at the same time at the end of this month – now that’s bang for your (ESG) buck!
We can stay as local as possible to the venue, in accommodation that has a sustainability certificate or a written ESG policy. For example, launched in 2009, Hilton uses their own inhouse award-winning system called called LightStay to report on ESG. In 2021, IHG Hotels & Resorts launched a programme to tackle ESG goals. Named “Journey to Tomorrow” the series of commitments aims to make a positive difference to people, communities, and planet over the next decade.
We can also choose to use public transport, walk to local restaurants, actively use recycling and composting stations.
We can engage in any available learning opportunities about sustainability and connect with other individuals and organizations that are working to promote sustainable practices.
In conclusion, trade shows have a significant impact on the environment, society and governance and have been taking serious steps to promote sustainability by reducing their environmental impact, supporting local communities, promoting sustainable products and services, and encouraging sustainable practices among attendees. As consumers and companies become more aware of the importance of sustainability, trade shows will continue to play a critical role in promoting sustainable practices and helping to drive change in the industries they serve.
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Author Anna O’Donovan