How green is your exhibition?

I thought it was about time I wrote another blog post as I am ashamed to see the last time I got any inspiration was in January. Oh dear. I have been slightly distracted, including getting married! I pick up my digital quill with renewed enthusiasm..so here goes folks…

I recently attended The Event and Exhibition Show 2010 at the Business Design Centre. The visit was dual-purpose as I was attending an Exhibitors Briefing run by Incisive Media for the upcoming Online Information 2010.  I then had the opportunity to have a quick browse round the main show.

Mostly large exhibition shows like this fill me with dread and I generally leave feeling as if the life has been sucked out of me. You emerge from the often windowless exhibition hall into the blaring daylight, blinking, looking rather pale and dehydrated and in desperate need of a sit down and a cup of tea.

You have to adopt a strategy when walking round the exhibition: don’t look anyone in the eye, if anyone tries to engage you by saying hello just smile sweetly and keep on walking and most importantly don’t ever give your business card away unless you are genuinely interested in their service or product. They won’t leave you alone. Maybe  I am a pessimist and haven’t quite yet nailed how to reap the benefit from these shows without leaving feeling like I have been through 10 rounds with Mike Tyson, and there are probably lots of event planners/organisers out there that love going to these shows – I personally hate them. But they do have their benefits and you can pick up some very inspirational ideas for exhibition stand builds and see if there is anything new out there you should know about.

My colleagues and I are making concerted efforts at the moment to introduce environmentally friendly production practices, reducing the use of paper and using materials that are recycled/recyclable and biodegradable where possible. The reign of the vinyl sidewinder banner is well and truly over in our neck of the woods (whoop whoop!) and we welcome the new dawn of biodegradable/recyclable banners, sidewinders and graphics. The thought of all those vinyl sidewinders that have had to be binned (because we couldn’t find any way of recycling the damn things) still being around in the world for hundreds of years to come fills me with a growing sense of guilt, despite the fact that I wasn’t directly responsible for producing them.

But, we are all responsible. If things are to really change in this industry, we must all start accepting responsibility. So in that spirit I attended the show with slightly more enthusiasm than usual and the hope that we might learn a thing or two about environmentally friendly practices in exhibition design.

As my colleague Greg Clemett (JISC Design and Brand Manager) and I made our way round the exhibition on our little tree hugger trip, we asked many exhibition stand designers/contractors about the materials they use and sustainable practices they adopt and the answer we got left me feeling very disappointed.  It struck me just how backward and naive many of the exhibitors were with regards to sustainable environmentally friendly practices. Very few were truly pioneering recycled/recyclable/bio-degradable materials.

Sorry, a banner made of vinyl/plastic/nasty things that hangs around in the world for a long time but can be re-used, is not in my books ‘recyclable’…yes it’s re-usable..but once it is no longer needed or you want to update the look and feel of your banners/exhibition stand (as many companies do) – what happens to them then? They go to landfill..and sit there..doing nothing. The number of companies that tried to argue that because the banners/exhibition stands were re-usable they were kind of environmentally friendly, was laughable. Am I being stupid? (probably..) But that just doesn’t add up to me.

Often we got answers such as: ” ooh yes but the print just doesn’t look the same on cardboard”. No it doesn’t, but I couldn’t get my head round the fact that they were telling me that the quality of print on a graphic panel is far more important to them than our precious earth? They are willing to produce some chemical ridden plastic thing all in the name of aesthetics and print snobbery. Ah, but it is re-usable!

What time does the next ‘come and bang your head against a brick wall’ session start again?

There were a few suppliers dipping their toes in this area, but they weren’t shouting about it and one we had to prod to get them to reveal to us that they were actually waiting on the latest revolutionary prototype of biodegradable material to print graphic panels for pop-ups….!

On the train home, lost in my thoughts and confusion about the day, it struck me that these suppliers are just that – suppliers. They provide a service and their products are the result of demand. I then realised it comes back to the same old problem – the clients just aren’t demanding truly eco-friendly materials for their exhibition builds. The same goes for venues and event management agencies – the industry responds to demand, and the demand just isn’t there at the moment. Those pioneering sustainable events/exhibitions such as the people behind The Sustainable Events Summit are still unfortunately in a minority.

Greg did an amazing job of creating very beautiful pop-up banners, graphics and stand back-drop walls for the JISC Annual Conference made entirely from cardboard and everyone thought they were stunning. No they aren’t as durable as vinyl and metal but they are hell of a lot easier to recycle and they are biodegradable. I also think they look stunning. For us its a no-brainer. Oh – and they are re-usable!

(and yes that is a plasma screen suspended from a wall made from cardboard)

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