How to participate in trade shows in a sustainable way

One Savings Bank at NACFB

At NACFB 2023, One Savings Bank displayed a completely sustainable exhibition stand.

This included:

  • Re-useable floor tiles
  • Countertops made from recycled materials named 'ecoboard'
  • PVC free, recyclable vinyl
  • Live foliage walls
  • Re-usable fabric panels, easily recycled
  • Recycled wooden baton
  • Logo boards made from recycled materials
  • Planters made of eco-board and filled with live foliage


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Sustainability is very much on the minds of people across the whole spectrum of society and rightly so. 

From the leaders of governments to school children, the future health and viability of our planet is a shared and urgent concern. 

Trade shows and consumer exhibitions are an important; some would argue, a vital element in developing trade both nationally and internationally. 

This article suggests ways that marketers can use trade shows sustainably and responsibly. 

303 million visitors worldwide attended an exhibition in 2018

UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry produced a report in 2019, highlighting how attendance to exhibitions is growing. 

The UFI stats came from interviews conducted with show organisers and show visitors in 135 different countries. 

In 2018, approximately 32,000 trade and consumer exhibitions (stats exclude conferences) took place worldwide.

The combined attendance number to all of those events totalled 303 million visitors. 

Anticipated audience demand will spur the launch of more exhibitions. 

So, in the short-term, a decline in the use of events both by exhibitors and visitors is not anticipated. 

Therefore, the objective for organisers and exhibitors who care about sustainability must be to benefit from this upsurge in attendance, in the least damaging way possible.  

Here are a dozen suggestions for exhibitors. 

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1. Make better use of custom-built stands and their components 

Reducing reliance on custom-built stands that use materials like wood and steel and get scrapped after one or two uses will make a massive difference to landfill usage. 

There will always be a need for custom designs, especially for large flagship stands, but exhibitors need to challenge stand designers regarding the use of sustainable materials. 

They also need to explore how some of the modular components of a custom stand could be re-used more efficiently and cost-effectively for other events. 


2. Increase the use of exhibition stands constructed with modular, re-usable components

Modular exhibition stands have gained in popularity with exhibitors because of their flexible design.

Modular stand components can be added to an exhibitor’s existing stand kit as required. 

Many modular systems use aluminium in their construction. 

This material provides a lightweight and robust frame that can be re-used by an exhibitor many times over and the lightweight of components lowers transport costs.


3. Use shell scheme or a cut-down version of your modular stand to test new events 

When it comes to testing a new exhibition, using a shell scheme stand or reduced size modular display is the way to go. 

Using a shell scheme reduces the financial risk or exposure from the event under test. 

A shell scheme or modular stand on a smaller space costs much less than taking a more significant site with a custom-designed display. 

Shell scheme offers a sustainability benefit that you might also wish to consider. 

All of the shell scheme components for shell stands booked via the show  organiser are delivered to the venue by one company. 

Depending on the size of the event, that may require one or more articulated lorries to deliver the kit.

Even so, the number of vehicles needed will be far fewer than those required where an event has stands built by many different contractors.

So using a shell scheme, supplied via the organiser, reduces carbon emissions from lorries. 

Shell scheme components are also reusable many times over and with maintenance will last for many years. 


4. Utilise re-usable or recyclable components 

Modular and shell scheme stands are both excellent display options because their framework components are reusable. 

You can also specify the use of recyclable carpet for flooring and cardboard for display counters, walling, and furniture.

Graphics can also be recycled, and many suppliers will advise you of the cost for this service (most graphics contain plastic).

Alternatively, you can print your graphics on non-plastic materials.

The cost for these prints will be higher because the materials are not yet as widely used as their plastic counterparts. 

With broader use and specifying, the cost for sustainable print materials will lower, and their use will be more widespread.  


5. Use digital screens to reduce print costs 

The use of digital screens by exhibitors has increased hugely. 

They offer an eye-catching display solution with the flexibility to changing what's appearing on the screen instantaneously if needed. 

Digital screens can help reduce the wastage associated with printed banners and posters. 

Yes, they need electricity to power them, but increasingly that power will come from renewable resources. 

Like shell scheme stands, hired screens get delivered in bulk to show venue. 

This consolidation of transport saves fuel emissions and indirectly, reduces traffic congestion on the routes into and out of venues. 


6. Don’t overcrowd your stand with excess exhibits

If you display machines when you exhibit, you can reduce vehicles on the road and fuel pollution by bringing only those machines that are necessary for a successful event. 

It’s tempting sometimes to bring the whole range, but only do this when it’s essential. 

Apart from saving on carbon emissions en-route, you will allow also cut emissions associated with the lifting and handling of your exhibits on-site. 


7. Use re-usable floor graphics and recyclable carpet 

The amount of single-use stand carpet sent to landfill has thankfully reduced massively in recent years due to suppliers introducing recyclable coverings instead. 

Always ask if the carpet you're offered is recyclable. 

If not, it's easy enough to source a recyclable carpet although as a one-stand, as opposed to a whole show, you may pay a premium.  

Alternatively, you could choose to use recyclable floor graphics as your stand flooring instead. 

These can be sourced from most stand contractors and graphics specialists, including ourselves here at Guardian Display. 


8. Don’t bring brochures – visitors don’t want them 

Visitors don’t want to lug brochures around a show; they much prefer digital information, so focus on capturing their email addresses instead. 

Then, follow-up with your stand guests quickly offering links to online brochures, downloadable guides and price lists. 



9. Giveaways: Offer promotional items that will be kept 

Cheap and tacky stand giveaways often don’t leave the event site.

Instead, they find their way quickly to the bin and from there to landfill. 

The whole point of a giveaway is to position your business positively in the minds of prospective clients. 

So, if you are going to use promotional products, pick those that are going to be valued and kept by your audience.                                              

And, wherever possible, ensure that promotional packaging is recyclable.   


10. Audit your sustainability

The goal of the audit is to identify any possible ways that you can reduce the impact on the environment made when your company exhibits.

Start with a baseline identifying where your company is now regarding sustainable exhibiting. 

As you work your way through different aspects of your events, keep a record of the changes made. 

These might include switching to environmentally conscious suppliers; switching some materials; investing in refurbishment of event supplies instead of buying new each time. 

There are lots of steps open to you. 

Where possible; measure the environmental savings made due to your changes. 

Those measures might include savings made on fuel and the resulting carbon emissions if you reduced the number of vehicles used for transportation; fewer air miles because you hired temp staff at international shows; the amount of PVC eliminated in signage because you swopped to a material like X-Board made from 100-per cent recyclable waste paper. 

Include the extras costs incurred or the savings made as a result of your policy changes. 

You could share your results with other exhibitors via LinkedIn and ask for their tips and advice too. 

Also, share your sustainability strategy with your clients: shareholders, local authorities and other businesses seeking to reduce their impact on the world’s resources.  



11. Use these sustainable exhibiting ideas 

Here’s a list of some things you could consider when it comes to sustainable exhibiting.

  1. Audit your sustainability and record the changes and savings that you make 
  2. If you use custom-built stand structures, seek ways to extend them beyond single-use 
  3. Switch to modular exhibition stands and displays that use aluminium frame components; these are lightweight, recyclable, and reconfigurable 
  4. If you use wood or MDF in your stand construction, switch to renewable replacements like formaldehyde-free plywood
  5. Use shell scheme stands to test new events 
  6. Utilise re-usable or recyclable components for graphics and carpeting 
  7. Consider using digital screens to reduce the printing of graphics, banners and posters
  8. Reduce the use of fuel for transport and handling by not overcrowding your stand with excess exhibits
  9. Ditch brochures and offer visitors digital solutions for information gathering instead
  10. If you do provide printed materials, use recycled paper 
  11. If you offer giveaways, choose non-plastic products with minimal packaging 
  12. Stand staff could wear Eco-fleece T-shirts or sweatshirts. Eco-fleece is manufactured using re-cycled plastic bottles
  13. If any of your exhibits, or parts of them are recyclable; highlight this fact to your visitors 
  14. Whenever possible, produce your signage without dates or the name of a venue. It can then be reused multiple times 
  15.  Ensure that signage and your stand components are dismantled and stored carefully. Doing so will prolong their effective lifetime


12. Work with suppliers who recognise the importance of sustainable practices

We try hard to be a sustainable event supplier. 

The structural components used in our modular display system are constructed from aluminium, a sustainable and recyclable material. 

Aluminium frames are also in our lightboxes and free-standing signage. 

The PVC banners that we print are recycled by a proven method. 

Fabrics and other display materials are collected and sent to a UK recycling depot. 

Deliveries to the recycling depot are triggered once an agreed weight of the material is reached.

This ensures that collections are not too regular, which would itself add to needless CO² output. 

The materials collected go through two-stages of shredding, after that, they are filtered through heat injectors, which melt the material to liquid form for moulding into useful products like ramps and traffic cones. Alternately the shredded material is used in the Equestrian industry.

Our sustainability audit prompted us to promote the use of recyclable floor coverings. 

The audit also made us think about finding ways to lower the amount of diesel fuel used when delivering stands and materials to venues.

One solution to this problem included introducing a restructured method of selling; we now focus on selling our products at fewer shows but increasing our coverage in each one. 

By cutting out single stand venues wherever possible, we can slash hundreds of gallons of diesel from our annual mileage. 

These and the many other smaller steps we are taking are part of our ongoing approach to sustainable exhibition and event support. 

To discuss how we might work together to help you exhibit both successfully
and sustainably, email [email protected] 

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