We’re sticklers for sustainability

With green issues looming large on the public agenda, consumers are demanding that companies show their ethical side – not least in the notoriously wasteful exhibitions sector. By Ian Whiteling

The last thing many companies want to worry about when planning their marketing strategy at an exhibition is how sustainable their presence will be. But corporate social responsibility (CSR) looks like it’s here to stay, particularly now that the Government is considering ‘green’ taxation. It’s also of growing concern to consumers.

Nick Adams, managing director of live marketing agency Sense, says: “In a recent sampling exercise for a major consumer brand, where we were collecting anecdotal feedback, green concerns came through strongly, even though they weren’t actually part of the official questions that were being discussed.”

This is bad news for exhibitors, as exhibitions have a reputation for being wasteful. Julian Pullen, joint managing director of live marketing agency Jack Morton Worldwide, says: “The first step is to ask organisers for their environmental policy, and for that of the venue.”

EC&O Venues, which runs Earl’s Court, Olympia and the Brewery in London, has a social, environmental and ethical report (SEER) on its website and intranet. Director of communications Jeremy Probert says: “Our pledge is to issue the SEER every year and display clear, visible progress.”

Practical steps
However, there is no use in companies making their exhibition presence as green as possible if their efforts are undermined by the event itself. Simon Burton, managing director of Exposure Event Creations – which organises the Exhibitor Show, aimed at helping companies exhibit more effectively – suggests exhibitors demand practical steps.

“There’s recyclable carpet and use of online communications to reduce waste paper, but that’s only scratching the surface,” he says. 

“Organisers and venues need to help exhibitors and visitors access certified carbon reduction schemes to reduce their emissions traveling to and from the show. Making badge recycling easier would help, along with more recycling bins for paper, plastic and aluminium on the show floor. My personal bugbear is plastic bags – there are plenty of sustainable and biodegradable alternatives, such those supplied by the Carrier Bag Shop.”

Then there’s what the exhibitor can do personally. “There are some very quick and easy wins,” says Nigel Scott, creative director at live marketing agency Out of the Blue communications. “Are your on-site computers and monitors turned off at the end of the night? Are your crew and on-site team drinking organic/fair trade products? Are your staff car-sharing or taking public transport? Is your on-site waste being recycled properly? Can the mains power to your venue be switched to a green tariff?”

As these concerns affect budget, creative flexibility and manpower requirements, they need to be thought through from the outset.

Companies will soon be able to prove their green event credentials through British Standards Institute certification. A draft of BS 8901, the British standard for sustainable event management, can be viewed at www.bsi-global.com/bs8901 and is due to be launched this summer.

With a sustainable strategy in place, an exhibitor can cultivate a caring, responsible image for their brand. But a subtle approach is more effective than shouting about it.

“As with any form of marketing, word of mouth is the most powerful tool you have,” says Liana Dinghile of brand consultancy Dragon Brands. “Subtly reassure people they are speaking to a responsible company on a space designed to minimise its impact on the environment. This can be via conversation, highlighting actions in your existing show marketing or through verbal/visual presentation of the benefits delivered.”

Integrated policy
Of course, CSR shouldn’t stop at a company’s exhibition stand. It should run through every facet of an organisation as part of an integrated policy. Once this is in place, each aspect of marketing, including exhibition presence, will come under scrutiny from a sustainability perspective in the same way as it would for brand fit, relevance to audience and budget. Companies could do far worse than follow experiential agency RPM’s example on this point.

“CSR runs through everything we do,” explains managing director Hugh Robertson. “We have just launched an initiative called Soul Food, which looks at how we can help our local community, from environmental concerns to mentoring in local schools. We also work with our clients to encourage them to prioritise green issues and make sure the work we do for them meets their CSR objectives.

“Those companies that don’t develop clear social and environmental policies and integrate them within their marketing strategies will be the dinosaurs of tomorrow. It’s no longer acceptable for companies to be wasteful, not simply from a moral standpoint, but also from a business perspective.”

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