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Then and Now: Eco-friendly Materials

In our Then and Now series, EM revisits old event marketing trends to find out where they’ve gone since we first reported on them. Are they old hats and has-beens? Or is that past up-and-comer a future best practice that’s now an industry standard? In this eco-installment, we re-examine green-friendly trade show booth materials, which we began covering in our earliest issues.

When it comes to building an eco-friendly trade-show booth, many event marketers are happy to look at the possibilities, but balk when they see the added costs. Yet despite its financial perception problems, the eco-friendly exhibit industry continues to evolve with ever more options and ideas for going green. This month, EM takes a look back at some of the materials that used to be the go-to for green exhibits, and then reveals what’s new on the sustainable horizon. Special thanks to eco-guru and event designer Karen Carney, owner of Hainesport, NJ-based agency Art of Area Design, for her expert recommendations.

What We Said Then:
In 2006, the sustainable booth design debate was getting hot. Was the halo worth the cost? How could a brand justify double costs for wheat board versus plywood? And who’s gonna approve these expenses? Many event designers advised replacing granite with soybean board to lower freight costs, but warned that wheat board would cost extra because of its more complex fabrication process. Recycled materials like carpet, plastics salvaged from milk bottles and sunflower stalk boards were termed “pretty but pricey,” as well as bamboo plywood panels and milk paint. The naysayers said green materials just weren’t in demand, so they weren’t being made in enough quantity to be cheap. They put the blame not just on the cost, but also on the old habits die hard camp.

The next year, EM took a look at one of the trailblazers of green events, Timberland and its booth at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market Expo. For that show, the brand built 98 percent of its booth out of earth conscious materials and 88 percent was recyclable after the fact. The main element was a series of three repurposed shipping containers, recycled and recyclable, which housed the booth’s product displays and meeting rooms. Accent furniture came from a Michigan artist who only works in recycled bicycle parts. Table bases were made from old plumbing fittings. The floors were made by Vibram, which makes Timberland’s soles, out of recyclable rubber. And many more sources and tweaks kept the booth eco-friendly, and according to the brand, didn’t run them any extra greenbacks.

Two years ago, EM looked at Autodesk, the makers of AutoCAD design software, and its company-wide green commitment. François Graton, manager-trade shows and material resources at the company, said that he and his team are able to concentrate on making the company’s events as environmentally sustainable as possible because that’s all his department does. “We are very careful of the choice of materials so we are using only non-toxic wood and reusing all the steel and recycling fabrics. We are even careful with shipment crating and packing to avoid a large number of trucks. Everything we build is reused and then at the end of its lifecycle is recycled,” he said. But he admitted that buying organic and environmentally friendly booth materials is usually more expensive. The plywood Graton’s team used wasn’t made with formaldehyde (an ingredient in regular plywood), but the cost was about $10 more than the regular stuff—per sheet. But Graton said being green isn’t all about cutting bigger checks from the marketing budget. It’s about strategically offsetting some costs with others. “There are ways of saving,” he told EM.

What We Know Now:
The recession delivered a blow to the green event movement and the momentum has yet to pick back up to its pre-2009 pace, but with budgets coming back, there does seem to be a renewed interest in sustainability.

Carney says that a huge, and potentially cost-saving, change has been in lighting. By switching to LEDs in light fixtures instead of incandescent bulbs, costs for electricity and cooling (traditional light bulbs are much hotter) can plummet, as can your energy consumption. The catch is, the initial buy is a big hit because LED bulbs are often double the cost of regular ones, though Carney says the price is creeping down.

Graphics can be a huge step toward making a booth greener, she says, and it is also the most commonly requested element from her clients. She always advocates avoiding vinyl PVC plastics for wall and sign graphics because it is not recyclable and the fabrication process is an eco nightmare. Instead, use sustainable options like paper (still not great, but better) and fabrics. Fabric is an especially attractive choice because it can easily be made from renewable sources like bamboo, it can be stretched over lightweight aluminum substrate to eliminate hard walls and is easily used as a projection surface for dynamic graphics. “Everyone’s going to fabric,” she says. “It’s lighter for shipping, the graphics are cheaper and it’s very modular and versatile in addition to being produced with primarily green elements.”

Cost is still a huge factor in deciding whether or not to go green, but it isn’t the only concern either these days. Brands realize that waste costs money, so reusable materials like modular wood floors instead of carpets that wear out quickly are a huge advantage. When it comes to non-fabric walls, wood is preferable to plastic laminate, Carney says, because the plastics are petroleum-based. “Always avoid plastics and other petroleum-based materials where you can, because they usually can’t be recycled,” she says. And with the rising costs of oil, they won’t be cheap for long either. “Getting away from these products is job number one.”

And while it’s not a material, per se, brands and trade-show exhibitors in the past decade have made great strides in measuring their effect on the environment through the use of carbon calculators, green consultancies and industry standards like BS 8901 and APEX/ASTM, which take every material and element used in the program into account and grade it on its level of sustainability (or lack thereof).

Going green may still be languishing in the economic doldrums right now, but as more cost-effective and smart options hit the market, we see it growing again, not just as a fad, but as a matter of course.  em

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