Time to end build and burn

On Global Exhibition Day, Sam Rowe, CEO, of strategic events agency Ignition, discusses incorporating a sustainable mentality into your exhibition choices and practices:


‘Exhibitions are catalysts to sustainable futures’ is this year’s theme for Global Exhibitions Day (GED) on 5 June, and we couldn’t agree more. We have to think more seriously than ever about sustainability and our planet. In the words of Greenpeace: “There is no Planet B”!

We need to change our mentality towards the industry. It’s not good enough to be just putting sustainability high on your agenda, it needs to be at the top, and it goes further than environmental sustainability.

Running a sustainable business means taking the long-term health of your company seriously, but also making realistic decisions about the time and funds you have available. It’s fine to start small. 

Taking action

Begin by creating a sustainability-focused team to share responsibility and tasks, for example, bringing people in from different areas of the business. Data clearly shows employees care about purpose at work and prefer to work for and stay with a company that actively addresses its environmental and social impact.

Everybody knows that it can be daunting to begin your sustainability journey, but starting is the hardest part, and from there it’s only an upward journey. 

In light of this, I wanted to share some advice to answer the following questions:

How can you hold yourself and others within the industry accountable?

Companies need to be transparent and report on their environmental and social impact. By reporting on metrics such as carbon emissions, waste reduction, and resource usage we can not only guide decision making for partners, vendors or clients, but help companies identify room for improvement and set meaningful goals.

Change within the industry can only happen with a shift in mindset, it needs to be a movement from everyone. It’s important to share best practices, and encourage a change of behaviour in the bad practices. 

For example, procurement teams hold a lot of responsibility; if big corporations continually pick the ‘cheapest’ vendors for their exhibitions, rather than the companies who are selling sustainable offerings, then change is never going to happen. Corporations need to have stricter guidelines that vendors need to adhere to, if people won’t do it for the planet, they may well for their wallet!

Lastly, education and training is key. There’s tons of information out there, so there is no excuse to be misinformed. One of the most important things I believe companies need to educate themselves on is ‘greenwashing’. You need to be sure that those you’re working with are not just talking the talk, but that they are walking the walk as well.  

What can I do as an exhibitor?

Something we are very passionate about here at Ignition is ending the pervasive ‘build-and-burn’ culture that exists in our industry. 

Globally, around 32,000 exhibitions take place every year, with 4.5m exhibiting companies and more than 303m visitors, that is a huge impact on our planet, which doesn’t need to be negative.

We need to think intelligently about our designs, this means putting the thinking before the doing. By doing this, we can, in turn, be more creative about longevity and sustainability. 

By setting a long term exhibition strategy with sustainability at its core you can look at what your purposes are for exhibiting, what key learnings you may have from previous years in order to create a truly sustainable brief to discuss what is really required and demand more from your supply chain.

Once you have a strategy in place, you can start making actionable changes. The most obvious and impactful change would be to switch away from traditional design build that gets thrown away at the end of an event in favour of specifying modular multi-use stands. There are often prejudices against modular design within the exhibition industry, things we hear are: “It costs more to start with”, or “It’s ugly”, and we want companies to understand that this simply isn’t true. Modular can be incredibly creative and very beautiful.

Some benefits of modular design are: scalable to suit any size, flexible, kinder to the environment, designed to be unique to your brand, and incredibly good value over the longer term. So, there really is no excuse. If you’re a company which is regularly exhibiting, you will make significant savings, however, more importantly, it’s much more environmentally friendly. Compared to renting or creating a one-off solution for each show that ends up in landfill, you’re saving much more than just money… 

If you want to be a sustainable business, this means paying a fair price for longevity. 

Finally, what are the benefits of a sustainable exhibition strategy?

Investing in a sustainable exhibit strategy means you’re able to be transparent, you can measure and track your impact, improve and grow as time goes on. This allows you to reduce your carbon footprint, and genuinely make a difference. From a financial perspective, an investment in a bespoke modular exhibition makes commercial sense. Being sustainable doesn’t mean you have to hinder quality, branding or flexibility. In fact, opening yourself up for reusable and durable materials should only enhance the quality of your stands. 

Collaboration is key to improving our industry’s footprint. Let’s do it together!