Sustainability was all the rage a few years ago, yet with the recession and its impact on the event industry, it appeared as if sustainability took a back seat to mere survival.

As it turns out, that’s not entirely true. There are events—and venues and service contractors—out there that have green initiatives well underway, and according to the first exclusive Green Show Survey from FOLIO: sister magazine EXPO, organizers in general may not be wildly enthusiastic about sustainability, but they’re getting the basics done for the time being.


Is Sustainability a Priority?

In charts 1 through 3, we asked organizers to indicate the level of concern attendees, exhibitors and organizers themselves have about pursuing sustainable initiatives at events. It appears that, for all three groups, it’s moderate.

However, a full 30 percent of show organizers indicated that sustainability is “very important,” a much larger segment than what they think attendees and exhibitors feel about the subject.

Interestingly, organizers say exhibitors are the group that perhaps needs the most convincing. This fact is not surprising given the amount of printed collateral that is commonly discarded at shows. IMEX Frankfurt reported 23 percent of the 167 tons of waste produced at its 2009 event was brochures left behind by exhibitors.


What’s Getting Done

All of this is not to say that show organizers are not pursuing any sustainable practices. Most are tackling the bigger, higher-impact initiatives. Fully 93 percent of respondents are making sure there’s recycling at their events. Almost three-quarters say they’re working on reducing waste, and printed materials and bags and inserts are close behind at 57 and 61 percent respectively. The top two responses require the organizer to work closely with venues and service contractors while bags and printed materials are solely the responsibility of the organizer.

Attendee education factored in fairly high in the list with 41 percent of respondents checking that option. Food and beverage receives the same attention, and then we drop off precipitously with transportation, lighting, carbon offsets, exhibit materials and carpeting. Transportation is a difficult one for show organizers to oversee. It’s often dependent on a city’s transportation system, and when you factor air travel, that can cancel out much of the progress made in other areas.

Show organizers don’t tend to value a fully certified LEED venue. However, the formality of certification may take a back seat to actual practice. Recycling (92 percent), energy efficient lighting (65 percent), and food donation (60 percent) all factor high on the list of important green venue practices.

Almost all (94 percent) of the respondents are spending anywhere from zero to $40,000 on sustainability. The majority, 59 percent, are at the lowest cost category—zero to $10,000. What’s surprising, given the theory that the more waste that’s recycled or diverted from landfills, the less tonnage is added to carting costs, is the scattershot ROI. Sixty-nine percent of respondents indicate they’re only recouping zero to 10 percent of what they spend on sustainability. However, this could also be a reflection of the volume of material that’s being diverted. For example, show organizers that are only able to divert a small amount of waste will see a corresponding return. A decent portion do a bit better at 10 to 20 percent ROI, while 7 percent report a greater-than 50 percent return.


Organizers are not as analytically-oriented as they should be. All of the sustainable practices offered by venues and contractors are already measured and can be easily accessed by the show organizer. Yet, two-thirds of respondents are hardly measuring their own efforts, according to chart 11. Not surprisingly then, audits and carbon measurement are not supported by the vast majority of respondents.