Transforming the UK Exhibition Industry: Applying the Four Rs of Sustainability

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Quadrant2Design Exhibition stand
Source: Quadrant2Design

In 2024 the move towards sustainability has never been quite as important as it is today. In an era increasingly defined by sustainability and environmental consciousness, industries worldwide are re-evaluating their practices and the UK events industry is no exception.

The events industry in the UK is extremely diverse, ranging from corporate conferences and music festivals to weddings, exhibitions and trade shows. These events have all historically generated huge amounts of waste and had an incredible carbon footprint; none more so than the exhibition sector.

Founded on a build-and-burn approach, in recent years the exhibition sector in the UK has made significant moves to increase sustainability and reduce its carbon footprint. While these efforts are a good start there is still more work to be done by fully applying the principles of the circular economy and the four Rs of sustainability.

The Circular Economy

The circular economy is founded on the notion of minimising waste by prolonging the lifecycle of products and raw materials. It is a direct contrast to the linear economy which follows a “take-make-dispose” strategy where raw materials are acquired, used for manufacture and then eventually disposed of through further material-heavy processing.

The circular economy focuses on sustainability, efficiency and reducing the environmental impact of industries. The application of the circular economy to the UK events industry is anchored in the crucial role of the 4 R’s of sustainability: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover.

Applying the Four R’s to the UK Events Industry

Here’s how the circular economy and the four R’s can be effectively applied to the industry:

1. Reduce

Reduce supply of single-use items: One of the most effective ways to reduce waste is to reduce the supply of single-use items like plastic cups, cutlery, and decorations. Event organizers should encourage both exhibitors and visitors to bring their own reusable products, or offer alternative biodegradable, recyclable or reusable items.

Digitalization: By embracing digital invitations, programs and ticketing systems organizers can help to reduce paper and plastic waste. Paper materials are wasteful and cumbersome, so reducing these in favour of digital materials not only saves resources but also offers increased convenience for visitors.

2. Reuse

Reusable props and decorations: Organizers should invest in durable, reusable and adaptable event props and decorations that can be used for multiple events. This reduces the need for constant production and disposal of single-use decorations.

Reusable literature: By using literature that is less time-sensitive, exhibitors will be able to reuse their printed materials long-term, across multiple events. Time-specific marketing messages should be kept digital, while printed literature focuses on company information that is unlikely to change for several years.

Reusable stands and furniture: In the exhibition sector, one of the biggest wastes of materials lies in the use of custom-built stands created from scratch and disposed of after each event.

Quadrant2Design is a UK exhibition stand contractor making strides in sustainability by focusing on reusability. The company’s exhibition stands are made of durable materials that last for years and can be reconfigured to any stand size and shape. Operations Director Ross Pike said “True sustainability lies in reusability rather than recyclability. Recycling materials is good, but it still requires more processing. Because our system is modular, it can be reused in almost any size and shape. Each time the stand is reused is another example of remanufacturing or recycling avoided.”

Quadrant2Design exhibition stand

Event furniture can also be hired from specialist companies, which means that furniture gets reused over multiple years, at multiple events by multiple exhibitors.

3. Recycle

Waste Sorting Stations: To become more eco-friendly the general public needs it to be made really easy for them! Event organizers should implement waste sorting stations and clear bin signage to encourage visitors to recycle. Making it easier for visitors to dispose of their waste correctly will make proper recycling much more likely.

Recyclable promotional materials: If literature and marketing materials are dated or based on a specific marketing campaign, organizers and exhibitors should opt for event signage, banners and promotional materials which are made from eco-friendly materials. Materials that can be properly recycled after each event is over.

4. Recover

Surplus food redistribution: Reducing food waste is a significant part of the circular economy. Event organizers may be able to collaborate with charitable organizations that collect surplus food from events and distribute it to those in need.

Energy recovery: Some waste materials can be converted into energy, reducing the environmental impact of disposal. Energy recovery will not only reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfill but also avoid the use of virgin fossil fuels.

Challenges and Benefits

Implementing the circular economy in the UK events industry poses some significant challenges including, but not limited to, initial investments in reusable items, educating attendees and exhibitors and complex logistical changes. Despite these challenges, the long-term benefits are substantial and include reducing environmental impact, significant cost savings and improving brand image.

Reducing Environmental Impact: Embracing the circular economy reduces waste generation and lowers the carbon footprint of events.

Cost Savings: Over time, reduced reliance on raw materials makes everything cheaper and, in the long term, leads to cost savings for event organizers, contractors, exhibitors and attendees.

Improved Brand Image: Demonstrating a commitment to sustainability can enhance the reputation of everyone involved in an event and increasingly attract environmentally-conscious attendees and sponsors.

Conclusion

The UK events industry plays a significant role in the country’s economy and culture but it also has the potential to be a driving force for sustainability.

As an industry that has historically been extremely unsustainable, the events industry has an opportunity to do a complete U-turn and become a prime example of positive change.

By adopting circular economy principles and prioritizing the four Rs, event organizers can reduce waste, lower their environmental impact and set an example for a more sustainable future.

Carl Garner-Watts
Carl Garner-Watts has over a decade of experience in business and marketing, spanning a variety of industries including trade shows, facilities management, finance, property investment and venue marketing. He currently provides expert freelance marketing services through his website WhatCarlSays.com.

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