Greening the Convention

While conventions can be very lucrative for the hosting cities, when you stop to think about it, they are anything but beneficial for the environment. Just the amount of fuel required for thousands of people to fly or drive to their convention destination from all over the country—if not from all over the world—is staggering, along with the impact on greenhouse gases.

Fortunately, conventions are getting Greener and more sustainable; however, they still have a long way to go. While the good news is that Green and sustainable steps are being taken, the better news is that each and every one of us can do our part to move things along considerably.

If we think back to past tradeshows, typically when organizations such as manufacturers were going to exhibit at such a show, they would take the following steps:

  • Exhibitors would order hundreds of brochures and printed materials showcasing their products, many if not most of which were used for just a few days by attendees and then simply discarded.
  • Often exhibitors would promote their attendance and functions at the tradeshow by sending out scores of “snail mail” invitations in advance – a nice personal touch – but once again, it meant mountains of paper and ink were used to produce such materials.
  • Don’t forget the signs. At some of the shows, companies would make new signs and displays just about every year so that their booths looked new and fresh for regular attendees. Once again, most of these items were discarded after the show.
  • Some of the larger exhibitors would order food to be brought to the convention floor for a number of people every day of the show; what invariably would happen is that a considerable amount of this food would never get eaten and, once again, go to waste, ending up in trash containers.

So where have we seen improvements? First of all, many if not most of the paper products used at tradeshows are made from recycled paper. And much of this paper is itself recyclable, so this change has reduced waste.

Plus, more and more exhibitors as well as the companies that produce items for tradeshow exhibitors have gotten much more environmentally conscious than they were just a few years ago. Most of these companies are now using materials that have a reduced impact on the environment, whether it is the ink used to make the displays and banners, the paper, or materials for the booth itself.

Further Steps Exhibitors Can Take

So what more can exhibitors do to lessen their tradeshow environmental footprint?

First, communicate to staff that the organization is putting the environment high on its list when it comes to preparing for the tradeshow. This simple step can prove very powerful. When everyone involved is focused on Green and sustainability issues, it makes it easier to accomplish such goals.

Develop a litmus test for all materials used at the booth. Before any item is selected for the exhibit, ask if a Greener alternative is available. If not, then ask, “Do we really need this for our exhibit?”

Try to do everything electronically. Most all communication and invitations can be handled electronically, and most people now prefer this.

Make handouts downloadable. By using a barcode system, many handouts can be read by a mobile device and then viewed later; this eliminates paper.

Never use carpeting at an exhibit booth; invariably, the carpet ends up in a landfill a few days after the show. Many convention centers have a relatively attractive convention floor, and even if the floor is cement, cement is in vogue right now.

What Attendees Can Do

Now we are getting to the real “bread and butter” when it comes to making tradeshows more environmentally responsible. It’s actually all those thousands of attendees flying and driving from all over the country and world that have the greatest negative impact on the environment.

There are literally scores of things attendees can do to lessen their environmental load, and it all starts in the hotels they stay in. More tradeshows are held in Las Vegas than any other city in the United States, so the city serves as a perfect example to show what attendees can do to lessen their impact on the environment.

For instance:

  • Las Vegas is hot. Turn off or turn down the air conditioner when not using the room. Also, when not in the room, turn off the lights and the television. I’ve always wondered why hotels in the United States don’t use the same card system used in hotels all over the world. When entering the room, you put the door key card in a slot and the power comes on. When leaving the room, you remove the key card and the power goes off. Hopefully, U.S. hotels will soon adopt the same technology.
  • Reuse the hotel towels and linens for as long as possible. The practice in many hotels now is to change these every other day rather than every day. Reusing towels and linens for even longer than that helps the environment even more.
  • When eating out, choose plant-based foods, as they have less impact on the environment. Meat production often consumes huge amounts of natural resources, including water.
  • Dine at locally owned restaurants. In so doing, you are supporting the local economy—not the mega corporations that now own most of the Las Vegas Strip. And many of these local restaurants purchase food products locally, helping protect the environment by cutting down on transportation and packaging costs while also supporting local farmers and businesses.

And finally, just as I suggested with exhibitors, we should all develop our own Green litmus test. This is true whether at the convention, at home, or at work. Whatever we purchase, however we travel, whatever we do, we should look to see if our actions are environmentally responsible. And just as with my advice to the exhibitors, if something isn’t, ask yourself if there is a more sustainable alternative or if you really need it at all.


Stephen P. Ashkin is founder of the Green Cleaning Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about Green Cleaning and president of The Ashkin Group a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry.  He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning,” on the Board of the Green Sports Alliance, and has been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF).