Let’s Talk About Sustainability

CDI World

When CDI World’s sustainability champion, Mathew Hance, attended one of Green Circle Solutions’ workshops led by its founder and director, David Humphreys, he came away keen to let industry partners know what needs to be done to take responsibility for their environmental impact.

After ten years as a civil engineer, David was lured into the bright lights of the exhibition world. Like most people in the industry, the tight deadlines and show-must-go-on attitude got under his skin, and he enjoyed more than twenty years working in events and exhibitions. It was with pleasure that we met up with David to talk more about his career, what led to this point, why sustainability is vital for organisations of all sizes, and – most importantly – what we can do about it.

Hi David, it is a pleasure to meet you. Can you tell us a bit about how you went from building bridges, to events and exhibitions, to driving sustainability practices?

While working in the events and exhibitions industry, I was always committed to sustainability and drove several initiatives, some of which are still in place. But like many people, while sustainability was my passion, the day job usually got in the way. During Covid, I undertook a course with the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA) and came out of Covid qualified and ready to turn my passion into a day job. I hadn’t intended to focus on the events and exhibitions industry, but my in-depth knowledge of it meant that it was a natural fit for me.

For people who may not have heard of the business, what does it do?

GCS offers sustainability advice and consultancy services to any business that wants to take a closer look at their practices. The process can involve as much or as little resource as people want to commit. For some, it is simply a box-ticking exercise but obviously the real impact comes from greater, longer-term commitment. When we consult with an organisation we align with their practices, analyse their processes and work closely with them to create best practice.

It’s not all about carbon, but our carbon analysis also tends to bring other business practices to the foreground. As part of the carbon report, we provide observations and recommendations that a business can build upon. This includes a designated sustainability team, which typically we will chair initially and the ongoing development and development of roadmaps to net zero.

What are some of the highlights of the last three years working with clients committed to sustainability?

For me the standout is Macro Art, a large format print company. I started working with them immediately after the pandemic, which meant that we were using baseline data from 2019. We undertook the analysis and recommendation process and formed a sustainability team. Three years later, they have fulfilled every goal. Four subsequent carbon calculations have been conducted as the business has grown back to pre-pandemic levels, and there is a demonstrable reduction in carbon footprint compared to the baseline figures. One of the greatest successes is that I am no longer leading or driving the sustainability team, as it is done from within.

For me the true marker of success is self-sufficiency from my clients; when they are driving initiatives themselves and have complete ownership, I know that they will be committed to best practices.

Do you think that sustainability is something that is an obligation now, rather than a choice? And have you seen a change in attitudes over the last 3 years?

Yes, in some ways. There hasn’t been a huge step change, but momentum is building. People looking for quick fixes will get found out; most of them will probably get through the next 12 months but that just isn’t enough. Getting your sustainable act together isn’t just the right thing to do, it can give you a competitive advantage. As a result more and more businesses are employing a designated sustainability source. This may not always be an option for smaller organisations, but they can start with services like GCS and build from there. Bigger organisations will have f/t sustainability champions.

Do you think that sustainability is becoming something that organisations can’t afford not to do?

Absolutely – turn on the news! But it has to come from the very top in setting briefs – the big organisations need to be held to account, appoint sustainability champions, and put sustainability on their agenda. Although it will be well overdue, there eventually will be legal requirements and highest-level corporate requirements that will force businesses to prioritise sustainability over cost.

When it comes to the cost, the main investments are time and resource. A business doesn’t need to invest huge amounts of capital to get going; a relatively small amount will allow them to identify the most unsustainable elements of operations and a few emails up and down the supply chain can ask questions about processes and highlight sustainable priorities.

It all comes down to communication. By asking clients what their priorities are, we can do our best to adhere to them as well as hold them accountable to them. Too often those sustainability goals go out of the window when it comes to exhibitions, but if we talk about them and acknowledge them, we can help people throughout the supply chain to adhere to them more.

We at CDI World have spoken to exhibitors and suppliers in Singapore and the US. In the States there are a range of innovative sustainability solutions emerging. Is this in the UK?

Currently, sustainability is probably still more of an afterthought in the UK. And I believe that , the only way to see it done properly is to mandate it. Calculating carbon doesn’t have to be a grind; it is possible to make it slick and easy. GCS’ carbon calculator allows a client or their exhibitor to input all relevant data such as crew numbers, travel details, logistics, materials, number of trucks, etc and they will get an immediate carbon report without having to deal with crunching the data themselves.  This tool will help businesses to effectively calculate their carbon footprint and see where they can make savings, without expecting a foreman to become a data analyst, or waiting for the information to pass through several sets of hands before a report can be produced.

This sounds amazing. Can it be used globally?

There are various emission factor databases globally but at GCS our data calculations are currently based on UK Government emission values. Our workshops will show people how to calculate theirs via spreadsheets, but our tools make it slick to gather and process data. Overseas, getting other national databases can be a challenge when it comes to determining accuracy and local specifics. While the UK one is one of the most robust globally, it is more appropriate to deep dive into local data where possible;
It is important that data quality is considered. I am aligned with an organisation called Net Zer0 Carbon Events which focuses on aligning carbon calculations with best practices.

Have you got any top tips that we can share with CDI World’s Exhibit Managers around the world?

Local – be as local as possible. It may take time to research and meet local contractors and suppliers, but a bit of time up front saves time and a significant amount of money in the long term, as well as dramatically reducing the carbon footprint.

My second tip is to reuse. A stand doesn’t have to be an expensive, aluminium framed panel – whatever it is, reuse it. That’s the heart of the problem: many exhibitors still expect big, bold and custom built, every time without considering the longer term.

And what about top tips for agencies?

Communicate. Our industry is trying its best to implement sustainable practices; organisations, agencies and supply chain are on the whole starting to consider their activities, but we are forgetting the people who dictate the brief: the exhibitors. If an exhibitor wants big, high tech, and shiny with lots of lights, audiovisual and carpet, the suppliers have to pull out the stops. By talking to our clients and discussing the balance between their sustainability goals and their vision for a stand, we can approach the possibility of making sustainable decisions. There are warehouses up and down the company full of stored exhibition stands. By asking clients about their intentions to reuse, and contractually tying them into them, we can see best practices start to become the norm.  

There is no harm in challenging your client; pushing back with alternatives or asking if they want you to consider their (and your) sustainability goals. With the tools coming in, like our calculation tools, agencies can very quickly create a sustainability plan. Just three or four extra questions can help to open people’s eyes, which can have an incredible difference in the choices of logistics and materials. With a good brief it is possible to find a high quality, local solutions instead of flying in cheap products (and teams) from elsewhere. You can cut your costs and emissions, without compromising on quality of service.

And finally – my favourite question. What is your favourite job or case study – and why?

Aside from the one I mentioned earlier, it has to be Singapore air show! It’s my favourite place to exhibit and work, great people, food and weather. Big brands that we worked with wanted consistency and quality, so we researched local suppliers and built good local solutions. Instead of bringing a team of 20 or 30 from the UK, we used local teams and flew in two project managers to oversee it. It took a bit more groundwork in the first instance, but was great for the local community, the environment and the budget.

What should we all do right now?

Talk! Ask! Look for solutions! The little things can make a big difference – a couple of emails can set the tone. We are scared to ask our suppliers. Talk to your suppliers and customers – talking will expose new information.

While it is great for organisations to take responsibility, this must become mandated. Big organisations may be quicker to do this than the government, but if it came from the organisers, the impact would be immediate and significant. Rather than adding a line about reducing waste as an afterthought, if those organising events mandated carbon emissions requiremnts and provided robust waste guidelines, exhibitors would be obliged to comply.

Thank you very much, David. We hope that people like you will encourage organisations and individuals to talk about sustainability, be honest about their current impact, and set achievable targets that will help them on the path to net zero. We will certainly watch eagerly to see the impact you have on the events and exhibitions world.

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