AAXO: The benefits of sustainable exhibitions in Africa | The Planner

Much attention is given to the economic significance of exhibitions, both in terms of being crucial contributors to economic growth and job creation around the world. The latest projections position this powerhouse industry to be worth more than R617 billion by 2026, which will make it one of the leading economic enablers globally. However, with World Earth Day fast approaching (on 22 April 2023), the African Association of Exhibition Organisers (AAXO) is taking this opportunity to also draw attention to the positive impact sustainable exhibitions can have.

A necessary evolution for African exhibitions

Devi Paulsen-Abbott, chairperson of AAXO, explains, “Although considerable efforts are already being developed by the industry such as the Net Zero Carbon Events initiative – a global programme that provides guidance to event organisers and suppliers to reduce the environmental impact of their events, providing a framework to track and offset emissions – the exhibitions industry in Africa is constantly evolving and should reflect and re-evaluate the current practices and policies in place, and consider how these can be improved.”

“[T]he exhibitions industry in Africa is constantly evolving and should reflect and re-evaluate the current practices and policies in place, and consider how these can be improved.”

Producing sustainable exhibitions carry several benefits for all stakeholders, from reducing the environmental impact of these events (which can include reducing carbon emissions, water and energy use, and waste output) to promoting a positive image for the organisers and sponsors and benefiting the local community in a tangible way.

Responsible and ethical business practices

AAXO member RX Africa has been focusing attention to the importance of sustainability at its event, World Travel Market (WTM) Africa, which is held annually in Cape Town. One aspect of how it does this is through its WTM Responsible Tourism Awards, which recognises and celebrates responsible tourism businesses while also sharing their stories as case studies to inspire others to take positive action.

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Carol Weaving, managing director at RX Africa, says, “Small changes in policies can make big changes to the environment. WTM Responsible Tourism is the largest programme of its kind in the world uniting travel companies, organisations and individuals interested in spreading sustainable practices and ethical methods within the travel industry.”

“Small changes in policies can make big changes to the environment.”

Other ways that organisers can increase their contribution to sustainability while ensuring economic viability include the following:

  1. Reduce energy consumption at events

Various energy-saving options are available to event organisers, from using energy efficient technology (think LED lights, which consume less energy than traditional lighting) to using venues with renewable energy sources (such as solar panels or wind turbines). Not only do these measures reduce energy consumption and therefore carbon emissions, they also can reduce your event’s energy bill.

Organisers can also encourage their attendees to behave more sustainably, for example, to source a venue with nearby accommodation so attendees can walk to the venue, or to car pool, use public transport or even provide shuttles for the event. These all reduce congestion on the roads and reduce air pollution.

  1. Cut down on waste

By following the philosophy of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, event organisers can limit the amount of waste heading to landfill. For example, you can reduce your waste by eliminating non-essential items such as swag bags and printed handouts, and instead offer electronic gift vouchers and brochures. There is also an opportunity to reuse items such as reusable banners, signage, and event equipment. Recycling can be encouraged by procuring items that are recyclable and providing adequate recycling bins for their disposal.

Organic waste, such as food waste, can also be ‘recycled’ by implementing a composting system. Diverting organic waste from landfill also helps to reduces greenhouse gas emissions and instead provide nutrient-rich compost.

AAXO Member Sonja Van Rooyen, Exhibition Manager at The Montgomery Group Specialised Exhibitions, suggests that stand builders should also investigate how they can provide eco-friendly options for exhibitors, and adds, “Most venues are starting to reduce energy consumption and water consumption, but we still need more accurate reporting on their waste management systems. Recycling must be promoted at events.”

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  1. Use water responsibly

According to Global Citizen, 1 in 3 Africans are impacted by water scarcity. This is driving the adoption of water saving measures at many event venues, such as the use of low-flow fixtures which can significantly reduce water consumption, and the use of recycled water for non-potable uses such as irrigation, flushing toilets, and cleaning.

Organisers can also encourage attendees to be mindful of their water usage by providing educational materials and signage.

  1. Social Sustainability

Another aspect of sustainability in the events industry is social sustainability. This refers to the impact of events on local communities, including their economic and social wellbeing. This impact can be very positive, for example when economic opportunities are created for the community, such as jobs or opportunities to provide goods and services. Another way event planners can promote social wellbeing is to prioritise the wellbeing of their employees and suppliers by paying fair wages and creating a safe and healthy working environment.

The Montgomery Group Specialised Exhibitions has also committed to uphold several of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including: No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-Being and Quality Education. This is achieved through various social sustainability initiatives, including the donation of shoes to underprivileged children in rural areas made from uncontaminated PVC drip bags, oxygen masks and associated tubing destined for landfill.

Devi concludes, “The industry should consider how their events can be used to educate the public about the importance of protecting the environment. By raising awareness of environmental issues, the industry can play an integral role in helping to create a more sustainable future across the sector.”

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Cover image by Noah Buscher on Unsplash