Rethinking onsite event communications with sustainability in mind

Live events are unique opportunities to create immersive experiences for audiences. They’re a chance to inspire, excite, and delight your attendees. Onsite at the event, that includes the design and branding of spaces, as well as wayfinding to help people navigate. 

As you design for maximum impact for your attendees, how can you ensure minimal impact on our planet? We’ll share a few ideas to get your mental wheels turning.

In this article, we’re focused on onsite communications of the event: signage, swag, and other collateral.

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For signage and collateral, consider your options for format

First, it’s important to consider the range of format options onsite. It can be a bit overwhelming, so we divided the options to consider into two high level categories—digital and physical.

Go digital where possible

We encourage you to consider digital as your top choice. Digital eliminates printing costs and waste, and is especially sustainable with LED displays, which use 90% less energy than CFLs. (There is, of course, the impact of the display hardware, but per-use impact is reduced considerably when displays are re-used for many years). 

Companies can partner with a venue like The Moscone Center—their building has a LEED platinum designation, is powered by solar, has a water reclamation system, a recycling program including composting, and uses LED lighting. Ask if your venue has any of these features, as well as  any energy management practices like turning off power in areas that aren’t in use. 

Digital also allows for content to be more dynamic. You can easily feature different content between sessions or days. Many companies have moved communications like maps and brochures into an event app, as attendees often find this easier to use. 

Going digital opens fun possibilities for animated creative too. For example, at a client’s annual tech event, we collaborated with its in-house design team on a vibrant abstract animation that was then projected onto a reception wall in a stunning venue. The effect was immersive. Get experimental! Try cool stuff like projection mapping.

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For physical signage, reuse or rent signs, and swap outdated materials for sustainable ones

In the not so distant past, materials like foam core, gatorboard, and vinyl were go-tos for branded signage. But these materials will outlive us all in the landfill, leaving future generations to clean up our events’ messes. These materials also often leach toxic substances into the environment. 

Instead, opt for recycled and recyclable materials when possible (paper, fabric, cardboard, some metals). Better yet, use biodegradable and compostable materials (like paper and wood as well as more unique materials like mycelium). Get a sustainability gold star for using renewable and low-impact materials that can be regrown more quickly (like bamboo, cork, cotton, linen, hemp). For printing, look for FSC-certified paper options and use soy-based inks. This article offers some great high-level suggestions. To go deeper on materiality, books like Cradle to Cradle and Green Graphic Design are classic resources, and you can find up to date info online.

Early on, define what gets produced in a physical form (with an environmental impact) vs. what can be done in the digital world with a lesser environmental impact (digital signage, websites and/or apps). For physical communications, try to ensure that the materials used are reused, recycled, biodegradable, and/or recyclable.

If you have common signs that are needed year-over-year, they may be able to be used again and again if they don't have content or theming that makes them out-of-date. Many facilities offer digital signage, or digital displays and their corresponding support hardware can be rented. Although they still use electricity, the total impact is lower than a printed graphic. 

You can go further and donate your signage materials. One of our biggest clients donated the wood from dismantled wooden stages after its event to local schools to be used as sets for theater productions. And more than 2,600 pounds of food, 2,000 t-shirts, 330 pillows, 405 pounds of office supplies and some 2,000 pounds of amenities were donated to an adult day-care facility and a local shelter.

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Swag your attendees actually want

Then of course there is swag. 

Any piece of collateral or swag should balance its environmental impact with audience desire. A refillable water bottle or cup may or may not be recyclable—but it can help eliminate the use of single-use plastics during the event (and after). Consider what your attendees will be excited to receive as gifts. In post-event surveys, it's not uncommon to have attendees complain about the waste of un-needed or un-wanted promotional items.

If you don’t know what they want, ask them. For Sans Serif’s 2022 retreat, Project Director Nicola Kim sent out a Slack poll to our staff about what swag they actually want. And wouldn’t you know it, many of us use our Sans Serif-branded Yeti coffee mug every day :) ). 

Then there are the materials of the swag. Go plastic free, or if you must use plastic, ensure it’s recycled and recyclable. At one event we worked on, our client gifted attendees backpacks made out of recycled water bottles, and “Positive Impact” t-shirts were made of sustainable materials as part of a partnership to support Tentree (an organization that plants 10 trees for every t-shirt sold).

Any piece of collateral or swag should balance its environmental impact with audience desire.

Communicating with attendees

Going greener can boost your brand. Don’t just walk the walk. Talk about it! Let your attendees know what actions you’re taking. Like we mentioned before, sustainability is on your team’s minds, especially your GenZ and Millenial staff. 

Your sustainability actions can be communicated to your attendees leading up to the event—on your website, emails, in the event app—as well as at the event itself. For example, one of our collaborative partners designed window signage using nontoxic paint instead of vinyl. They staggered the signage artist’s start time so that they were still painting the conference center windows when attendees arrived, with a sign indicating their decision. 

But we certainly caution you to take care—it’s a slippery slope to greenwashing. Greenwashing is “when businesses represent themselves as sustainable by providing false or misleading information about their practices,” according to this Forbes article. Focus on your internal actions before taking the marketing opportunity. 

I hope this article gives you some fresh ideas for your next event. Designing for sustainability in onsite events can feel limiting at times—but once embraced, creative constraints like these can yield even more wild and wonderful results.

Look out for our next article in the Greening Corporate Gatherings series, where we dig into the highly debated topic of in-person versus virtual.

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