Sustainable Practices in the Trade Show Industry: Carpet Usage and Beyond

October 18, 2023

Julie Kagy

With more than 10 years of dedicated service to the Exhibition Services and Contractors Association (ESCA), 12 years with GES and five years with Four Seasons Hotels, Julie Kagy deeply understands the challenges and opportunities facing our industry. As ESCA Director of Operations, Kagy focuses on enhancing the value proposition for ESCA's membership, growing the organization's presence and authority in the industry and streamlining operations to drive efficiency and financial success.

Sustainability is not just a trend within the trade show industry, it’s a foundational aspect of our operations. A task force of exhibition industry leaders recently released a report, revealing significant data encouraging us to adopt more environmentally conscious practices. 

Emerald Carpets, an Exhibition Services & Contractors Association (ESCA) member and industry partner, has contributed to this shift with its recent white paper on carpet usage. Initially adopted for economic reasons in the 1970s, reusing carpets has become a cornerstone of sustainability, making it the premier eco-friendly flooring option for trade shows. In this blog, we will explore carpet usage, sustainability pillars, global perspectives and future innovations in the industry. 

Understanding Carpet Distribution and Usage 

The conventional trade show floor is typically divided equally between aisle and booth carpets. However, with the industry gradually shifting toward more experiential spaces and corporate events, this 50/50 split is beginning to change. It’s essential for industry professionals to understand and adapt to these changes, as each carpet type plays a specific role and has a different life cycle.

The Four Pillars of Sustainability 

Our sustainability efforts are structured around four pillars: Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle and, as a last resort, Landfill.

  1. Reuse is paramount in our sustainability hierarchy, with trade show aisle carpets traditionally being reused four to five times and inline booth carpets up to 15 times or more.
  2. Repurposing involves using aisle carpets as booth carpets, extending their life cycle and reducing waste.
  3. Recycling carpets at the end of their usable life into innovative products is more energy-efficient than creating new materials.
  4. Landfill disposal is the least desirable option, reserved only for small, unusable scraps.

Ways To Effect Sustainability

  • Request used carpets instead of new to promote sustainability.
  • Minimize show site waste with efficient floor plan layouts.
  • Prepare carpets for installation before the show, including cutting, tagging, sorting and racking, to minimize waste.
  • Return carpets promptly after events for cleaning and reuse, preventing unnecessary insertion of new carpets.

Global Perspective 

Distinct models of carpet usage are observed in the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. model prioritizes the sustainability of multi-use carpets, which are used repeatedly to extend their lifespan. In contrast, European trade shows often utilize single-use carpets. While recyclable, these carpets have a limited lifespan and incur environmental costs due to transcontinental transportation, making them a less sustainable option overall compared to multi-use products.

Innovation and the Future 

Companies lead the industry by investing in technologies that extend product life cycles and enhance recyclability, setting benchmarks for sustainability. The development of 100% recyclable carpets and services that reduce transportation and material handling are promising innovations that will further minimize our industry’s carbon footprint.

Beyond Carpeting: Considering Alternatives and Their Roles 

Carpets offer more than aesthetic appeal; they play a crucial role in acoustics, comfort, ambiance and safety. Emerging trends include the use of sheet vinyl, printed carpets and printed vinyl — each offering unique marketing and design potentials but with limited repurposing and recycling options after their intended use. 

A Holistic Approach to Sustainability 

Our sustainability efforts extend beyond carpets – minimizing the impact of materials, eliminating single-use items and improving waste-handling infrastructure. We are continuously advancing our sustainability journey with initiatives like using high-recycled content padding, forming partnerships with transportation providers, encouraging close proximity accommodations and employing innovative booth construction techniques. 

Forging Ahead with Informed, Sustainable Practices 

In the ever-evolving landscape of trade shows in North America, the industry remains steadfast and committed to championing sustainable practices. With valuable insights and data from partners, we continue to innovate, minimizing environmental impact while delivering unmatched value to exhibitors and attendees alike. Through collaborative efforts and a shared commitment to sustainability, we aim to create trade shows that delight attendees while being conscientiously respectful of our Earth.

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