Inspired by the Plastic Impact Alliance, Patagonia took a hard internal look at its own trade show footprint to discover ways to improve its zero-waste efforts. Here's a recap of what they found, and what we can all learn from it.

Patagonia has used the same booth for trade shows for the last 15 years. You know the one: It's all corrugated metal, wood panels, natural cement floor, and messaging about sustainability. Patagonia is, of course, known as a sustainability leader within the outdoor industry, but representatives say they've by no means mastered the best practices for building a sustainable booth. They know they still have work left to do.

At Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, Patagonia became the first brand to take a thorough inventory of its waste at the trade show, from pallet shrink wrap to employee's individual consumption. The audit shines a light on what they—and what the entire industry—can work on to push toward a zero-waste trade show future.

"This audit opened up a lot of potential rabbit holes for us to dive into, which almost always happens when you start to dig into these topics and this kind of work," Patagonia Communications Manager Corey Simpson said. "We want to share what we've learned in case it is applicable for others. Our hope is that it leads to a more comprehensive guide for brands so that we can all reduce our trade show footprint."

The outdoor industry has a plastic problem

In a huge collective effort at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, the show organizers and many brands, namely Plastic Impact Alliance members, encouraged attendees to use reusable drinking vessels and urged exhibitors to offer them at events. Overall, the heightened awareness around plastic waste was considered a success.

"Sustainability messaging dominated the June 2019 show, particularly around the need for plastics and waste reduction," Patagonia wrote in its assessment. "But what is the industry actually doing about it, specifically at Outdoor Retailer?"

Patagonia's internal assessment highlighted some areas where they could be more attentive to reduce even more waste.

Trash at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2019

Six snapshots of trash on the final day (tear down) of Outdoor Retailer.

Assessors, including Sarah Swidler and Dawnielle Tellez, found that the most waste came from the booth design, set up, and tear down phases of the trade show. Plastic packaging, plastic film, and micro-trash were thrown in the trash and in some cases, left in dozens of haphazard piles on the floor for Colorado Convention Center staff to throw in the trash.

"The brands do have the voice and the ability as customers to demand more sustainable options," Patagonia Global Visual Design Sell-In Manager Swidler said.

Even though Outdoor Retailer did away with miles and miles of single-use aisle carpet at Summer Market, flooring remains one of the biggest waste streams at the show, as exhibitors elect to carpet their booths. For every square foot of carpet on the show floor, there's a square foot of plastic lining that's tossed. And after the show, the carpeting is typically only reused once or twice at most. Patagonia was an early adopter of the plain concrete floor (which has a nice industrial look to it) and has never had it as long as Outdoor Retailer has been around. It's a booth component that other exhibitors should consider nixing.

Patagonia also found that exhibitors and service providers rapidly, and often haphazardly broke down the booths following the show. Venue staff did the best they could, but they are tasked with quickly cleaning up for the next show. In the rush, back-of-house sorting and proper disposal of certain products were forgotten due to time constraints. 

Patagonia says we shouldn't forget the pack-in, pack-out mentality we use in the backcountry when we hit the trade show floor.

"The trade show industry itself is large, complex, and wasteful," Patagonia Environmental Analyst Tellez said. "Patagonia and the Plastic Impact Alliance can spearhead a theory of change to ensure meaningful, actionable impacts through collaboration–not just talk.”

Patagonia booth at Outdoor Retailer with shelves of books, corrugated metal

During nearly three decades of Outdoor Retailer, Patagonia has never had carpet in its booth.

Things we can do better next time

In an audit report shared exclusively with SNEWS, Patagonia outlined their plan for hitting the next show with a new level of awareness and action around minimizing waste, plastic and otherwise. 

"The Plastic Impact Alliance has built momentum in OR’s zero-waste movement," Patagonia wrote in its assessment. "Patagonia can capitalize on and help catalyze greater impact; share our ethos—the more you know, the less you need."

In the report, Patagonia broke down a few quick wins and talked with SNEWS about other next steps:

Easily-achievable goals for exhibitors to consider:

  • Pallet wrapping: Use either reusable pallet wrap (yes, it does exist) or recyclable clear pallet wrapping in clear. Colored or black shrink pallet wrap is not recyclable, so brands should avoid those types.
  • BYOC (cup): Proactively encourage staff to bring their own reusable bottles and drinking vessels, since we all have a collection at home. This push can also include messaging around reusable utensils.
  • Happy hours and events: Reject plastic in all forms in your booth, even compostable plastic. The Plastic Impact Alliance has put together resources for ordering reusable drinkware, which can be gifted or sold with profits going to a non-profit.
  • Carpeting and flooring: Follow in the footsteps of Outdoor Retailer and Patagonia and remove flooring from your booth. Let's embrace the industrial, cement floor.
  • Pack in/pack out mentality: Instruct all your staff and contractors of this goal, so that no one assumes that a pile of paper left on the floor will make its way to the recycle bin.
  • Skip the new booth: Let’s not build new booths just for the sake of “new.” When it is necessary to design new booths, consider upcycled or sustainable materials and modular designs that can change down the road.

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