Friday, April 20, 2007
Eco-Friendly Exhibiting, Exhibitor Magazine, March 2007 Issue

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, the market for eco-friendly or so-called “Green” building materials is burning hotter than a fossil fuel in a Rust Belt factory, soaring from $800 million in 2000 to an estimated $20 billion in 2010. Helped by the price of environmentally-friendly materials melting like the polar ice caps and their availability growing faster than a protected redwood, Green building is now laying a foundation in the exhibit world.

“Consumer awareness of global warming is driving businesses to jump on the Green bus as fast as possible,” says Michael Shahriari, marketing director for Ecologic3, an Atlanta-based environmental consulting firm that advises clients on how to incorporate Green building practices into their businesses. “One of the quickest ways to do this,” Shahriari says, “is with their booths at trade shows, when they’re introducing products and inviting media scrutiny.”

After witnessing a 25-percent increase in inquiries from clients interested in “Greening” their exhibits in the last two years, Joseph Pestka, the national sales manager in the Anaheim, CA, office of Dallas-based Freeman Cos., agrees. “Companies have to show they’re sincere about the environment, literally right down to the molecules of their exhibit,” he says.

Being Green is invaluable for those who want their brands surfing the crest of the eco-friendly zeitgeist. “You exhibit Green because it shows you walk the walk,” says Crystal Clarke, sales manager for Of the Earth Inc., a Bend, OR, company that designs and sells clothes made out of organic materials such as hemp, silk, and cotton. Starting at the Outdoor Retailer Summer 2005 show in Salt Lake City, Of the Earth exhibited in a booth made almost entirely of the same materials as its clothing. “It separated us from all the eco-wanna-bes,” she says.

According to Tom Jennings, a designer at Atmosphere Studios LLC, the firm that produced Of the Earth’s exhibit, Green exhibits blend in best with exhibitors whose brands naturally connect with environmental issues. “Companies that make outdoor-recreation products, organic foods, and natural-fibers clothing find it easiest to link their brands to an ecologically-sensitive exhibit,” he says.

Going completely Green isn’t like ordering a copy of “An Inconvenient Truth” online; it’s not one click and you’re done. It’s a long-term investment in doing good by doing right. But taking a few steps toward greener pastures isn’t as difficult as Kermit the Frog might have you believe. The tips and ideas below will walk you through some of the largest, most ecologically-unfriendly parts of a typical exhibit, and arm you with a list of environmentally-friendly alternatives that could spur you to start turning Green faster than the Amazon rainforest.

Heavy Metal

The least Green part of any exhibit is, paradoxically, the wood used for general construction. That’s because the trees chopped down and sawed into lumber come from the world’s forests that are already 80 percent destroyed. The more trees we consume, the fewer we have to suck the carbon dioxide out of the air.

Getting around that problem was a shoe-in for Timberland Co. Long known for its do-gooder philanthropy, the Stratham, NH, footwear manufacturer began posting a “nutritional label” on its shoe boxes in 2006. The labels showed what eco-sensitive materials went into the manufacture of the product. Extending that concept to its booth at the Outdoor Performance Show in Salt Lake City last January, Timberland built a 50-by-60-foot booth that was as Green as Al Gore on Earth Day.

Designed by JGA Inc. of Southfield, MI, and created by Livonia, MI,-based Exhibit Works Inc., its basic building blocks were six 20-foot-long shipping containers salvaged from a junkyard in Detroit. Shipping the exhibit to the show in the crates, Timberland didn’t put them aside until after the show — because the containers were the exhibit. Timberland converted the containers into six showrooms, saving both the monetary and environmental cost of additional materials. Bracketing the exhibit were several 8-foot-high versions of the shoe boxes’ nutritional labels listing all of the “Earth Conscious Materials” it used.

Just as Timberland’s booth used recycled metals, Of the Earth’s exhibit featured rusted, hot-rolled steel. While metal may not seem like the most eco-friendly material, using recycled or salvaged metal is good ecological citizenship: According to the Energy Information Association in Washington, DC, recycling aluminum takes 95 percent less energy than to make the same amount from ore, while recycling steel takes 60 percent less energy than to make it from scratch.

Some exhibitors, however, avoid metal components since the weight of metal can add to shipping and drayage costs. But metal isn’t always heavier than traditional materials. In fact, St. Paul, MN,-based exhibit house Skyline Displays Inc. builds exhibiting systems partially made with recycled steel and aluminum, and coated with electrostatic powder paint, which requires no environmentally-hostile solvents for clean up. Scrap left over from construction is recycled, and the finished product generally weighs about 60 percent less than a traditional custom build of comparable size, which means it uses less energy in shipping.

What Wood You Use?

Another alternative to lumber is wood/plastic composite. Made from a 50/50 mix of recyclable plastic trash bags and soda bottles, and sawdust from furniture factories, composite lumber doesn’t need staining or sealing, and it never rots or splinters. When you factor in installation, maintenance, replacement, and disposal costs, recycled plastic lumber can cost less than wood. Be wary, though — not all composite woods are ecologically equal. Some claim their plastic content is 100-percent recycled, but not all have that pedigree. Check the Most Environmentally Preferable list of wood/plastic lumber recommended by the Healthy Building Network (HBN) at

If “plastic fantastic” composite wood goes against your grain, you could also use recycled (also called reclaimed) wood. It might make you Green, but it might not save you green: Recycled wood can cost 10 to 15 percent more up front than new wood, because by the time it has been de-nailed, transported, graded, and re-milled into finished lumber, much of it has been lost. That’s the bad news. The good news is that recycled wood is often higher quality than newer wood because it frequently hails from tight-grained, old-growth lumber.

Earth Tones

Organic-apparel company Of the Earth extended its brand image by working its Green philosophy into its booth. It used eco-safe materials such as Kirei Board, natural sisal floor coverings, reclaimed lumber, and soy-based inks to display its equally eco-friendly clothing lines.

Green Steel

Nearly 90 percent of Timberland’s booth was made of recycled or recyclable materials, including hemp, aluminum, and salvaged steel shipping containers. Besides creating unique conference rooms, Timberland also used the containers to ship and store its exhibit.

The Greenest woods come with the Forest Management Certificate (FMC) seal of approval. The FMC designation signifies products harvested from forests that comply with the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) Principles of Responsible Forest Management. Dozens of types of wood are produced in FSC-certified forests that grow and replenish quickly, such as tropical hardwoods.

FSC-certified tropical hardwoods defy the conventional picture of bland and boring eco-friendly materials. Catalox features spectacular purple-violet colors while Chechen ranges from golden amber to espresso brown. Granadillo, frequently used in fine furniture and musical instruments, is often streaked with reds like a desert sunset. One look at any of these woods and you’ll be pining for them.

On the Floor

While the wood alternatives listed above can also be used for flooring, there are other choices that will let you put your best foot forward where your customers put their feet down. At the 2007 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, Timberland’s exhibit featured Marmoleum, biodegradable flooring made from several renewable materials, including linseed oil and wood flour. Marmoleum has been around for more than a century, and comes in a medley of colors.

If Marmoleum is an old fogey of floors, then bamboo is almost primeval. Used for centuries in everything from martial-arts weaponry to substitutes for steel rods in construction, bamboo is quickly becoming a popular flooring material for Green exhibiting. And it grows faster than a weed: Bamboo grass needs just four to six years to mature, compared to the 50 to 100 years it takes most hardwood trees. Bamboo is also 27-percent harder than northern red oak, and naturally resistant to water and mildew — which means it lasts longer than conventional woods and won’t contribute as quickly to the 166 million tons of trash Americans produce each year.

Nearly as tough as bamboo is cork. Produced using the bark of the cork oak tree, which regenerates every three years, the cork used for flooring is assembled from leftovers that would otherwise be discarded during the manufacturing of stoppers for wine bottles. As if that’s not enough, cork floors are as good for you as they are for the Earth — they’re hypoallergenic and fire-resistant, and their natural elasticity makes exhibit floors feel like you’re stepping into a Dr. Scholl’s Massaging Gel Insole.

Magic Carpets

According to the Carpet Recycling Committee, carpets seethe with as many as 250 separate VOCs (volatile organic compounds), such as benzene, a carcinogen that can also cause anemia, as well as liver and kidney damage. Every year, we dump 1.8 million tons of carpet into landfills, where they’ll molder for up to 20,000 years.

So why not pull the contaminated rug out from under your exhibit? Of the Earth did with a sisal carpet made from a natural plant fiber native to Central America, which takes just three to five years to regrow. Ranging in color from meringue white to blond to rich brown, sisal can be cushiony soft. Other VOC-free natural rugs include those made from sea grass, jute, coir, and bamboo.

The next best thing to an all-natural rug is a recycled one. Freeman’s turnkey solution Green exhibits — which it calls Environmentally Friendly Exhibit Packages — use Dotcom II Carpet by Shaw Industries Inc. in Dalton, GA. Dotcom II’s carpet fiber contains 25 percent recycled content, and can be recycled back into carpet fiber over and over until it frays beyond a useful life.

Unique among carpet manufacturers, Shaw currently makes most of its carpets with EcoWorx, a material that replaces the noxious PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a chemical whose byproducts include dioxin, referred to by The Healthy Building Network as the most potent known carcinogen. Developed according to the principles of “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing, virtually every single thread of EcoWorx-based carpets can be recycled many times over with no waste products whatsoever.

Even if you don’t want organic or recycled rugs, you can still go Green. The key is a carpet’s inherent durability. Woven broadloom carpets last nearly twice as long as tufted carpets. While woven will cost you 20 to 25 percent more than tufted, it does not have a backing, which makes it easier to recycle.

Your choices for flooring, however, aren’t just between carpet or wood. You can hit the ground running with recycled leather floor tiles that look like genuine bonded leather. Another option is limestone composite tile, which is 85-percent natural limestone and contains post-industrial recycled-vinyl content. If stone’s not your style, rubber-tire tiles are manufactured from recycled tires, and are perfect for trade show floors where attendees’ feet work harder than the cast of Stomp. With their durability and anti-slip qualities, rubber-tire tiles can take more abuse than an American Idol contestant.

Above Board

Structural panels can also be as healthy as a wheatgrass shake. Of the Earth used Kirei Board in its exhibit, which is constructed from reclaimed agricultural fiber usually tossed away after harvesting the sorghum plant. Ribboned with orange-red-brown streaks, Kirei Board adds a stylish and earth-sensitive touch to your exhibit. It uses a water-based, formaldehyde-free adhesive, which means it doesn’t emit VOCs into the air.

For its turnkey exhibits, Freeman uses equally attractive Plyboo panels. While resembling an elegant maple or red oak, Plyboo panels are from the hyper-renewable bamboo. Is there anything bamboo can’t do?

Another substitute is Oriented Strand Board (OSB). OSB is a wood structural panel that’s cut to the size of standard plywood sheets and various thicknesses. What makes it Green is that the wood is chipped in relatively tiny amounts from small-diameter, fast-growing trees such as poplar and southern yellow pine, which leaves more of the tree for other purposes. Then the grain of the wood is oriented in a pattern that creates maximum strength in the panel, rendering it an excellent surrogate for traditional wood or even metal panels.

Hot Paints

If you like the smell of cyanide, you’ll love the scent of fresh paint. That’s because many paints also contain VOCs. Not only do VOCs in paint turn into a breathable gas at room temperature and contribute to global warming, but if attendees breathe in enough of them while they’re admiring your exhibit wall, they might stagger away wheezing with maladies from headaches to allergic reactions. Freeman’s turnkey exhibits use a non-VOC paint made by the BioShield Paint Co. in Santa Fe, NM. The paint’s formula is similar to that of pigments that have been around for thousands of years, which are based on milk, casein, and lime. Other non-VOC paints use natural minerals such as clay, chalk, and talcum. Even mainstream paint companies such as The Sherwin-Williams Co. and Behr Process Corp. offer non-VOC paint with prices comparable to their mainstream counterparts.

Light 'em if You Got 'em

When it comes to Green exhibiting, the lights are on, but there’s nobody home. That’s because many exhibitors overlook the potential energy and cost savings they can realize from alternatives to traditional lighting.

Introduced in the early 1980s, Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs) use about 25 to 30 percent of the energy used by incandescent bulbs and last four to 16 times longer. Estimates vary, but the joint Energy Star Program from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy states that you will save about $30 in energy costs or more per each CFL bulb’s lifetime. You’ll also prevent 450 pounds of power-plant emissions from belching into the air you breathe.

The most efficient light is the light-emitting diode (LED). Virtually 100 percent of the energy LEDs use turns into light, while incandescents convert just 5 percent into light, and traditional (non-CFL) fluorescents manage just 20 percent. The shielded LEDs break less often, and they last up to 10 years. While they cost more initially than the other forms of illumination, their operating costs can dim to as little as 3.5 percent of incandescents.

How to Go Green

How do you begin to actually apply these ideas to your exhibit? According to Andrew Birch, the principal of Minnetonka, MN, exhibit and event design firm Birch+Associates Inc., you should inform your exhibit house of your emerald-hued aspirations during the RFP process.

“Going Green isn’t just about materials,” Birch says. “It’s about the total balance of materials, labor, and processes. In a Green RFP, the client defines business goals that give the designer the freedom to propose a balance between Green and non-Green materials and processes. For example, they could balance non-Green aspects by focusing on reducing the weight or designing for longer use than usual.”

If you’re exhibiting with an existing property, you may not be able to replace structural elements, but can consider incremental changes to carpets or paints, Birch suggests. And if going completely Green isn’t an option, you should be able to go Greener by using any combination of the materials described above.

From hundreds of wood surrogates to flooring that will sweep visitors off their feet, Green exhibiting is as healthy as it is hip. “The really amazing thing about Green exhibiting,” Birch says, “is that it enhances your brand, improves the look of your exhibit — and in some cases, even lowers the cost.” That’s enough to make your competitors green with envy.