Sustainability Calculus at Trade Shows

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Ivy Chuang, Knoend.
Ivy Chuang, Knoend.
Last week, I gave you a taste of all that's new and exciting in the world of emerging furniture design, but this week, I'd like to get back to the real reason I'm here. I'm here to talk about green design.

So let's talk about trade shows. According to the EPA, the trade show industry is the second most wasteful industry in the United States; the only one worse is building construction. And the trade show industry is equally wasteful in other countries.

For starters, let's think about the carbon footprint of all the exhibitors who travel thousands of miles around the world to the destination of the show. The Salone Satellite exhibition that Knoend presented at in Milan, Italy from April 22-27, boasted 143 exhibitors from 39 countries. The sprawling Fiera Milano convention center has a total of 202,350 net square meters of exhibition space, all of which was entirely filled. In total, there were 2,723 exhibiting companies, 911 of them from abroad.

Then let's think about the visitors who travel to see the exhibition: 313,385 visitors altogether, 153,456 from 151 different countries, 43 of them in Europe, 27 in North and South America, 47 in Asia, 27 in Africa and seven in Oceania, with the majority coming from Russia, Germany and France.

OK, so now we only have 300,000+ people from all over the world gathered in empty halls looking at each other blankly. So we need to add to the equation their products and booths, which were also shipped from their perspective countries.

Starting to get the picture?

Let's just look at one example of one product - How much do you think this table weighs?

Credit: Gregory Buntain for Core77.
A few thousand pounds? Try almost 8,000.

Via Core77, it's a 12-meter long, 11-centimeter thick table made from a solid piece of Kauri Millenarian wood from a marsh in Northland New Zealand, and weighs in at 3.8 tons. Carbon 14 testing shows the age of the wood is 30,240 years old. Somehow it made sense to ship it from New Zealand to Italy and make it a showpiece. Design company RIVA claims that one of its principles is to "protect the environment throughout the entire productive cycle." They might need a few lessons on greenwashing.

So the exhibition goes up for a week, and then everything is shipped back. Does this sound like an environmental nightmare? Well, it is. And it's how almost every trade show operates.

So, if you are a designer, what can you do? The best thing you can do is to design lightweight installations. Knoend has participated in a number of trade shows in the past years and the one thing we've realized is that designing light is the most ecological thing to do. It also is the most economical thing to do, so it's a win-win.

In 2008, we exhibited at ICFF and shipped two crates from San Francisco to New York City and back weighing altogether 1,825 lbs.

Here's a video of the logistics company attempting to load one of our massive crates last year:

In 2009, we made a pledge to do more with less and decided to design everything to fit within baggage allowances. Now that's a design challenge if I've ever heard of one. We exhibited at imm Cologne in Germany in January, and Salone Satellite in Italy in April. Instead of shipping from San Francisco to Germany and then back to Italy and home again, our 250 lbs of luggage (including our clothes) went with us in the airplane that we had to go on anyway.

Here's a video of how we packed it in for Milan this year:

The Three Baskets of Knowledge.
The Three Baskets of Knowledge.
We're not the only ones who realize the adverse ecological effects of trade shows, David Trubridge also took the same approach with the lighting installation (left) that he presented at Superstudio Piu.

Though designing to fit within baggage allowances won't work for larger corporations and booths, simple and lightweight designs can still provide powerful results.

Here's a couple ideas for larger corporations:

Make your presence known with what you already have- Italian lighting company FLOS built the walls of their booth with their shipping pallets and boxes:

Pick a simple message and present one product – it drives undivided attention.

Artek's new slogan is One Chair is Enough. They presented Shigeru Ban's 10-unit system furniture.
Artek's new slogan is One Chair is Enough. They presented Shigeru Ban's 10-unit system furniture.
It's always a good challenge to design with the least amount of material for the maximum effect. Companies planning their trade show booths should get hip to the fact that ecodesign will affect ROI in many more ways other than sales.


Ivy Chuang is the founder and design director of Knoend, a San Francisco-based studio with sustainability and innovation at its core. She is a nomad, surfer, cook and occasional artist.
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