Sustainable metal water bottle against a lake and mountain background

Sustainable Branding at Tradeshows & Events

June 9, 2023

Ah, tradeshows. After years of hiatus, this year has been FULL of solar and energy storage shows. I haven’t mapped it out, but I’m fairly certain that you could attend at least one solar or energy storage event, conference, or show every week this year.

There really isn’t anything that replaces meeting in person. Sadly, VR isn’t yet at the sci-fi stage, where we can engage with those around us in a lifelike manner without all being in the same location. Google’s Project Starline has gotten closer than other VR spaces, but it’s not there yet. So, we hop on a plane, train, car, bike, or hang glider and meet in person.

We all know the ecological footprint of shows is not small. The carbon footprint from travel, booth manufacture, show signage manufacture, manufacture and disposal of one-time use cups, cutlery, and food containers, energy use from event hosts, etc. is massive.

A 2021 Nature article noted, “… that the annual carbon footprint for the global event industry are of the same order of magnitude as the yearly GHG emissions of the entire United States (U.S.), responsible for more than 10% of global CO2 emissions.”

And yet, grouping meetings and interactions seems less impactful than flying all over the country or world and having those meetings one-on-one. I didn’t find data supporting this supposition, so take the statement as an opinion.

As an industry dedicated to decarbonizing energy and giving energy-users a more sustainable choice, how do we lessen our own impact around shows and events? For most companies, event and show impacts are considered Scope 3 emissions – indirect emissions not directly owned by the company. More organizations are quantifying and reporting on their efforts, as well as their supply chain’s efforts, to decarbonize their businesses. Yet being a company that is directly involved in solar and energy storage is no longer enough to be considered sustainable.

A key reason to exhibit at shows and conferences is to build and strengthen our brand. HOW we exhibit matters when building that brand. If your brand has sustainability as a core tenant – which I sincerely hope it does – this must roll through all actions the company takes, including choices made when exhibiting. Many articles on branding have noted that we humans have excellent b.s. detection skills. Saying one thing while doing another is a fast way to lose your audience and tarnish your brand reputation.

So, follow through. Be thoughtful in your show/conference choices. And don’t be afraid to let people know that you’ve made more sustainable choices. You might even inspire others to follow your example.

Event organizers can take steps to make their events more sustainable, from choosing venues with readily accessible public transit systems, to going plastic-free by providing water stations for refillable bottles and on-site compostable cutlery and dishware.

Image at RE+ 2022 in Anaheim, CAI think back to 2022’s RE+. What a show! It was wonderful to be back in person, and as much as I enjoy the lovely Anaheim convention center, it sure isn’t set up in a walkable neighborhood. Nor is public transit very accessible. I, along with quite a few others, had hotel reservations bumped to a hotel “down the road”, which meant a 10-minute car ride. All of those Uber rides did not help me feel better about my carbon footprint at the show.

And how many of you knew that there were water stations upstairs, away from the show floor, available to refill your water bottles? I stumbled on them on day two. Water stations on the show floor or in the main lobby would have been lovely.

As an exhibitor, how can you lessen your carbon footprint? By making more sustainable choices where you can. They add up.

Airplane shadow over a sandy beach


Travel is by far the largest contributor to an event carbon footprint. I honestly don’t know how I feel about purchasing carbon offsets to help mitigate that footprint. When possible, choose hotels close to the event for fewer car miles. Share rides or choose public transit when you can.


Sustainable booths can be tough. You can make choices in materials and fabrication that are more sustainable. Skip the plastic. Choose renewable materials such as fabric or wood, and recycled metal when available. Most importantly, try to re-use booth components. Larger booths are often custom to the space and business goals each year. Consider what pieces can be reused with new graphics applied. Working with a good booth design company, they will be able to assist you in defining these core pieces. Be sure to include re-use and sustainable materials in your design specs. You can also look for booth design companies that offer an annual sustainability or ESG report, adding those results into your decision rubric.

Printed materials

Many exhibitors are opting to print fewer pieces of collateral, or not print any collateral at all for shows and events. The last few years, I have rarely chosen to bring home printed pieces of collateral, unless there was something uniquely awesome about the piece. Instead, I take a photo. Consider not printing collateral. Instead, have a display with the same information that anyone can snap a photo of. Include a QR code where they can download a PDF. Do not put these PDFs behind an opt-in form. Really. Don’t. Someone has gone to the effort of stopping by your booth and snapping the QR code. Don’t give them another hoop to jump through on their phones via poor wifi on the show floor.

Stack of printed brochuresSome shows, like CleanPower, are requiring sustainable printing for exhibitors. To achieve more sustainable results, work with a printer that will use 100% post-consumer recycled paper and vegetable-based inks. Recycled paper uses 70% less water and energy to produce than to create new paper from trees. Choosing post-consumer recycled content creates a demand cycle to allow more facilities to process more paper to recycle. Neenah Paper has multiple options with different finishes with 100% post-consumer content. Ask your printer if they use vegetable-based inks.


Giveaways – the joy and bane of marketers everywhere. Good promotional giveaways are memorable, branded, actually used, compact, and don’t end up in a landfill directly after the show.

Clothing is often the go-to choice for promotional giveaways, with shirts and hats being the most common. Shirts and hats have a good life beyond the show. And occasionally become collector’s items for us old timers in the clean energy industry.

When choosing a clothing vendor, make more sustainable choices with less plastic. Plenty of vendors these days offer shirts with recycled content and/or 100% organic materials. And yes, balancing that with cost can be a tightrope walk, but consider how many items you truly need. I am sure you have also experienced exhibitors practically throwing giveaways at you near the end of a show because they don’t want to pack them back to the office.

A side note on clothing promotional items: Exhibitors – remember women’s sizes. I love a big, comfy oversize shirt as much as the next person, but it’s not my first choice.

When looking at branded promotional giveaways think:


what will easily fit in a suitcase? Otherwise, it will get left in a hotel room and thrown away by hotel staff.


Is it useful either at the show or has a useful life back in the “real” world?

Sustainable materials

Is it plastic-free? Are the materials it is made from easily recyclable or recycled?

Here are a few options when thinking about sustainable giveaways


While food and drink giveaways don’t leave the show floor, they can be a good way to draw people into your booth for a conversation. Of course, we all know about beer-thirty booth events. Consider other options too.

Mints in a metal tin

Branded mints in a metal tin. The tins are easily recyclable, are without plastic, and are infinitely useable. A quick Google search will give you many options for size, shape, and price points.

Breakfast or lunch foods

How often do you hear from someone they have spent all day running around the show or in meetings and didn’t have time for lunch? Or came straight to the show after a late night without breakfast? Think about being their hero with breakfast or lunch options. How about a smoothie bar in customizable, compostable cups?

Healthy snacks

Granola bars, trail mix, nuts, dried fruit, etc. Individual packs that are easy to grab and carry are often a hit. Custom, branded, plastic-free wrappers are tougher to find, especially if you don’t want to order thousands at a time. Consider working with a local vendor to produce snacks. Check out your local farmer’s market for options.

Other giveaways – all brandable

Note: I’m not endorsing any of the vendors linked to here. These are examples for reference.

Lip balm in a plastic-free tube. Lip balm is always a welcome find at a show. And a non-plastic tube is not only more sustainable but stands out from the crowd. Etsy has many vendors offering lip balm in paper tubes or metal tins. While many are marketed as wedding favors, they work well as show giveaways too.

Metal and wood bottle opener. This giveaway would go well with an afternoon beer-thirty event. It’s small, reusable, and doesn’t use plastic.

Reusable stainless steel straw set. You could have a lot of fun with puns using this giveaway. “For products that don’t suck!”

Notebook and pen pocket set. Always good for notes, this might be the kind of set you offer in a booth conference room or at the door of a seminar. If you don’t want to go as elaborate as a set, yet still want notebooks and pens, choose recycled paper notebooks/notepads and sustainable pens using bamboo, metal, cardboard, etc.

Skip the branded plastic water bottles, plastic tchotchkes – such as mini frisbees, bouncy balls, stress balls – that end up in a landfill, single use items, or outdated electronics such as thumb drives.

Be creative. For every promotional giveaway out there, you can find a more sustainable option. Don’t wait until the last minute when you’ll be scrambling to find items with a quick turnaround. Give yourself plenty of time to order. Order in bulk early in the year for shows throughout the year. Choosing the more sustainable path may require more planning, but it is a journey well worth taking for the end result. Your brand reputation will thank you for the thoughtfulness.