‘Don't be Blockbuster when everyone else is Netflix’: tackling sustainability in the experiential sector

After years of virtual events grabbing the spotlight, in-person experiences have been enjoying a post-pandemic boom. In the second of three features this week looking at issues around sustainability, how can agencies tackle the demand for more sustainable activations?

Published by: Campaign
Written by: Jennie Mossman
Date: 04/07/2023

The powerful connection offered up by the physical, in-person, live event was only underlined by its absence under lockdown. However, such experiences tend to be one-offs, short-term or pop-ups, and so by definition increasingly pitted against concerns within the industry around enviromental sustainability and carbon footprints.

The powerful connection offered up by the physical, in-person, live event was only underlined by its absence under lockdown. However, such experiences tend to be one-offs, short-term or pop-ups, and so by definition increasingly pitted against concerns within the industry around enviromental sustainability and carbon footprints.

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Can the experiential sector curb its more extravagant, potentially damaging approach to events and experiences, while also keeping hold of the wow factor?

Earlier this year at Campaign’s Brand Experience 360, figures from the sector came together to dive into all of the things impacting the industry, including how to take sustainability measures into consideration when planning and hosting their events, not least when it comes to budgeting and other external factors like supply chains.

This, of course, raised questions about how the industry is performing when it comes to meeting sustainability goals, especially post-pandemic where virtual events were having their time in the spotlight.

A business case for sustainability

One thing is certain following insights at Brand Experience 360, and that is that in-person experiences are back with a bang, with Tracy Sorgiovanni, managing director of We Are Collider, recently noting that the pop-up is having a renaissance.

Peter Aitken, head of customer strategy and insight at Kantar UK, says that although the “main pull of large-scale experiences is and always will be the immersive thrill factor”, people are still more likely to choose the sustainable option.

“Consumers’ expectations will differ by sector, they might be higher for example for a coffee brand than for a music one,” he says.

“Certainly brands need to factor sustainability into their experiential strategy – it might not be the driving factor guiding consumers’ choices, but there could be reputational consequences if they get it glaringly wrong.”

Just one out of the six experience agencies involved in Campaign's School Reports this year had signed up to the Advertising Association’s Ad Net Zero programme by the end of 2022. The action plan is an industry-wide initiative pushing companies to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions from their operations "and harness advertising’s power to promote more sustainable products and services".

Momentum Worldwide was the only experience shop signed up to the pledge, though all six agencies did say that they measure their CO2 emissions.

Although Smyle is not signed up to Ad Net Zero, it has set goals to be carbon neutral by 2025 and net zero by 2030, aligning with Ad Net Zero ambitions. The shop is also striving for B Corp status and switched to a renewable energy provider in 2019, which has saved approximately 30 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per annum from its home operations.

Amplify says it is undergoing a full carbon footprint audit, working with an external consultancy. It is also aiming to achieve net zero by 2050 “at the very latest”, aligned with the SME Climate Hub 1.5C pathway.

Agencies including Amplify, Smyle and Momentum Worldwide have credited Isla, the UK events industry sustainability organisation, and Trace, a carbon calculator designed to track the environmental impacts of events and experiential.

Trace and Isla research, which analysed 127 UK events between April 2022 and January 2023, found that average emissions per event in this sector are 2tCO2e (two tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) and average emissions per guest are 6kgCO2e.

According to Selina Donald, chief executive and founder of The Bulb, there has been a “tidal shift” following the pandemic when it comes to agencies considering their environmental impact creating experiences.

“The pandemic gave everyone time to slow down and re-evaluate what was material to them, morally but also commercially,” Donald says. “The moral case for sustainability has been in the public discourse for a while now, but the business case is becoming increasingly more appealing.”

She adds: “Agencies are starting to realise that developing a robust and authentic sustainability approach will help to firstly reduce their impact on the planet and benefit society, and secondly also future-proof their business.”

Donald says it has the ability to future-proof businesses because an authentic sustainability strategy requires a business to take a deep dive into the way it operates.

“Failing to put in place an authentic sustainability strategy – and by this I mean no greenwashing, showing measurable clear targets and progress against said targets – is a risk to the future success of your business. It's being a Blockbuster when the rest of the industry are Netflix.”

Donald suggests sustainability can impact three key areas of a business: retaining employees, getting ahead of compliance and brand reputation.

She adds that it is essential for agencies and brands to scale back on the unnecessary and invest more into the necessary in order to hit sustainability targets and overcome financial challenges.

Francesca Elliott, UK executive director at Momentum Worldwide, says: “Nothing beats human connection, and rather than do away with physical experiences, we need to find ways to produce them, so they have equal positive impact for both people and the planet.”

For example, Momentum Worldwide’s UK team was briefed by The Verizon Business to design a technology innovation centre called the London Hub, with considerations for social and environmental impact woven into it (see below).

The shop worked with London artist Tom Robinson to build the Nucleus Table in the main meeting room from electronic waste (discarded electronics such as computers and plugs). As a result, nearly half a tonne of e-waste (ie non-biodegradable) plastic was diverted from landfill.

According to research conducted by Trace, materials make up the highest proportion of event emissions at an average 43% of an activation and experiential footprint.

The sustainable route is sometimes the more expensive route

The added cost of sustainability measures is something that particularly impacts in-person experiences, with factors like powering up the event, sourcing environmentally friendly materials and ensuring that there is less waste.

According to Elliott, non-PVC vinyl is three times as expensive as traditional vinyl – although the most preferred approach is no vinyl at all.

“Rather than let it deter us, we look at how we could save money elsewhere,” Elliott says.

Elliott adds that the whole sector needs to “take the plunge and invest in low-impact, future-fit materials”, otherwise the cost will never decrease.

Some examples of cost-saving factors that Elliott puts forward include minimising raw materials, leveraging technology to minimise the cost of people movement, reusing existing assets in storage and negotiating longer-term deals with rental companies.

Supply and demand

Keith O’Loughlin, group chief executive of Smyle, agrees: “Supply chain is a huge challenge and is a hard one to crack as we work internationally. There is a considerable variation in the environmental and sustainability data suppliers give you, making reporting hard. Most of them understand the principles but not the figures, and things can get lost in translation.”

In order to tackle these challenges, O’Loughlin says Smyle has a three-fold approach. “Firstly we make sure clients specify, with our guidance, what data they are trying to capture and use to inform their sustainability strategy. Second, we make sure that our teams have the right tools and knowledge.

“Then thirdly, in the supply chain we make sure we keep asking the right questions. It won’t happen overnight, but by regularly asking and supporting suppliers they will start to meet a universal standard.”

Time is money

For O’Loughlin, another challenge for the sector and sustainability is time, referring to it as “one of the biggest costs”.

“Collecting information from the supply chain takes time and then turning it into a report with suggestions, particularly when the activation is abroad,” he explains.

Smyle has taken Meta to the World Economic Forum in Davos for the past seven years, and “sustainability is always at the heart of the activation”.

“We forecast that cost to be short-term as the industry starts to educate itself and acclimatise to a new normal,” he concludes.

Elliott also suggests that “this is a marathon, not a sprint” and that sustainability measures need to be baked into the creative process rather than bolted on.

“[Behave] as the conduit, and not as the gatekeeper,” she says. “There is a whole world of sustainable materials, approaches, learnings and principles out there being developed and trialled by a wealth of suppliers and vendors.”

“Bring these businesses in early and offer them a seat at the top table so they can work alongside us, and the client, from the outset.”

Rethink the creative process

Jennie Mossman, sustainability lead at Amplify, disagrees that the sustainable solution is always the more expensive route and argues that the focus should be on “value-led design and conscious consumption of resources”.

She adds that rethinking the process can lead to questioning whether certain goals can be achieved through different solutions.

For example, alternatives for merchandise giveaways, printed signage or bespoke builds. Where those resources are deemed necessary, Mossman asks whether these can be designed for disassembly and be reused.

Amplify worked with Sky to launch its first certified Carbon Neutral product Sky Glass (see below) through a tour showcasing the smart TV. The tour started in October 2021 and has travelled to 20 different locations to date. With the help of The Bulb, the shop worked towards five goals looking at production, food and beverage, energy, travel and waste.

By using this measurement approach, Amplify said it was able to reduce its event footprint by around 30% across the Sky Glass tour.

The units were designed for reuse over a long period of time and were designed to have minimal fixtures and fittings.

Amplify also worked with KB Trucking, a sustainable fleet of vehicles, who provided a fleet of Euro 6 engine approved vehicles. They were fuelled by Nesta Renewable Fuel, a non-palm-oil biofuel that is “100% renewable and 90% emission free”.

The shop also implemented this measurement approach as part of Westfield Good Festival (see below), with a brief to reimagine the Westfield experience with a greater priority on sustainable retail.

According to Mossman, agencies are now “understanding the importance of implementing purpose-led solutions, looking to design beyond surface-level greenwashing and instead help tell a story about a brighter future”.

There are a number of challenges when implementing sustainability measures for in-person experiences, such as added expense, time constraints and a limited supply chain.

However, as the industry pushes for more sustainable resources (along with the help of sustainability consultancies and a rewiring of the creative mindset), the easier the access will become.

Despite the challenges, let’s not forget or underestimate the shift in attitude that’s happening industry-wide. Agencies seem to be thinking twice about the footprint they’re leaving once these pop-ups have popped back down again.

To read the full article, visit Campaign.