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After observing World Earth Day on 22 April 2023, the African Association of Exhibition Organisers (AAXO) sheds light on the importance of sustainability measures and policies for events across the African continent

Events have a significant economic impact on local, regional, and national economies. They are crucial contributors to economic growth and job creation across the globe. In fact, the global business events industry is expected to be worth more than R617 billion by the year 2026, ranking it as one of the leading economic enablers globally.

With more foreign investors and businesses acknowledging the opportunity in the African market, the events industry across the continent has experienced steady growth and been a significant contributor to the sector’s recovery post-pandemic. As the number of events climb, event organisers can—and do—play a pivotal role in reducing their carbon footprint and driving sustainability across their events.

“Although considerable efforts are already being developed by the industry such as the Net Zero Carbon Events initiative—a global programme that provides guidance to event organisers and suppliers to reduce the environmental impact of their events, providing a framework to track and offset emissions—the exhibitions industry in Africa is constantly evolving and should reflect and re-evaluate the current practices and policies in place, and consider how these can be improved,” says Devi Paulsen-Abbott, the Chairperson of AAXO.

The adoption of sustainable measures in the events industry has several benefits. Not only do they reduce the environmental impact of events, such as reducing carbon emissions, waste, and water usage, but sustainable events can help to promote a positive image for event organisers, demonstrating responsibility and commitment to environmental and social sustainability.

Education on the importance of sustainability across the full business tourism value chain is showcased by AAXO member, RX Africa, who recently hosted World Travel Market (WTM) Africa in Cape Town—an event that puts sustainable and ethical tourism at the heart of its programming and forms part of WTM Responsible Tourism.

Carol Weaving, Managing Director at RX Africa, says: “Small changes in policies can make big changes to the environment. WTM Responsible Tourism is the largest programme of its kind in the world uniting travel companies, organisations and individuals interested in spreading sustainable practices and ethical methods within the travel industry.”

By adopting simple measures that reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of events, organisers can increase their contribution to sustainability while ensuring economic viability.

These measures are:

Saving energy

There are a number of ways that events can implement energy-saving methods in their planning, such as the utilisation of LED lights, which consume less energy than traditional lighting (significantly reducing energy consumption and save costs); and using renewable energy sources such as solar panels, wind turbines, or other renewable energy sources to power activities (reducing energy consumption and helping to reduce carbon emissions).

By encouraging attendees to carpool, utilising public transport or providing shuttles, event organisers can reduce the number of cars on the road, which helps to conserve energy and reduce air pollution.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Event organisers can reduce waste by minimising the amount of single-use items. There is opportunity to reuse materials by incorporating items that can be used multiple times, such as reusable banners, signage, and event equipment. By providing recycling bins and properly disposing of waste, organisers can work with waste management companies to ensure that materials are properly sorted and recycled.

Events can compost organic waste, such as food scraps and compostable serving ware, instead of sending it to landfill which can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create nutrient-rich soil.

Saving water

With 1 in 3 Africans being impacted by water scarcity, measures have been put in place to mitigate the risks associated with various water crises across the continent. Ways in which event organisers can promote water saving at events, include the use of low-flow fixtures which can significantly reduce water consumption; use of recycled water for non-potable uses such as irrigation, flushing toilets, and cleaning; and encouraging responsible water usage by reminding attendees to be mindful of their water usage and providing educational materials and signage.

According to AAXO Member, Sonja Van Rooyen, Exhibition Manager at The Montgomery Group Specialised Exhibitions, stand builders should also look into providing eco-friendly options to exhibitors: “Most venues are starting to reduce energy consumption and water consumption, but we still need more accurate reporting on their waste management systems. Recycling must be promoted at events.”

Social sustainability

Another important aspect of sustainability in the events industry is social sustainability. This refers to the impact of events on local communities, including their economic and social well-being. Events can have a positive impact on local communities by generating economic opportunities and providing a platform for local vendors. Event planners should also prioritise the welfare of their employees and suppliers, ensuring fair wages and ethical working conditions.

Tying in with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, The Montgomery Group Specialised Exhibitions also directly contributes to goals such as No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-Being, and Quality Education throughout their various social sustainability initiatives, including the donation of shoes to underprivileged children in rural areas made from uncontaminated PVC drip bags, oxygen masks and associated tubing destined for landfill.

“The industry should consider how their events can be used to educate the public about the importance of protecting the environment. By raising awareness of environmental issues, the industry can play an integral role in helping to create a more sustainable future across the sector,” concludes Paulsen-Abbott. 

The African Association of Exhibition Organisers is a collaborative platform primarily representing exhibition organisers in Africa.