By Ann Armbrecht, SHP Director

This is the second in our series documenting Herb Pharm’s Journey to a ‘Low Waste’ Expo West. Our first post is here. And the final post, “Sustainability at Trade Shows: An Oxymoron?” is here.

Last week I attended yet another climate protest, this one led by youth who spoke about how terrified they are to grow up in the world we as adults have left for them. One speech after another recounted the increasing climate crises, each describing another scene from the dystopian novels I read to my children of other worlds that, increasingly, sound like our own. That these worlds don’t look like the world outside my window is only because of the privilege of geography, which is inextricably tied with politics, economics, culture, and more, in a web of cause-and-effect that adds to my feelings of paralysis.

I spend most of my workdays creating educational content about building sustainable and regenerative networks in the botanical industry on the premise that education informs action. But we have plenty of information. And still not enough action.

This was my mood as I joined the third Herb Pharm planning meetings for Expo West. I listened to their decision-making process to document the tradeoffs and challenges of creating an environmentally friendly trade show booth. They had divided into three teams to research three specific topics: 1) Sustainability Improvements; 2) Structural Booth Updates and 3) Climate Impact Assessment. At this meeting each group presented what they had been working on to the whole group.

Sustainability at Trade Shows

Matt Palomares first asked the marketing staff to present some preliminary ideas for how to get across the message of what they are trying to accomplish with their booth. In particular they talked about the need to get out of their comfort zone to address the problems we are facing. They also shared ideas about engaging visitors in sharing stories and ideas about what they and their companies are doing to make a difference.

The Sustainability team continued on the theme of getting out of their comfort zone, both as individuals attending Expo and also as a company. At home, they said, most of them are pretty green but at Expo it was easy to let their guard down, ordering take-out food, which generates lots of waste, or drinking from a plastic water bottle or any of the numerous ways it’s easy to make poor environmental choices while staying at a huge conference center in southern California. Could they go paperless? If so, how could they manage sales in a way that didn’t make it too difficult for the sales team?

Someone suggested making a list of what staff might do to make their individual trade show presence greener, like a list of supplies for kids going to summer camp, one of them added. They were thinking about the multi-functionality of the items they did have in the booth, like tasting cups. Were there ways to re-use those for the seed planting station at the booth, say? Doing something like that could both solve the problem of finding seed cups and also serve to draw visitors deeper into the booth. Everyone agreed with all of their ideas. Matt, who was leading the meeting, asked them to look into the specifics of actually implementing some of them and moved on to the next group.

Assessing Climate Impacts

The booth design group shared two different design concepts and how each fulfilled their primary reason for being at Expo: reaching customers with information about Herb Pharm’s products and holding sales meetings. Another objective was to free staff up from the requirements of the booth to take even more advantage of the educational opportunities provided through the Climate Collaborative and New Hope. A simpler booth set up was key to that as well.

The climate group next shared details about the different kinds of impacts from previous years. They had itemized every item that had been shipped and used at the show: 186 individual  paper flowers, 40 flats of seedlings, 1520 pages of printed materials for sales, 2300 brochures, 98 signs, etc. Their list included the total weight and the number of pallets needed for shipping. And they calculated the number of staff hours required to set up, run, and take down the show, how many meals, rooms, flights, car trips to get staff there, feed and house them and get everyone home.

For each item on the list, they had summarized what they might and might not be able to do to reduce those impacts. They mentioned that it would be good to develop better systems for keeping track of all of these details to more easily assess their impact in the future.

Last, they talked about what they would give away. One person said we need to think about the life cycle of the items. Whether someone throws those things away is on them, another added. But it’s also on us. “We are responsible as well. We don’t just want that stuff ending up left behind in the hotel room.”

As they wrapped up, Matt gave each group tasks to follow up on. The booth group had a deadline of the end of the week to decide which of two approaches to take: a more conservative design or a more radical approach that, they hoped, would make a strong statement. They would meet again the following week.

How Change Happens

The meeting had taken an hour. As I hung up, I realized that this was the level at which change could happen. This is where individual actions—one person suggesting the idea of going paperless and others being willing to support the extra work of figuring out how to make it work—can make a difference. The conversation left me more hopeful than anything I’ve read lately. Not because it was so interesting or exciting. But because I saw a group of individuals thinking hard and thinking creatively about how to make small differences that had the potential to add up. Making these changes wasn’t convenient, it meant not doing things as they’d always done them. Yet everyone on the call seemed inspired by the challenge.

It wasn’t only that. I was also struck by how much time staff were investing in this process, time they could spend doing other things had they decided to take a more traditional route to their planning process. This meant that a decision had been made by senior staff that that investment was worthwhile. That seemed to be the key. Meaningful change required leaders willing to call for of change and staff ready to roll up their sleeves and figure out creative ways to implement those changes.

Listening to their engagement and ideas inspired me to think about how I can apply that process in my own work and community. Which also is their hope with their booth at Expo. That by sharing their process, they can inspire others to share their ideas so that everyone can do that much more. Climate marches are just the first step; important in raising awareness and building collaboration. What matters is how we follow up. This is up to each of us.