Reducing the environmental impact of big trade fairs is no longer an option or an opportunity for communication – it is an urgent necessity: here’s what was done at Salone del Mobile 2022

We were used to fair stands like small cities, with breathtaking architecture and interactive experiences. But Salone del Mobile 2022 marked a turning point. Of course there were still some giant presentations. But many companies opted for less dramatic displays, pushing products but also environmental awareness. This can be chalked up to widespread concern regarding sustainability, but also to initiatives set in motion by the Salone itself.

Moving from the bottom

“To change things in a substantial way,” Salone president Maria Porro explained, “you have to have the support of the majority. So we took a ground-up approach, without imposing anything, but providing lots of tools to that companies could work in the most sustainable way, also based on what we learned during the Supersalone in 2021. We came to terms with the most important exhibitors and joined forces with them to set guidelines on materials, logistics, catering, lighting, fabrics. These guidelines were distributed to all the brands taking part in Salone 2022: they were not forced to follow them, but many did just that. We will now evaluate the experience, to see how to proceed in the future.”

A Sustainable Good House

The champion in this sense has been Lago, which together with Henoto (a company specialized in low-impact trade fair exhibits) designed a stand emblematically called Good House, to be used for multiple years and to prevent up to 87% of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere with respect to traditional booths for major events, thanks to a policy of zero waste and almost total reduction of the weight and volumes of materials. The keystone to achieve these results has been the use of a panel called CoverUp made by Henoto. This is an aluminium frame that is transported dismantled, to which to apply graphics printed on the fabric, which is also derived from recyclable materials. CoverUp guarantees reuse of the structures for at least 100 cycles, after which 100% of the materials can be recycled. The result, with respect to a traditional panel in wood, sandwich board or plastic, is quite surprising: 10kg of weight, 0.02 cubic meters of volume, as opposed to 40kg and 0.12 cubic meters. Obviously the product offers reduced impact in terms of transport and storage. “We applied the Life Cycle Assessment method,” says CEO Daniele Lago, “regarding the reduction of emissions throughout the life cycle of the stand. We relied on research launched in 2014 and developed in 2020 by Spinlife, a spin-off of the University of Padua led by Prof. Alessandro Manzardo.”

Recyclability or reuse?

“To design with Life Cycle Assessment in mind, covering the impact of all actions connected with production of a stand, from the concept to its disposal, is fundamental,” say Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi of Formafantasma. Their studio is very active on the environmental front, and creates important installations all over the world (including that of the Venice Art Biennale in 2022). “Everyone wants to create a stand with the lowest possible environmental impact, but often they make the mistake of concentrating only on the recyclability of the parts – which in any case has a high ecological price tag – rather than their reuse. The reason is simple: to reuse a stand or an installation you have to have a clear idea about its reinterpretation in the future. So it is necessary to design it in the most open way possible. Which is not simple.”

Long-term logics

Roberto Monti, CEO of Arper, another company that has moved towards a circular approach to production and always applies the tenets of Life Cycle Assessment at all levels, agrees with these viewpoints. Even in the case of a trade fair display. “To be serious about these themes, it is necessary to insert the logic of the circular economy in every decision you make. It is not simple, you proceed in small steps, thinking about the long term. In concrete terms, when we talk about trade fair booths we need to be clear not only about how we want to appear in an individual fair, but also about what will happen in the years to come and in different locations around the world,” he explains. “Inside a long-term logic that considers all the media and all the touchpoints of the brand, it is possible to develop a concept with creativity and materials suitable for reuse. It isn’t easy, and not everyone does it. We should remember that if we are concentrating on a one-off appearance, we should at least opt for recyclable materials: the impact is clearly much bigger with respect to materials for reuse, but to this is the minimum requirement.”

Costs of a stand

For the latest Salone del Mobile, Calvi Brambilla (architects and design curators of Flos) have designed the stands of Zanotta, Pedrali, Desalto, Janus et Cie, Olivari, antoniolupi and Quadro. “We have observed that on average 40% of the cost of a stand is that of rented materials, 30% of recyclable materials like wood, 20% labor and transport, and 10% for materials that cannot be recovered. The latter are above all surface finishes and graphics, which are hard to do without.”

The Rental Way

Renting is another interesting strategy to reduce environmental impact in trade fair stands. Here the collaboration and commitment of the fair itself are fundamental, and they are strong in the case of the Salone. “The part of the set-up that is rented is typically composed of structures (beams,platforms, lofts, steps) and technologies (lighting fixtures, monitors, speakers, projectors),” the two designers explain. “These elements are usually stored in warehouses near the fair itself and can be used multiple times across the year, not just for the Salone. In the sustainability footprint we also have to consider wasted energy and transport costs, so it is good that the warehouses are close to the fair facilities. Some companies with ample economic resources have invested in very costly structures that are used every year, and obviously remain in storage for 11 months each year. Nevertheless, they are still quite sustainable.”

CO2 and Global warming

To reduce the environmental impact of fair stands is not a moot point, says Prof. Alessandro Manzardo, in charge of Spinlife, the spin-off of the University of Padua that has provided Lago with research and tools of control for the creation of The Good House. “If all the stands in the world were made with the Good House approach, we could avoid releasing 239,982 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Considering the fact that an average Italian family of four consumes about 3000 kWh of electrical energy per year, and that the impact associated with this consumption in terms of global warming is the equivalent of 1248 kg CO2, 239,982 tons of CO2 equals the annual consumption of 192,293 average Italian families.”

Are creativity and cost irreconcilable?

According to Calvi Brambilla, the path chosen by the Salone and indicated by Maria Porro is the correct one, though perhaps it is still too soft. “There is no other method except the imposition of strict regulations,” they say, “based on a list of permitted and forbidden materials. All the suppliers and sub-suppliers ought to demonstrate the source of the materials and the production methods. It is clear that creativity will be limited and costs will increase, but we have to be aware of the fact that this step has become necessary.”