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Outdoor Retailer

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle your trade show booth.

The new Nikwax booth turns its back on tradition and sets a new standard for trade show sustainability.

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The (expertly cleaned and newly waterproofed) gauntlet has been thrown. This year, Nikwax is renouncing wasteful trade show culture with a sustainable—and completely recyclable—booth.

Originally, the waterproofing and gear care brand wanted new digs to help support messaging around its recycled bottle initiative (By 2020 all Nikwax bottles will be comprised of 100-percent recycled plastic). Given that plan, and the brand’s longstanding commitment to sustainability, it was a no-brainer to use low-impact materials for the booth.

“No one’s going to be perfect at a trade show,” says Nikwax Marketing Director Heidi Allen “There are some things you can’t get around, but we wanted to be the best we could be.”  

CAD drawing of Nikwax booth for Summer Outdoor Retailer 2019.
Nikwax’s new booth is made of Falconboard, which is made from recycled materials and can be recycled at the end of its useful life. 

Go big. Go small. 

After some research, Allen settled on Falconboard, a type of heavy-duty cardboard that can be cut into panels to lock together like a 3D puzzle. The material—which will make up the booth’s walls, furniture, and signage—is made from recycled and renewable, Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI) certified, materials, and produced without releasing harmful chemicals. It’s also reusable and 100 percent recyclable. Plus, the lighter weight of the material reduces the carbon cost from shipping. Nikwax plans to further reduce that cost by using a recyclable cardboard crate instead of wood.

Finally, the brand has switched to wood stickers over vinyl, which is toxic to manufacture, produces microplastic flakes as it ages, and doesn’t decompose. The wood, on the other hand, is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified and biodegradable.

Wooden Nikwax sticker has graphic of geometric mountains, tress, grass and sun. Center says \
Nikwax is working with Dust City Wood Stickers to improve the details of its trade show footprint – down to its stickers. Courtesy

Stickers might seem inconsequential, but Meg Hughes, Director of Sales and Marketing at Dust City Wood Stickers, argues otherwise. 

“No other plastic contains or releases as many dangerous chemicals [as vinyl],” she says. “When you consider that there will be thousands of vinyl stickers given away at just Outdoor Retailer alone, the environmental impact becomes hard to ignore.” 

Besides, a sticker is a physical manifestation of a brand’s take-home message. For Nikwax, Allen says, it’s important that message is one of sustainability.

Eschewing a culture of waste

Nikwax isn’t the first outdoor brand to include a significant percentage recycled or upcycled materials in a trade show booth, but it is one of the decidedly few.

“[In terms of sustainability] the exhibit industry is one of the worst,” says Tom Jennings, owner of booth design firm Atmosphere Studios. “If you claim to be eco at all, it’s really embarrassing.”

After 40 years in the booth-building business, Jennings has been behind the scenes of more than 50 Outdoor Retailer exhibits, including booths for Patagonia, prAna, KEEN, and Timberland. Those four brands, he says, came to him asking specifically for sustainable materials. The lionshare of the rest? 

“I’m pretty much always the one to mention our sustainable material offerings,” he says. “Brands think, ‘It’s an exhibit, it’s wasteful, this is the way it has to be.’ But it doesn’t.”

The outdoor industry is slowly coming around to that mindset. This year, Outdoor Retailer is performing a sustainability audit of the show, and has worked with its concessions partner to eliminate the sale of all plastic bottles for water, soda and juice. It’s also made the decision to forgo all 191,241 square feet of aisle carpeting. That move alone saves an estimated 1,200 gallons of diesel fuel and 12 metric tons of carbon emissions from round-trip shipping.

Leading by example

While OR Senior Marketing Director Jennifer Pelkey says the show isn’t involved in the booth construction process, she has noticed that trade show exhibits are a good platform for brands to lead by example.

“For every brand, booth material and construction is an internal conversation,” she says. “But the place people really get those ideas is at the show—they see what other brands are doing, and that’s what gets the conversation going.”

Nikwax plans to spark that conversation.

This isn’t the first time the brand has quietly raised the bar on sustainability. In 2017, Nikwax became the first company in the world to carbon-offset all business operations since its founding 40 years ago—a move that many bigger brands have been hesitant to replicate. Nikwax is working toward net-zero waste at its headquarters. It’s never used PFCs. It was an early adopter of the Plastic Impact Alliance. And now, it’s switched to recycled plastic in its bottles in an effort to both reduce resource consumption and to encourage plastic recycling by creating a bigger market for recycled material.

“We’re a company that was created to help people care for their gear and keep it out of landfills,” explains Allen. “Sustainability has always been part of who we are. This is just the next step.”