GR Firm Showing The Green Way

November 27, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — A Grand Rapids company has established itself as a leader in the production and promotion of "green" products used in trade show exhibit systems.

Eco-Systems Sustainable Exhibits, which has an assembly facility and showroom located on Turner Avenue NW, was one of several industry sponsors of a major survey reported in the November issue of Exhibitor Magazine. The study by independent research firm The Bloom Group is titled “An Inconvenient Booth: The Economic Impact of the Green Movement on the Trade Show Industry, Trend Report No. 1.”

The executive summary of the study noted that in 2007, the "first eco-friendly exhibit system was introduced." Lee Knight, executive editor of Exhibitor Magazine, said that is a reference to Eco-Systems, which introduced its products in March at the Exhibitor 2007 trade show, sponsored by Exhibitor Magazine Group in Las Vegas. Eco-Systems portable-modular exhibit products are made from a variety of recycled and recyclable materials, plus "rapidly renewable" materials such as bamboo plywood and furniture board made from sorghum.

Knight said Eco-Systems was the only green exhibitor at Exhibitor 2007 — but there are already 32 companies signed up for the Exhibitor 2008 show that profess to be green.

Eco-Systems also won the top award at the Exhibitor 2007 show: the Buyers' Choice Award. Tim Morris, founder and CEO of Eco-Systems, said the Buyers' Choice Award "was a real honor. For the first time in 11 years, it was a unanimous decision by the seven judges. So we knew we were on to something at that point."

Morris was also recently named co-chair of a committee established by the Exhibit Designers and Producers Association to develop green standards for trade show exhibit design and construction.

In August, Eco-Systems won another first-place product award, The Best of the Best, at the TS2 show in Washington, D.C.

TS2 — a trade show for the trade show industry — is put on by the Trade Show Exhibitors Association.

Morris, who is also the founder and majority owner of Exhibit Design Consultants in Grand Rapids, said Eco-Systems is focused on "environmentally and socially responsible materials and practices." Eco-Systems products include just about everything used in trade show exhibits, including banners, screens, backdrops, mounting frames, shelves, cabinets, carpeting and lights.

Morris also emphasized the company's "social responsibility" stance. One way it reflects that is by hiring workers who have had trouble finding employment and are "unemployable" due to previous criminal convictions.

"Our commitment is to help these people re-enter the middle class," he said.

Six employees are at work now, assembling Eco-Systems products, but Morris said he expects that number to triple within the next year.

"Keep in mind that we just launched this in March," he said. "We went from having no distribution, to where today we have over 480 sales people among 30 distributors in the U.S. and Canada."

When he organized Eco-Systems, Morris planned to find independent distributors to sell his products throughout the U.S. and Canada. He noted that Exhibit Design Consultants, which he is no longer involved in, was not marketing its products nationally.

"We didn't know what to expect," he said. "What we had planned on taking a year and a half to do took six months. We have by far the best distributor network ever assembled by a manufacturer in this industry," he said.

Morris said the trade show and events industry has been identified as "the second-largest trash-producing industry in the country." For example, many companies and organizations that rent exhibit booths at trade shows also rent carpeting for the booths.

"The (trade show) industry puts a lot of carpet and PVC in landfills," said Morris. "We are able to recycle both of those hard-to-recycle items. We're pretty excited about that."

According to its Web site, Eco-Systems attempts to meet green-built LEED standards by using the following types of materials, in addition to aluminum extrusions (which are recyclable):

  • Bamboo plywood for booth cabinets, using adhesives that are emission free. Bamboo is a member of the grass family and is harvested every seven years.

  • Furniture board made from sorghum stalks. Sorghum is a common agricultural plant grown for its grain and as cattle fodder, and often the stalks are discarded as waste.

  • Stains and finishes that are water-based, low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) or VOC-free.

  • Exhibit booth flooring tiles made from recycled commercial vehicle tires. The tiles provide a cushion on hard concrete convention center floors.

  • Booth carpet tiles made from polymer fibers that are completely biodegradable.

  • Eco-Spun, a high-quality, Velcro compatible polyester fiber made from recycled soda bottles.

  • Metal Halide booth lights that are ultra energy efficient and Energy Star certified. These track fixtures use only one-seventh the energy used by most other lighting options

  • LED lights that are four times more efficient than a regular incandescent light bulb and last 10 times longer.

  • A variety of substrate materials for exhibit booths such as cork and recycled plastic.

Eco-Systems can also produce graphics for its customers, printing on materials that are made from recycled soda bottles. And portable exhibit displays can be disassembled to fit in a large shipping case made from recyclable plastics.

"Reincarnation" is another service Eco-Systems offers its customers.

"We will take a client's old exhibit and recycle all the materials, right down to the copper wire and light fixtures," said Morris, adding that the company’s distributors are not there "just to sell a new booth" but also, when the customer is willing, to "reclaim and properly administer retirement of the old exhibit."

Morris could not reveal how many trade show display packages the firm has sold so far, but said that "just about every six weeks we are doubling our sales."

Just as LEED construction costs more out-of-pocket than non-LEED construction projects, prices for ecologically correct exhibit display systems are generally higher than the conventional display systems. Knight wrote in the November issue of Exhibitor Magazine that the Inconvenient Booth survey revealed that suppliers said they would charge up to 26 percent more for green exhibiting options than the conventional materials.

That may not be true for Eco-Systems, however. Morris said the price difference between its products and traditional exhibit products is from "zero to 8 percent."

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