How Event Companies Championing Sustainability Are Winning

April 19, 2023

Executive buy-in is one of the key inputs a company needs to have before constructing and acting on a sustainability strategy. 33% of the success in beginning and maintaining a company’s sustainability program is directly attributed to executive leadership support and example. 

In this article, we’ll look at how Steelhead Productions uses executive buy-in, how it’s been critical to success, and tips for how to make a top-down approach work for your business. 

Successful sustainability programs begin with leadership.

Companies that gain executive buy-in before a sustainability strategy is established see greater success than those that don’t. Without executive buy-in, sustainability is often siloed from overall strategy, or employees don’t feel comfortable taking actions that might take them “away from their jobs.” Programs are often overlooked or are only acted on by individual team members when employees know executives don’t prioritize them.

Source: PwC US © Statista 2022

A PwC survey conducted in 2021 revealed that a lack of support from leadership has a notable impact on the success of a company’s sustainability program. Of all the factors that are considered barriers to ESG progress, leadership influence is the third largest metric at 33%. 

Steelhead Production’s CMO and co-owner Rhiannon Andersen shared that executive buy-in has been critical to the success of the organization’s sustainability efforts, “It’s influenced it significantly, mainly because sustainability is a core value within the organization and has been since 2010.“ 

As with many work-related initiatives or tone settings, how the leaders go, so goes the rest of the team. Companies with active sustainability programs have leaders practicing what they’re talking about, encouraging employees to act, and taking feedback on program improvements. Executive buy-in needs to be practiced as much as the team preaches it. 

Steelhead acts on executive engagement by reiterating sustainability as a core value within the company and constantly pushing employees to consider and integrate sustainability into their work. It connects directly to job descriptions and is often discussed at team meetings and company all-hands. Repetition is often the key to learning and understanding, and Steelhead executives use repetition and reiteration of values, including sustainability, to keep sustainability top of mind for employees.

Sustainability leadership in events.  

While Steelhead is leading sustainability efforts for American exhibit houses, their marketing event clients, too, have commendable Environmental, Social and Governance programs. When sustainability is a core value for a company, it makes sense to partner with vendors with aligned values to round out their ESG program. 

Here are a few examples of how Steelhead clients are paving the way with ESG leadership in trade shows and marketing events: 

Cox Automotive Booth at NADA 2023

1. Cox Enterprises has an entire arm of their business dedicated to sustainability called Cox Conserves. They have huge goals which include zero waste to landfill by 2024, and to be carbon and water neutral by 2034! On the individual brand level, Cox Automotive has their own annual ‘Leader in Sustainability Award’ given each year at NADA. For Cox Automotive, embracing sustainability versus shying away from it has positively impacted their earning “green” — in 2022, they exceeded their sales goal by 150% at NADA alone. 

Beyond Meat Booth at NRA Chicago 2022

2. Beyond Meat has won several sustainability awards over the past five years, including the prestigious Environment Champion of the Earth Award from the United Nations (2018). No doubt, as their food products grow in popularity (and revenue), the more they take on to ensure sustainable processes and packaging.

Paragon28 Booth at ACFAS Austin 2022

3. Paragon28 is an example of a company that prioritizes sustainability to the point that their choice of exhibit providers reflects their values: 

“We chose Steelhead for our trade show and exhibition needs for two unique reasons. The first being the Steelheaders themselves. From the top to the bottom of this organization, these are creative, caring, responsible people who will always do what they can to create your vision. The second, their responsible business model. I think it’s an antiquated model to purchase exhibit booths and expect it to fit everywhere you exhibit. I absolutely love doing business with this team and recommend them ten times over to you.”
Steelhead Warehouse 2020

4. Steelhead Productions. Yes, we need to shout ourselves out here because we’re one of the only B Corp certified exhibit houses in North America, and we hope that more of our industry friends join us! 

Steelhead is dedicated to business practices that improve and amplify our stakeholders’ social, economic, and environmental well-being. To keep our sustainability initiatives at the forefront of decision-making and visible to all Steelheaders, the Sustainability Committee was formed to develop and implement sustainability initiatives throughout the company and spearhead our B Corp certification efforts.

The benefits of executive teams leading sustainability initiatives. 

Andersen also notes that executive buy-in in sustainability is no different than executive leadership on other business strategies. Steelhead owners consider sustainability integral to their business and critical to driving revenue. While motivating employees to get sustainability activities done is an executive challenge sometimes, Andersen shared that Steelhead has been testing tactics and trying different ways to motivate employees around sustainability. Her team doesn’t shy away from finding ways to improve consistently and will change tactics if necessary.

Steelhead Productions Sustainability Comittee

Andersen also credits executive buy-in as part of their success in becoming B Corp certified. Because B Corp is such a significant commitment, in both time and resources, Andersen said that executive buy-in was necessary for all employees engaging with sustainability and for permission to make decisions to get the company closer to certification. Executive engagement on sustainability has also moved down the organization, so employees are now motivating each other to take the initiative to conserve resources, track sustainability metrics, and continuously consider the environment in activities.

How can companies without executive buy-in begin to think about sustainability? 

Start by examining existing research and data pointing to sustainability's benefits. Also, look at what your peers are doing. Think about sustainability and how you can bring it to the executive team to get excited about. If this is the case at your organization, ask employees what business benefits they see and start discussing them at executive meetings. 


Executive buy-in is a way to ramp up the effectiveness of your sustainability strategy. Top-down support leads to employee engagement and quicker adoption and can help companies move more quickly toward their goals. 

How do you incorporate sustainability measures into your trade show program? Need help figuring out where to begin? Contact us today to start the discussion. We’d love to give you a few tried and true tips to make your next event better for our planet!

April 19, 2023
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