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How greener festivals can be a force for a greener future

Greener festivals for greener futures

Edinburgh's Hogmanay / credit: Chris Watt

Creative Carbon Scotland's Catriona Patterson explains how eco-conscious festivals can be powerful agents for environmental sustainability

Climate change isn't near, it's here. And as fun as it might be to throw the mother of all End of the World parties, we'd much rather keep the good times rolling. So it's time to get creative: fortunately, there's no shortage of innovative minds working to tackle this issue, and many of them see the cultural sector as a powerful conduit through which we can bring about positive environmental change. The good people over at Eventbrite have written an excellent primer on how to put on a festival with environmental sustainability in mind, which inspired us to have a chat with our friends over at Creative Carbon Scotland.

Creative Carbon Scotland is one such organisation that works with cultural and creative groups to help shape policy and behaviour in order to bring about a truly sustainable Scotland. And as it is the Festival City, Catriona Patterson singles out Edinburgh's world-famous large-scale celebrations as a powerful force for environmental sustainability.

As Creative Carbon Scotland's Green Arts Manager, part of Patterson's remit is to support urban-based festivals in adopting sustainable practices. Compared to industries such as construction, infrastructure or healthcare, a festival's environmental impact is relatively low; however, in her extensive experience, greening festivals can have a profound knock-on effect that endures long after the spotlights are packed away.

Take venues, for example. 'With urban based-festivals, venues can take all different forms, from permanent venues to temporary venues like tents or underground caves,' says Patterson. 'Each of those different spaces have different conditions that need to be met to be successful for the organisation, as well as different approaches to sustainability.' Moreover, she points out, it can be difficult to persuade venues to adopt changes if a festival will only be using the space for a limited period of time.

Greener festivals for greener futures

Catriona Patterson

Despite these growing pains, the changes that are made to a space during a festival to make it more environmentally friendly are usually then adopted by the venue throughout the rest of the year. 'With every new festival that you work with, you end up building a bigger community of suppliers, venues and organisations committed to environmental sustainability,' Patterson says. 'So there's this big opportunity to try something out in a festival context that can become a permanent sustainability initiative'.

But where to begin? The first step for festivals to take is to collect and understand their environmental impact: the amount of energy and water they expend, says Patterson, as well as the amount of waste they create and the emissions they produce from travel. This can range from thinking about the materials used to make props, to how performers and participants travel to and from festival sites. 'If you have a better understanding of your own energy use, you therefore have a better understanding for sustainability, economic and production purposes,' she says. 'What we've found across all our work is that if you're on it in terms of the environmental sustainability, you're also much more aware of the inner workings of your organisation and therefore better able to spot opportunities to affect change across a whole different range of areas.'

Once the data is collected, the next step is to find your people and take action. Patterson urges festivals to nominate Green Champions within their organisations, ideally someone who is passionate about achieving change and will advocate for sustainable initiatives in the decision-making process. From there, a festival can then set out a policy that details their green ambitions. 'This takes a bit of reflection on what your festival currently does,' says Patterson. 'So for example, if your festival is about food, your festival can implement a policy that looks specifically at the food aspects of sustainability, as it ties closely with the programme and with what people are already going to be skilled in.'

As such, change can take many different forms from one festival to the next. 'Perhaps you don't have the knowledge in the staff team, and therefore you'll seek training from specialists on upskilling or energy management. Or if one of the things you're looking at is moving away from single-use plastics, it's going back to suppliers and finding out what other options they have: can you trial a new product they might be offering?'

Greener festivals for greener futures

Edinburgh is widely known as 'the Festival City', thanks to annual celebrations such as the Fringe

Edinburgh's Hogmanay is one such festival that has jumped in with both feet, with event organiser Underbelly working closely with Creative Carbon Scotland to manage their carbon emissions. 'We've got a team of Green Champions working across all events the company produces,' says Rachel Sivills, a spokesperson for Edinburgh's Hogmanay, 'and we are working to monitor power, water, waste and recycling volumes and associated carbon emissions. We are also monitoring staff and artist travel to build a picture of Edinburgh's Hogmanay carbon footprint and are working with Creative Carbon Scotland to develop a Carbon Management Plan.'

Patterson is keen to stress, however, that which lies on the other side of the footprint: the carbon handprint. Less well-known yet equally as vital, the handprint comprises of the positive environmental impact that a festival can have through policy and behavioural changes. There are a myriad of ways this can happen, she says, whether its training staff in sustainability initiatives or incorporating messaging into their programmes. 'You can only do so much when you're looking at your own carbon footprint,' says Patterson, 'but once you start thinking about the handprint – the wider impact of the work – you realise that the exchange of knowledge across the sector can be really transformative.'

So even for those of us who aren't festival bigwigs, there's plenty that the individual festival-goer can do to advance the cause. Get educated on the issues, urges Patterson. 'One of the key things is to look into the festivals you're engaging with,' she says. 'Look at their corporate social responsibility statements.' But the point she emphasizes most is the issue of travel: 'Audience travel is and will always be the single biggest contributor to a festivals' footprint, so find out if you can travel to a festival on bike, foot or public transport.'

Whether you're a big mover-and-shaker or simply someone who's passionate about the environment, working towards a sustainable world is a cause that requires work on many levels, and one that brings all kinds of people together — much like festivals themselves. 'Environmental sustainability is more than just about the individual,' says Patterson. 'It's positive for all of society.' And indeed, such change will be absolutely transformative, she says, in many ways outside our immediate environmental impact. 'It includes many other issues: it has economic benefits, it has reputational benefits. But ultimately — not to belittle it — we're trying to save the world.'

To find out more, check out Eventbrite's ebook Sustainability 101: The Guide to a Greener Festival.

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