Chris Johnson is co-founder and sustainability lead of Shambala festival (cap. 15,000), chair of Vision: 2025 and co-founding member of the Association of Independent Festivals, as well as co-founder and CEO of sustainable travel charity ecolibrium. Here, he reflects on the milestones across the events sector, and where we are going.

In the beginning pioneering events such as The Big Green Gathering and Glastonbury led the green charge, with festivals including Shambala joining the fray in the noughties, putting sustainability front and centre of their purpose. New organisations emerged, whose focus was to support climate action in music and events: Julie’s Bicycle published various reports about music industry environmental impacts, A Greener Festival began certifying events impacts, and Powerful Thinking launched as a free-to-access resource about sustainable energy management. It was a challenging decade for these projects in that engagement beyond a committed minority in the industry was hard to achieve.

Arguably, the UK festival industry’s collective approach to sustainability started with the Show Must Go On Report, launched at the 2015 UK Festival Awards. This was the UK’s live events industry response to COP21 in Paris, Julies Bicycle and Vision:2025 with support of Live Nation, the AIF, AFO, NOEA, NCAS and many others. This first publication of environmental benchmarks and roadmap for the sector, gave birth to Vision:2025, with a set of targets in-line with the commitment to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. A free-to-access second edition was published in 2020 and is widely referenced.

2018 brought step-changes: The AIF’s Drastic on Plastic campaign engaged 90 festivals to eliminate single-use plastics within three years and reached 12m on social media. Live Nation launched its world-leading Green Nation charter, Vision:2025 passed the hundred festival members mark, new organisations like ISLA – supporting agencies and corporate events – emerged. Against a backdrop of Extinction Rebellion in ascendency, Greta’s Friday for Future Strikes going global, and ‘Blue Planet effect’, conversations about sustainability took centre stage in the event industry for the first time.

2020’s pandemic presented a mixed bag for events; some organisations used the unprecedented break in rhythm to consider sustainability strategy and move things forward. Impressive strides were collaboratively made at industry level, such as the formation of LIVE, LIVE Green and their Vision and Declaration. But for most, it has been survival mode, and when activity returned, sustainability has often fallen by the wayside. Let’s hope this has been a temporary blip.

A Vision: 2025 survey of festival organisers in 2021 signalled an increase in carbon footprint measuring, reporting that more local authorities were asking event organisers for environmental performance information. Encouragingly, and despite the challenges of that year, 20% of events reported putting in place new sustainability measures. The most common new measures were implementing new recycling protocols, or working with specific suppliers to improve sustainability. One in 10 events used reusable cups for the first time, another step toward reusables becoming the norm for larger events.

Where are we now?

There are significant movements in the supply chain. Battery units, to reduce energy and fuel consumption, are now a reliable and competitively priced option offered by an increasing number of power companies. The fuel price hike has focussed minds on fuel reduction strategies: knowing what energy is required in advance, planning efficient systems and demand management, along with new tech solutions, are essential.

Interesting things are happening around food, which has increasingly become part of the line-up of events. There has been a movement toward provenance, but beyond locally sourced it’s a complex supply chain to understand and tackle. I think we might be on the verge of sea-changes, with festivals such as Shambala, Roskilde in Denmark, DGTL in The Netherlands, and Festival Republic events experimenting with food impact measurement and labelling.

Exciting me most, is the tangible interest and collaborative nature of climate action in our industry. New research projects and reports focussed on event sustainability are increasing; such as Vision:2025 Zero Waste Festivals, exploring waste challenges with leading consultancy Resource Futures. The Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) is currently researching live music audience attitudes to transport. LIVE Green is actively building a strategy and resources, and EarthPercent is mapping the sector’s sustainable landscape. A knowledge base is being built for and by our industry, and structural changes are happening that will enable live events to become a leader in climate action.

Perhaps one of the best expressions of this is the momentum behind the new Green Events Code for outdoor events – a clear, workable set of sustainability targets and standards, to be launched this October at the Sustainable Events Summit at The Showman’s Show. It represents a cross industry effort to establish measurable standards that are accessible to event organisers, supply chain and local authorities. Its aim is to create a level playing field across the UK, as opposed to a lottery of expectations, as authorities establish how events fit in with their climate and net-zero plans and targets.

The Future

I’ve been repeating the word measurement for more than ten years but it boils down to us all measuring our environmental impacts, reporting and reducing – how else can we do this? Imagine not having a financial budget.

Some events are starting to embrace Net Zero. It’s an interesting one: It’s both a useful and vital framework to reduce emissions, and it really isn’t the only game in town. We need to fully understand supply chain impacts from food, drink, and resources, such as pollution, worker welfare and habitat destruction.

We need to make the fundamental changes to the way we do things – reducing travel emissions, the transition to renewable energy and more plant-based diets, circular management of materials and new communications expertise to take audiences with us and inspire wider change.

The best way we can do this is collectively, by getting involved with the many industry initiatives and organisations represented in this special edition of AAA, that provide knowledge and services to support events to be greener.

We have a brief window to take meaningful action on climate, with dire consequences if we don’t. Our industry is about creating amazing experiences, and we are world-leading. Let’s apply this talent and determination to the future of the planet and all life, and we really might be able to say in 10 years that we really did make a difference – to the future of the human race.