Helen Harland has worked as an event manager at Manchester City Council for 10 years. Involved in event delivery, commissioning and supporting others to deliver events across the city, Harland is always looking for ways to promote sustainability, including working with Julie’s Bicycle to produce a series of Sustainable Event Guides and a Reusable Cups Guide. She was recognised as a Creative Green Champion by Julie’s Bicycle in 2020 and has used event “downtime” during the pandemic to focus on projects to support organisers and suppliers in setting and achieving their sustainability goals.

We asked Helen about her inspiration, goals and challenges in terms of creating sustainable events.

What is the proudest sustainability achievement or moment of your career?

Getting feedback from colleagues in Manchester and beyond that the guides we have produced have helped them to set their sustainability paths.

What was your worst ever sustainability-related decision, project or initiative and why?

Working as part of the site management team at Manchester International Festival 2011, I took charge of making sure waste went to the right place. The bins were all in neat clusters, the signs were done, the volunteers briefed – textbook. Then the audience came and did their own thing. Cue me bin diving to un-contaminate waste streams in a shipping container at the roadside. It taught me to never underestimate how much effort is needed to communicate on waste, and to keep it simple.

What are you excited about implementing this year?

A scoping project to review event power usage in the city. Whilst this is the first stage of a longer process, the end result should reduce CO2 emissions from events.

Which environmental issue do you most care about?

Global warming.

What sustainable change have you made in your personal life that you are most proud of?

Getting my children enthused by taking simple environmental action – from walking instead of the car for short journeys to litter picking – they actually nag me to do this.

What do you read to stay in touch with green issues?

The Guardian and podcasts. I love local Facebook groups for day-to-day, home-life tips and tricks too.

What is the most memorable live performance in your life?

Not one but a collection – my first trip to Edinburgh Festival – the variety and atmosphere was incredible… being able to go from a Japanese dance inspired by Mount Fuji, to a stand-up gig, to a serious piece of theatre, interspersed with passing by some amazing street performances along the way and topping the day off with a dance.

Was there a moment you committed to taking action on climate change?

When I studied for a Masters in Events I was naturally drawn to sustainability and did my main research study on ISO 20121 (then BS 8901) and how to use it

What are the most important issues to tackle at your event?

Audience engagement – whether that’s on travel to the event, food choices or using the right bin.

What do you think is the most significant challenge for the events industry becoming more sustainable?

Identifying the right thing to do for your event or organisation and focusing on that: and measuring the impact in a manageable way.

Can you share something sustainable from another artist or event or company that inspired you to make a change?

The City of Amsterdam has undertaken a power project to eradicate diesel generators at events.

What is the secret to your sustainable success?

Keep talking to people and keeping sustainability on the agenda.

Tell us something you feel positive about right now that relates to the environment

That everyone is talking about it more than I have ever known.

Tell us a book, film or recent article you feel others should watch/read and why about positive change?

5×15 at COP26 – Arts and the Imagination A great discussion on how the cultural sector has a key role to play in helping people understand and relate to the often daunting scientific facts of climate change.

Can you give people new to sustainability in events a top tip?

If there isn’t a network, start one – I get so much from bouncing ideas off like-minded people.

What is the favourite festival moment of your career?

As a visitor to Just So Festival with my family – it was the wettest edition the poor organisers had ever experienced but amazing to see them cope and still deliver an amazing event with sustainability at the forefront.

What habit or practice has helped you most in your personal journey in life?

Trying to encourage others to think about better choices without judging.

Is there anything new or exciting you are planning or changing for the future that you can tell us about? Even a hint!

There will be more of a focus on how events fit into Manchester’s Zero Carbon by 2038 target than ever before. Manchester has reduced its direct emissions by 54.7% between 2010 and 2020, exceeding the target of 41% that we set for ourselves. We have a huge role to play in influencing and supporting event partners to reduce their impact.

Will we save the world?

Yes. Optimism is the only way for me.

What would your sustainable superpower be?

Time travel