Rebecca Whitman, freelance sustainability consultant for the creative industries, shares her experience of working as sustainability manager for the award-winning Green Space Dark Skies project, a touring series of 20 mass participation events in outdoor landscapes that was produced by Walk the Plank as part of the UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK festival.

In February 2022, I stepped into the position of sustainability manager for Walk the Plank’s Green Space Dark Skies (GSDS) project. My role was to measure, monitor, and report on both social and environmental impacts across the whole project, and to provide support and expertise to the team through planning and delivery. The year was a challenging but rewarding and insightful journey of creating a strategy that was comprehensive enough to cover all the project’s impacts, and worked in practice.

We employed a ‘fail we may, sail we must’ approach, and looking back it’s clear where we sailed – for example achieving overall carbon savings of around 98 tCO2e and being awarded the National Outdoor Events Association Sustainability Award 2022 – and that we now have invaluable learnings that we are taking with us into future projects.

GSDS was a series of 20 mass participation outdoor arts events, using new geo-positioning lighting technology, touring the length and breadth of the UK between April and September 2022. The events were designed to create patterns across the landscapes, which were filmed to create 16 short films screened for free online and broadcast in a BBC Countryfile special.

Acknowledged as leaders in sustainability in the live outdoor events sector, Walk the Plank conceived GSDS with the principles of environmental and social sustainability at its core. The premise of the project was to open up the dialogue around rights and access to and within our landscapes, our relationship with the environment, and the collective responsibility we have as custodians of the environment for future generations. It was crucial for the project to have the smallest possible negative impact, both in terms of the carbon emissions and the direct impact on the sites and communities the project visited. Due to the nature and scale of the project, this was an immense challenge but one that the team and participants rose to meet, achieving impressive results.

The key principles in the Sustainability Strategy were:

  • Leave no trace
  • Beyond carbon neutral
  • Circular economy
  • Inspire
  • Transparency

The targets were ambitious, for example we aimed to use 100% renewable energy across the whole project, have 80% of the attendees share their transport to and from the event, employ a zero waste approach and send zero waste to landfill, have 100% of our suppliers meet our Sustainable Procurement Standards, and be carbon positive overall. A key goal of GSDS was to produce a Sustainability Impact Report to provide a transparent account of our major sustainability successes and key learnings for other organisations to take inspiration from. As Sustainability Manager, I have also personally reflected on what my major takeaways are from the project and my best advice for those embarking on a similar venture.

Be ambitious but strategic

Ambition is the lifeblood of a sustainability strategy, but success comes with careful planning and well thought through processes. To write an effective strategy, you need to look at the project as a whole and consider all your stakeholders under both ‘people’ and ‘planet’. Ensure that you’re thinking about your social impacts as much as your environmental impacts as these are often elements that get overlooked but should be key considerations. Look at the project holistically through a sustainability lens and work out where your risk and opportunities are as these are unique to every project. Use this to shape your strategy and set yourself ambitious goals and targets. Then, spend time thinking about how you will actually implement it and maximise your opportunities, as again this will be unique to you. Dare yourself to challenge the status quo – it’s a great way to innovate and not only help your project stand out for its sustainability efforts, but also from a creativity perspective too. For GSDS, we involved the Heads of Departments to collaboratively develop a comprehensive Sustainability Strategy and Data Management Plan to steer the project, gaining their buy-in from the start. From an initial carbon estimate, we knew our major impact areas would be transport and energy, so we focused our efforts on this and worked together to create a strategy that met these challenges.

Empower Your Team

Your team are your best resource for delivering a successful strategy, so it’s vital to empower them to do so. It’s important to remember that not everyone has the same knowledge and understanding of sustainability as a concept or practice, especially in the context of events. Think about what training, tools and resources they might need to help you achieve your goals. We chose to provide all the core team with Carbon Literacy Training – I’m a great advocate for this as it helps people to understand the bigger picture and why we are doing this in the first place. We then developed our own resources such as a Sustainable Procurement Guide, Sustainable Production Handbook, and event-specific Sustainability Checklists for use on site. We also employed the use of two carbon accounting tools, one specific to the event industry (TRACE) and another more commonly used in the film industry (Albert). From the get-go we made sure to communicate with the team and external suppliers what the goals of the strategy were and plan who was responsible for what in terms of data collection and reporting. We also set up regular meetings with Heads of Departments and Production Managers to support them throughout the planning phase, and I attended key decision making meetings to ensure sustainability always had a seat at the table.

Collaboration and Partnerships

Finally, collaborating and partnering with your suppliers is crucial to driving success. Whenever I reached out to a supplier to discuss how they might be able to support our goals, I was always pleasantly surprised with the positive reaction I received. One of our main challenges was finding a renewable energy source that had the capacity we required and was suitable for touring and bringing on to site in remote locations. We collaborated with TCP Eco to create a bespoke battery and solar array unit that was mounted on a trailer and was monitored via a mobile app. This was a solution that could tour, was modular, lightweight (due to its potential to be broken down into individual units), silent, had the ability to trickle charge on site, and could provide renewable energy in locations far from any kind of mains connection. It was a fantastic and unique solution that was only possible through close collaboration. Another major challenge was the potential emissions from participants’ transport. To overcome this, we partnered with The Big Green Coach Company to heat-map where the participants were traveling from and provide coaches for common routes, resulting in exceeding our target of 80% of participants sharing transport and a carbon emission saving of around 47 tCO2e. I also love that we reused the bungees from another large project who no longer needed them to replace the use of cable ties – a great circular economy success story.

The Green Space Dark Skies Sustainability Impact Report, which provides an account of the project’s sustainability wins and learnings was released earlier this month and can be viewed here.