A tireless advocate of sustainable event progress, Chris Johnson is co-founder and sustainability lead of Shambala festival (cap. 15,000), chair of Vision: 2025 and CEO of sustainable travel charity ecolibrium. He tells Access about the environmental learnings at Shambala, and the resources available for event organisers looking to make a difference.

How integral has environmental sustainability been to the production of Shambala since the begging, and how has that focus evolved?

Shambala emerged organically from a gathering of 100 friends in 1999, gradually becoming a ‘festival’ that was called Shambala, and now with a capacity of 20,000 – we sometimes look back and wonder how this happened. In the early days it was very much a wild, yet respectful, party with circus, woodland arts, music, and ‘the unexpected’, partly because it was such an organic event. It didn’t start as a ‘green’ festival, but fairly early on, when many of us founders started having kids, being environmentally sustainable felt increasingly important, and became a core element of what we wanted the festival to be. As a group of five founders, we’re all more or less on the same page with where we stand on the big issues of our time, and on climate we have been clear for years that being a festival is an opportunity to do more than just ‘do it right’, by pushing the boundaries and shouting about it, to inspire change. Shambala really isn’t primarily a business, it’s been an opportunity to live our lives with purpose – it’s an incredible privilege to be able to express ourselves in the world so powerfully and be part of a wider and diverse community in this endeavour.

What have been the biggest learnings along the way?

Being sustainable has been a constant learning journey. It’s a bit like mountain walking as a kid; when every horizon reveals another ­– being proud of the festival has replaced the bribe of Kendal Mint cake to keep going.

When an essential ingredient to success is how people behave, it can take time to really understand motivations, values etc to be well informed in campaign design and communications. Listening to people, surveys onsite and post-event, and bringing in experts have all helped us to learn about our audience and underlying principles of behavioural psychology, enabling us to understand how and why to make changes.

I like that some of the basics of festival sustainability are genuinely straight forward and do-able for most events, like using reusable bar cups, reducing diesel consumption in generators, and encouraging low carbon travel. But things can quickly get complicated when you get into the details, such as when looking into the supply chains of HVO fuels. Working with Julie’s Bicycle, we’ve been able to look into the whole supply chain, going as far as meeting with a company that provides satellite images of deforestation that helps to trace links between suppliers and local loss of forest.

We have a well-established approach which is based on evidence. We collect a tonne of data on everything imaginable at the event, from energy to food footprints, so we can see clearly where our impacts are, where changes between years have been successful and where they haven’t. This continuous and often imperfect process – we often don’t have perfect data, but enough to make a reasonable judgement – helps us to prioritise, learn, adapt and make the case internally and externally about changes that are needed to reduce negative impacts. If we feel motivated to tackle a new topic, such as going meat and fish free, we do the research to be well informed before we launch a campaign or change to the festival.

We’ve learnt a few things about communications, that we think have really helped take our audience and other stakeholder along with us with some of the changes we have made, such as:

Not trying to communicate too much at any time, for example one big change or new campaign each year is enough. Knowing the user journey and targeting messaging accurately in term and relevance in the moment.

Being honest and passionate, for example when we launched being meat and fish free, we didn’t pretend we had all the answers, or say that we thought everyone should be vegan (we don’t), but we did and do feel it vital to move toward plant-based diets for climate.

“We have a well-established approach which is based on evidence.” 

Have there been any mistakes made or regrettable decisions in terms of things that didn’t work so well?

We’ve been making mistakes for over 20 years! It’s very much part of the organisational culture to put it on the table and learn from it. I haven’t got a massive calamity to share (actually I have many, but there not about green initiatives), but we’ve got plenty wrong. The year we launched our Recycling Exchange – whereby people pay a deposit with ticket purchase, and then bring waste back to us at the event for a refund or merch bundle – the queues were long, and we didn’t have handwashing facilities, so we almost put everyone off recycling.

What was the biggest focus at this year’s event in terms of introducing new sustainability measures?

Our main public facing campaign in 2023 is campsite materials with the aim to get the recycling rate up from 51% to 75% – we’re asking our audience to ‘scoop’ any food out of recyclable containers, ‘splosh’ any liquids out of recyclable containers, and ‘separate’ all materials, to enable us to recycle. Another new initiative this year is dedicated and subsidised rail + entry packages, opening up a new low carbon route to the festival with shuttle busses between rail and the event.

What advice would you give to a new festival operator working on extremely tight budgets who wants to minimise the event’s impact?

There are some genuine quick wins, lots of things that can be achieved by investing a small amount of time to get a strategy together, and having the conversations necessary to get others engaged. One example is energy – research suggests that most outdoor events can save about 40% of fuel and in some cases this can be achieved with a few conversations and a contract clause.

Generally, the information is out there to help organisers to learn about sustainability, such as the Vision:2025 resources hub. An amazing new development is the Future Festival Tools free online e-learning course, which is a bitesize option to learn everything about the basics easily and quickly. We’ve asked all our team and stakeholders to do this, and also put the core team through certified Carbon Literacy Training.