Will the fiscal impact of the Covid-19 pandemic mean sustainability initiatives are sidelined by event organisers as they fight for survival or will they continue to put the planet first? Christopher Barrett finds out.


The festival industry has long been at the forefront of environmental awareness and sustainability issues, with events such as Glastonbury (cap, 147,500), WOMAD (40,000) and Shambala (15,000) among the many to not only introduce new ways to reduce their carbon footprint but help educate and inspire the tens of thousands of people who attend each year.

Much work has been done across the festival and events industry in recent years to reduce its environmental impact, and among the many initiatives is Vision: 2025 – which has seen the operators of 107 festivals pledge to make a 50% reduction in the environmental impacts of their events by 2025.

Among the other industry organisations to make considerable progress is outdoor events industry sustainability steering group Powerful Thinking, which has created resources including ‘how to’ guides, energy monitoring tool kits and advice on how to get the most from power contractors.

Climate change lobbying group Julie’s Bicycle has been very active on behalf of the music industry since it was founded in 2006, while A Greener Festival’s many initiatives include an award scheme that has assessed and certified hundreds of festivals, events and venues worldwide for sustainability.

“While the Covid situation will be behind us sooner or later, what won’t be behind us is the fact the planet is being wrecked,”

Much has been achieved and there is a lot to lose, so this year has seen Vision: 2025’s annual Green Survey repurposed to explore the impact of Covid-19 on the festival sector’s sustainability ambitions.

As well as being co-founder, operations director and sustainability lead for Shambala Festival, Chris Johnson is co-founder and chair of Powerful Thinking and Vision: 2025. He says the aim is to get 100 festival operators to complete the survey. With 50 responses in, there are already some interesting findings.

Asked if their experience this year had led them, as organisations, to change the priority of sustainability within their operating strategies, around 50% said there will be no change, while a quarter of respondents said they would make it a higher priority.

“It is only 50 festivals but as an initial result it is reassuring,” says Johnson.

Another encouraging finding was that one third of festival operators said that in 2021 they will implement the same environment plans as last year, while 25% said they will implement more ambitious plans.

“With Vision: 2025, we are hoping as an industry to make at least a 50% cut, in the context of that journey we have had a year where we haven’t been able to implement any new measures. It is inevitable that Covid-19 has stalled progress but reassuring that 25% said they will implement more ambitious plans next year,” says Johnson.

The banning of festivals by the Government this summer has clearly had an impact on the environmental plans of some event organisers though, with the survey finding 12.5% of respondents will be less ambitious next year and the dominant reason for that is lack of budget.

Johnson says the survey has shown that the picture hasn’t changed in terms of priorities: “The biggest focus among festival operators is clearly single-use plastic but more than half of festival organisers said they are confused about bioplastics.

“There is a real appetite and momentum building in our industry around sustainability and particularly single use plastics. We have seen a very lively and useful debate, but my concern is that the solutions being considered are influenced by commercial concerns. The advice that I have always given, and research suggests is the best option for the environment and often for costs, is re-use.”

Ben Robinson, founding director of independent promoters From The Fields and co-founder of Kendal Calling (cap. 25,000) and bluedot (10,000), says the downtime this year has enabled him and his colleagues to focus more heavily on environmental measures.

He says, “People who work on festivals are very versatile and innovative, so with Covid we have been given the opportunity to take a fresh look at how and why we do things. For me the exciting thing is looking at efficiencies and reducing waste.

“We are more committed to sustainability than ever. It is a false impression that building sustainability into festivals is a costly exercise ¬– it is beneficial, more than a hundred tonnes of waste comes out of Kendal Calling at a huge cost to the event.

In an effort to reduce waste at Kendal Calling, Robinson’s team is engaging with attendees to encourage them to bring less with them to the site. It is also trying to persuade them to take their possessions home.

One such measure being considered is a scheme to reduce the number of tents abandoned at the end of the festival. The proposed tent deposit scheme would see attendees pay a deposit before the event. The tent is then scanned in and out of the festival, and if the process is completed fully the deposit is returned.

“We are looking at that now, as we have the headroom to develop and roll it out next year,” says Robinson.

As well looking to eradicate the use of single-use items at the company’s events, Robinson says power supply is another priority: “Power efficiency across generators reduces fuel bills, while smart design can reduce cabling,” he says.

Green Man festival owner Fiona Stewart is another organiser intent on making environmental progress next year: “The festival is big on that but I want to make it greener. This period really makes you realise how precious the environment is and we really need to do more to protect it. All of these things are an extra cost and we will have to look at that but like most independent events we don’t just do things for money.”

The Vision: 2025 survey findings are no surprise to Association of Festival Organisers (AFO) general secretary Steve Heap. The organisation has more than 250 event organiser members, and Heap has found no decline in enthusiasm among them when it comes to environmental sustainability.

“The impact of Covid-19 on the festival scene this year has been devastating but we are encouraging our members to spend the downtime to seriously consider what they are doing environmentally at their events. While the Covid situation will be behind us sooner or later, what won’t be behind us is the fact the planet is being wrecked,” he says.

AFO actively encourages its members to sign up with Vision: 2025 and Julie’s Bicycle, and Heap says the dedicated double-session on sustainability at AFO’s annual conference is always packed.

He says, “The environmental message is really beginning to bite and we are seeing some real improvements.”

In lieu of visiting and assessing more than 50 festivals globally for the Greener Festival Award, AGF co-founder and director Claire O’Neill says the organisation has been holding bi-weekly online video meetings with event operators from around the world, providing them a platform to share and discuss ways in which to make lasting changes to event sustainability.

O’Neill says, “At the moment the industry is dusting itself off from a major blow. There is the opportunity for a new way of seeing things but what is needed urgently is support from Government to allow festivals and live events to be able to do that. Festivals are such an important connection with people, the experience can be a very inspiring – a very motivating force when it comes to encouraging people to care for the environment.”