We can make festivals fit for the climate change fight - Dr Gary Kerr and Professor Jane Ali-Knight

As world leaders gather for COP27 in Egypt to discuss how we keep temperature rises below catastrophic levels, people may well be thinking about how they can do their bit at home and in their work. For those who put on festivals, by their nature drawing big crowds, this could seem a daunting task.

Managing festivals in a sustainable manner is an enormous challenge for the industry, as many in Edinburgh will be acutely aware. Attendees are increasingly demanding more conscientious festival practices. Measures like recycling more and banning plastic water bottles are simply the tip of the iceberg – festival managers need to consider sustainability through a much wider lens, including looking at the sustainability of all their business areas, whether it’s programming, planning or the actual delivery of the festival.

In our recent work, we have produced a sustainability toolkit for festival managers. It provides practical guidance on how festivals can play their part in preventing the climate crisis from being even more catastrophic for people living in the world’s most vulnerable communities.

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Around the world, festivals face many challenges, not least recovering from the pandemic. Teams who put on big events are dealing with an increasingly competitive industry, changing festival-goer trends, and the cost-of-living crisis. But sustainability should still be at the forefront of their thinking.

Dr Gary Kerr is an Associate Professor in Festival & Event Management at Edinburgh Napier University Business School.
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Before the pandemic, UK festivals produced 23,500 tonnes of waste, used a staggering five million litres of fuel, and emitted an estimated 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). A study found that the average CO2 emissions from attendees’ transport to and from a music festival with around 40,000 attendees could be equivalent to 188 metric tonnes.

Earlier this year – on behalf of the British Council in Mexico – we partnered with ‘A Greener Festival’ to deliver a Sustainable Cultural Management Programme for Festival Practitioners. This was a four-week training programme tailored specifically for 30 participants, employed at a range of festivals across Mexico. This training programme formed part of the British Council in Mexico’s ‘Cultura Circular’ programme – an initiative focused on promoting a culture of sustainability within Mexico’s festivals.

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Each of the sessions examined sustainability from a different angle, including smart power, zero waste, festival food, ‘greening’ the supply chain, and communication. By the end of the programme, the participants had each created a Sustainability Action Plan, which they were encouraged to go off and implement within their own festivals.

The idea for a toolkit was born on the back of this training programme, so we could take this learning beyond the course’s participants. It was designed to provide practical guidance to festival practitioners (including directors, producers, promoters, operational teams, technicians and communications teams) on how to develop sustainability strategies and reduce the negative environmental impacts of delivering their big gatherings.

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Professor Dr Jane Ali-Knight is a Professor in Festival & Event Management at Edinburgh Napier University Business School.

Sustainable management at festivals is about choices. Organisers have to set goals and make the best possible decisions for the environment, within their design and delivery frameworks. With that in mind, our toolkit offers practical guides, handy tips and – as well as guidance on how to apply digital lessons from the pandemic, such as how hybrid festivals can enhance the consumer experience.

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Lastly, and importantly, the toolkit provides guidance on how to communicate sustainable practices with audiences. Getting audiences excited about sustainability and bringing them on this journey with organisers is crucial to making these sustainability endeavours work.

Only when sustainability is a joint effort from everyone involved in festivals – from the managers, artists, and the supply chain, to those making the effort to attend – will it have a lasting impact. We hope with the help of research like this toolkit will they be able to play their full part in addressing the climate crisis and giving festivals a lasting, positive legacy.

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Dr Gary Kerr is an Associate Professor in Festival & Event Management at Edinburgh Napier University Business School. Professor Dr Jane Ali-Knight is a Professor in Festival & Event Management at Edinburgh Napier University Business School.

Collected rubbish is processed at the Glastonbury Festival's purpose-built recycling centre after festival-goers have left the site at Worthy Farm in Pilton

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