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What Not To Do / Event Management  / What Not to Do: Sustainable Festival Production – Part 3

What Not to Do: Sustainable Festival Production – Part 3

What does sustainability really mean?

Here’s a term that is bandied about a lot: sustainability. So hot right now isn’t it!

Thanks to the great work of activists like Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough; governments, organisations, collectives and individuals the world over are waking up to the fact that they have to become more ‘sustainable’. It’s a real buzz-word. But what does that really mean? 

Environmental Sustainability

Festivals and large-scale events create huge CO2 emissions and produce a vast amount of waste. Studies in the UK have estimated that the industry there creates approximately 19,778 tonnes of CO2 emissions every year. Music festivals with camping in Ireland each year create an estimated 379 tonnes of waste, most of which goes to landfill as it is impossible to separate and recycle. 379 tonnes is the same weight as 70 African Elephants – into landfill. Every year. Just from festivals.

Obviously, these are really important issues to tackle, to start creating festivals that are more environmentally sustainable. But I would argue that sustainability needs to go farther than that.

The Sustainable Development Goals

You’ve probably heard of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs for short. These 17 guiding principles were developed by the United Nations to try to steer global development on a more sustainable path. They include all the good stuff – responsible production and consumption, climate action, life below water and life on land etc. The SDGs also include further important things to strive for – good health and wellbeing, gender equality and sustainable cities and communities among others. You can find more information here.

The SDGs show us that sustainability doesn’t start and end with reducing waste, increasing recycling, or installing solar panels. There is loads more work to do! Importantly, aiming for sustainability, at a festival or anywhere, needs to involve working with people – crew, contractors, volunteers, artists, performers and vitally, local communities.

Local places, local people

Festivals often take place on beautiful pieces of land, deep in the Irish countryside. They are primarily outdoor events, out in the elements, at the mercy of the unpredictable Irish weather! For those of us growing up in the city, this complete change of environment can pose serious challenges and provide a steep learning curve for the uninitiated. Creating a temporary city, with all of its associated infrastructure – roads, structures, generators, toilets, staging and sound and light, on a greenfield site, then inviting 15,000 people into this temporary space to party for a weekend, can result in unintended consequences.

For this reason, local knowledge is key. Understanding how the land responds in heavy weather is a fantastic tool to have in the festival organisers’ toolbox. But this is not easy knowledge to get your hands on, especially when you’re just starting out. Fostering strong relationships with the caretakers, neighbouring residents and particularly in the Irish context, local farmers, is an investment that will pay off dividends. You never know when you will need to draw on their support.

When it all goes wrong

Twice in my career, I have dealt with serious heavy weather at a music festival where I was a lead organiser. I’ve been working at outdoor shows for over 15 years, so I’ve seen plenty of muck and rain and I’ve even worked at a festival in the tail-end of a hurricane! But there are two specific events that are scarred onto my memory forever – in particular because I was in a position of major responsibility at both of these shows.

My first disaster was maybe 8 or 9 years ago. It had been raining for the entirety of the build, and lots of areas across the site were waterlogged. The day before opening, we realised that we would have to change the main access gate for the audience entry, which meant bringing in a crane to lift the box office out of one field and drop it into another on the other side of the site. All of our maps needed to be redrawn and the security and stewarding personnel re-briefed and repositioned. It was a nightmare.

When our audience arrived, they poured through the gates to find sodden, underwater campsites. They broke our fence lines in the search for higher ground to pitch their tents. There was nothing we could do but re-establish the fences around them as the site expanded outwards in the search for drier areas! A surreal experience to say the least. As I’m sure you can imagine, stress levels were high. We did manage to pull off a safe show in the end, but it was hairy for a time.

On reflection, we should have drawn on local knowledge – if we had known what the land would be like in heavy rain, we could have redrawn the maps sooner, given ourselves some headroom, reshaped the event in response to the one thing we have no control over – the weather. But we didn’t.

Further festival failures 

Something similar happened five years ago. On this occasion however we were a bit more prepared. You have to learn from your mistakes! But this time the show was much bigger, which meant a whole new set of problems.

The rain started at maybe 10pm on Saturday night, and it didn’t stop. It rained all day Sunday and Sunday night too. By Monday morning the place was underwater. This certainly dampened spirits, but even worse, it made our carparks impossible. There were more than 10,000 public cars in a soaking carpark, with wheels designed for cities and motorways (not fields) and the owners and drivers of these vehicles mostly tired and hungover. It was still raining. Does this sound like a hellscape to you? Because it should.

So, what to do? I worked a double shift, staying up all night Sunday night, coordinating teams on the ground, distributing gravel and woodchip to the worst affected areas, so as to try to keep pathways and routes usable. Some venues and areas had to be closed altogether. It was akin to a battle. I’ve heard it said that the three most stressful career choices are the military, medicine and large-scale event management – I’d well believe it!

By Monday morning, as the sun attempted to rise, we realised that the worst was yet to come. The carparks were impassable, and we were looking at a mass exodus, somewhere in the region of 15,000 people. So, I started making phone calls – and this is where things got interesting.

I had made the mistake of not creating the vital links with the local community. We had done resident liaison meetings, absolutely, we had a communications campaign where we informed them of the event, the safety, security and traffic management plan etc. We worked closely with the landowners of the estate and had a great relationship with them, but on this fateful morning we were looking at a problem at a brand-new scale, one which we just didn’t have the resources to solve.

I must have gotten my hands on phone numbers for 100 farmers in the area that morning, but none of them knew who I was. They knew about the festival alright, and the disruption and noise it caused for the local area, but they didn’t know us, the festival organisers, personally. I simply hadn’t invested enough time getting to know and understand the dynamics and personalities in the local area. What I needed that morning was tractors and drivers, to come to the site and work for hours in the muck and rain, pulling urbanites’ cars out of a sodden field. Bear in mind that I had been working 12-to-14-hour days, every day, for three weeks at this stage, as well as having just pulled a 24-hour shift. I may not have been at my best.

In the end, we pulled it off. We rallied a number of tractors, jeeps and local heroes and managed to clear the carpark over the course of a long, damp, miserable day. But it cost the festival dearly – the tractor drivers’ time was not cheap – we know now that the early summer is prime productive time for these workers, and we were pulling them away from their own farms and work, in our plight. Further, the land was destroyed after a full day of heavy vehicles pulling and dragging. The repair costs, for harrowing and reseeding – were considerable.

Top Tip: Create a Sustainable Community

It was a huge lesson to learn and I will never forget it. Needless to say, following that year, I invested my time in the local area far more wisely. I have drunk countless teas and coffees with local farmers and landowners and have started to gain a small understanding of the intricacies of grass-cutting and dairy production seasons. I know far more than I ever thought I would about soil structure, drainage and bogs in Ireland. I now know who the local people are and importantly, they also know me.

The value of these relationships cannot be overstated.

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