Something a little different from me this week! I’ve always tried to be as environmentally friendly as possible in my daily life, and at festivals I behave no differently. I’ve always admired Glastonbury’s mantra of “Love The Farm; Leave No Trace”, and do my best to live by that at every event I attend. The festivals themselves need to do everything they can to be as green as possible, and to encourage their attendees to do the same.
Just over ten years ago, Claire O’Neill co-founded an organisation to help festivals become more sustainable. I met up with Claire in South London for a coffee and to ask her some questions about her incredible work, and to learn more about how she has helped evolve the outdoor events industry to become more eco-friendly.
Hi Claire! Let’s start with you introducing yourself. Tell me who you are and what you do.
Hello! Well, I’m Claire O’Neill and I’m the cofounder of A Greener Festival, which is a not for profit organisation that’s been running for about 10 years now. AGF was set up in order to try and help festivals improve their environmental performance. Aside from that I’ve also worked in the festival and event industry for the past 10 years in various production, logistics and event management roles. I’m an aerial circus performer and I work for Arcadia Spectacular in creating the production and as an aerialist as well.
Amazing! So how did you start AGF? How did that come about?
When I was in my late teens I started to discover different parties in the woods around the UK, and this was when there weren’t very many festivals, just the major ones and a few little ones and folk festivals, but it wasn’t the packed summer season we have now. There were a lot more illegal raves in the woods and those were the first places I discovered. When I was going to those I saw that there were chai cafes selling all kinds of fair trade organic food and powered by solar power, and at the end of the festival they’d be sorting and separating all their recycling and waste. Most of the people who attended were also cleaning up, taking everything away when they left and literally leaving no trace. Then I saw composting and things like that for the first time, and it was really inspiring to see the amount of creativity, care for the space and respect for each other. It was something that got me completely hooked for a long time.
That’s interesting because, I would instantly think that it would be the opposite of that… A load of “unsupervised” teenagers come and party in the woods leaving a trail of devastation…
I’m sure that there could be elements of that but the scene that I was going into, it was more psychedelic trance parties that were like the hippy parties of the 60s; the hippies of the new age. Having said that I also went to others ones that weren’t always as glowing an example, but in the majority of cases the feeling was to take care of the space and be very conscious of the environment. Then when I was at university studying music industry management at Buckinghamshire University, I went to do work experience at one of the major festivals, and there it was all burger vans serving food in polystyrene, huge diesel generators, no separation of waste and not really much care or respect to, or from, the audience. It seemed like people were being treated like penned in animals, trying to take as much money from them as possible.So I thought, how can I get that kind of hippie ideal from the free parties into big business festivals that have a bigger impact on society and our environment? I figured they’re never going to listen to any kind of hippie rhetoric, so I thought I could do my dissertation about festivals and the environment, and try and make a business case for it. Then I could approach it as a business idea rather than an ideology. I did an audience survey using forums during the winter, and I managed to get about 650 responses having asked people: should festivals be environmentally friendly? Would you pay more for a ticket if the money went towards protecting the environment? Would you separate your own waste? Who do you think is responsible? and various other questions. Obviously all the responses from the audiences were ‘yes this is definitely an important thing, it should be done, we care about it’. I also did interviews with organisers as well, and then was able to produce audience survey statistics and present them to the industry.
My lecturer Ben Challis, who was teaching me intellectual property and contract law and is a lawyer for Glastonbury, was a big help with my dissertation. I’d seen that there was a “Green & Clean Guide” for the festival industry that was going to come out which I was excited for as it would be something to reference, so I asked Ben about that, but it hadn’t even been written yet. So once I’d finished the research I asked him to look over the dissertation as it was his industry, and he asked me what I was planning to do with it. I replied “put it in a drawer like any other dissertation thats ever been written?” and he suggested we publish it on a website.
A university friend of mine called Luke Westbury was particularly good at websites, and he was already making Ben’s music law updates site, so he put the dissertation online as an information resource. Once it went live, festivals around the world started getting in touch with us asking how they could learn more, what they could do, and telling us what they were already doing to share ideas.Soon after I was booked to speak at the ILMC (International Live Music Conference) which was pretty daunting – me fresh out of uni, speaking in front of all these bigwigs. That kind of cemented the dissertation study onto the map within the industry. And I think it was Ben who suggested that we create essentially a checklist for an award.
It was very simple in the beginning; about 25 yes/no questions, which was kind of fitting for how advanced we were at the time into environmental management of events. 2007 was the first year we did the Awards, and Glastonbury signed up in the first year which obviously made people take it seriously. It’s evolved over the years, and now it is a really quite huge document that people have to fill in with quite detailed information along with a lot of supporting evidence, and we have training sessions in order to get the assessors on the same page. They’ve come from either events or environmental management backgrounds, in some cases both which is great, and they volunteer their time to go in and assess the events. The festival can also ask for a report which is something a more senior assessor would complete. It’s been quite an unexpected journey!
Yes I mean, you write a dissertation, finish university and then the whole world wants to hear about it, it’s pretty amazing! Well done! So, tell me about the main people, companies and events that you work with?
Well since the beginning there have been a few events that have applied for the award time after time, for example Glastonbury since day one, and then on a similar size to them, this year for the first time Roskilde festival applied. We also have a lot of much smaller grassroots festivals who apply like Wood festival in Oxfordshire which I think is about 1000 capacity, maybe a bit larger these days. They do fantastic stuff in a gorgeous estate in the woods and have different challenges to the much larger events. We also do quite a few in Spain, this year we did Primavera which is a good example of an urban based festival. We’ve also assessed Christmas Markets and some multi-venue city festivals. Cambridge Folk Festival too…
And Nozstock as well I hear? That’s one I need to get to next year as it’s always been on the same weekend as Secret Garden Party for the past few years…
Exactly look at that! SGP is finished but it opens up a window for you! Yes so there’s the like of Nozstock, and over in the US we’ve done Lollapalooza, Bonnarroo… This year we did Bayou Boogaloo in New Orleans which I’m excited about as I love new Orleans so i’m trying to cement as much of a relationship there as possible!
Do you send assessors from the UK to these festivals in the States or do you have people over there already trained?
It’s people in the US. We have assessors who are based in the country that we’re assessing, and then Amie Green who is one of the directors of AGF lives in Australia and she manages assessment of all the Australian events. Over there we’ve done the likes of BluesFest in Byron Bay, Falls Festival… we’re all over the place! Back in the Northern Hemisphere we’ve even been approached by Moscow Flower Show, which brings me nicely on to the Greener Event Award which is our new award. For the last ten years we’ve been doing the Greener Festival Award meaning we’re assessing festivals which in some territories have come a long way. But also during the winter from a European perspective there are a lot of conferences, award ceremonies, sports tournaments and all types of events where perhaps there are still quite a lot of low hanging fruit that could make a big environmental difference, and so we’ve created the Greener Event Award in order to be able to work with those types of events.
Great! So, if I ran an event or festival, how do I get involved? Whats the process for applying to AGF?
The first thing would be to get in touch with us. To apply initially we ask that you put together a sustainability policy for your event, which is actually very simple because it’s a statement of what you as an organisation or event are going to aim for. It doesn’t need to be a detailed list of targets, more of a holistic overview of what you care about, and something that you are going to refer back to to make sure that this is in everything that you do. So for some events that could be that their focus is on protecting the local land or waterways, or it could be that they’re really passionate about the movement of people, or their waste management might be a big element that they really want to target – no leftover waste. Essentially, putting down on paper what it is that the event cares about, and the reason we ask for that is when they come to apply for the award they’ve already shown that a discussion on environmental matters has happened within the organisation.
Once you’ve submitted your environmental policy, you’ll receive a self assessment form, (which is that document that was once simple and now is quite long, however it’s broken down into sections and topics…). It starts with local area impact and local ecosystems – e.g. what’s your direct impact on the land and the community around you, and then it goes into global impact – for example waste management, transport, power, water and sewage. Then we look at more supporting documents and management structures – have you done CO2 analysis? Are you monitoring measurements during and after the event so you can review it? For example, if you’ve said that you’ve got traders terms and conditions that there’s no non-recyclable disposables, we would want to see evidence of that. So you complete the self assessment and submit it to us before the event. There’s a fee paid in advance for festivals to apply for the award to cover the costs of the assessors, and creating and moderating the assessments.
After the self assessment has been received and the fee paid, we allocate two assessors to your event who may be in touch with some follow up questions from your self assessment. On site, they would meet up with your sustainability coordinator who would then show them around site and introduce them to, perhaps the waste contractor, and any other core team members focused on green initiatives. The assessors can see how well the plans are being implemented on site, and it means AGF are able to offer more advice if that’s something the festival has requested. Having seen whats actually happening on the ground and from the experience of all the other events we assess, we’re able to draw upon the best practice from all around the world.
Is that advice given in the moment? Or is that what the festival would receive afterwards?
It’s both really, because when the assessor is walking on site with the festival representatives they will see things that are working or not working, and they can offer advice there and then, but go into more detail following the event. After the event, you would need to submit any supporting evidence in as timely a manner as possible so we can complete the assessment and give a grade. We give from Improvers to Outstanding, but it is also possible to not make the final grade, which does happen from time to time. However normally we’d be able to identify that in advance, and recommend the event implements a few changes before applying again the following year. If the event has opted to have the post-event feedback report, which is a combination of feedback from the assessors, the self assessment, and supporting documents, then a senior assessor would put all that together and with their added experience, almost create a plan for what could be done to move further; not only to improve the environmental impact, but also if you wanted to advance to the next level of the award, it would suggest how to get there.
We have various different opportunities for collecting your award over the winter. In particular we have the Green Events and Innovations Conference which is where we like to bring any of the best practice we’ve seen to be shared with other events. It’s part of the ILMC and will be on the 7th March 2018 at the Royal Garden Hotel, in Kensington, London. It’s open to students, festival organisers, events organisers, service providers… anybody who’s involved in the industry basically! It’s alongside the International Production Meeting (IPM) which is also part of ILMC, and we have a great get together at the end for networking amongst all the different international festival organisers. I’d definitely recommend coming along to that, even if you’re not collecting an award.
Great so, to summarise, for an event to get involved they essentially: put the sustainability policy in place, get in touch the AGF website, complete a self assessment and…
And we’ll take it from there, and invite two people onto site! We actually took a year off in 2015 to take a step back and review; what are we doing, is it still relevant, is it still needed, do we want to continue… and the feedback that we had was that it was the only assessment that provided the guidance through the assessment process but then also verified it through a site visit, which I didn’t realise was the case! A lot of the sustainability managers fed back that they feel a lot more supported with a site visit included in the process, the assessors are almost a resource that they can draw upon and help them, because our assessors are connected with so many events it’s almost like a web between them all speeding up the process of getting to a more sustainable place.
Amazing. So tell me, what is the Greener Event Award and what makes it different to the Greener Festival Award?
So the Greener Festival Award has been very much focused on a lot of outdoor events and also events that have camping and music and work with artists and large audiences. Over the years we’ve gained experience in a lot of different types of events, and so what we’ve developed is an assessment that can relate to indoor events, conferences, exhibitions, sports events and arenas. It can be utilised by venues and events spaces, and will make sure that we’re capturing all the different kinds of events that happen throughout the year. The potential impact is huge so we’re just trying to open it up and make the environmental management of events more of a visible thing throughout the industry.
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges for festivals trying to be more environmentally friendly? What are some of the red flags you come across?
Probably for long established events it might be a cultural difficulty; you know what systems work and you don’t want to rock the boat. So to try and implement something new into an established event can be a challenge and can meet resistance to change within the organisation. And then also there’s relationships that exist between organisers and contractors whereby you wouldn’t want to get rid of somebody you’ve worked with for ten years to go with a new contractor. That’s something I believe in as well, that it is important to maintain those relationships. Rather than thinking you need to get rid of your contractors and hire new ones, it’s much better to look at how you can work with that contractor to make the service more sustainable and then that can impact the whole industry if that contractor takes that knowledge with them elsewhere. You both grow together. From an environmental perspective of things that happen on site, many things have got so much better and so much more advanced since we started ten years ago, but something that’s gotten a lot worse is the amount of waste that the audience leaves behind at some camping events, and it’s almost become a cultural thing…Buy a tent, ditch the tent at the end of the festival? I see this a lot on the Mondays. I think maybe part of the problem is that camping equipment used to be a lot more expensive, but now big supermarkets have realised this is a market they want to tap into, so have created really cheap camping equipment meaning festival goers think, well, for that price, is it worth me packing the tent up at the end and carrying it with me? It’s almost disposable…
Exactly, or that cheap equipment breaks easier so if something is broken they’re not going to bother taking it home, so there are a few different elements that tie in together. In a way it’s the cheapness, but also you find really expensive equipment that’s been left behind where perhaps people have grouped together and don’t bother to take it away afterwards. It’s a real problem, and not just for festivals particularly, it’s a problem with us as humans that we need to resolve. It’s not about the cleanliness of the site, those things can be collected up and put in one place, the point is that place is the incinerator or the landfill because only a tiny fraction of it can be reused or recycled. And that means that you have to extract all of those materials all over again and transport them and distribute them, and then incinerate them or landfill them again. Environmentally it’s really depleting on our resources and damaging to our ecosystem which, ultimately is going to kill us. So although you paid for a ticket, and you may think “Well why should I have to clear up I’ve paid for someone to clean up in the cost of my ticket”, that’s totally fair enough to feel that way, but you must think about what that impact is going to be on a bigger scale beyond your own weekend away.I think you’re right, I think… generationally, it used to be if you bought something, an appliance say, and it broke, you would first think “let’s fix it!” rather than “just scrap it and buy a new one”. In general, things have become so cheap now, and disposable, and a lot of the time it costs more to fix something than it would to buy a new one. It’s definitely part of the problem.
On a more positive note, is there something that sticks out that you’re particularly proud of that’s come out of A Greener Festival? A change that’s happened overall or a particular festival that’s made some massive changes?
That’s a difficult one, I think it’s more just on a general front how it’s evolved over time. In the past you would not have any waste separation, it was just big diesel generators and the food offering was almost completely unsustainable. Whereas now you would find it really difficult, particularly in western Europe, to find a festival that didn’t have waste separation and good food. A number of years ago we did a “Good Food for Festivals” guide which went through the impact of all the different food industries, and gave guidance into what kind of foodstuffs to look for. That was used by a lot of events to implement better food policies, looking at ‘food miles’ and impact of food production before it arrives at the festival.
Another thing we’ve developed which we’ll be hoping to push a lot more next year is a project called The Eighth Plate, which was done with NCAS, the National Caterers Association and with Fair Share, a food redistribution charity. The idea was to collect any edible food waste from traders so that we could redistribute it to homeless shelters and various different places in need. So we were able to salvage tonnes of food from these different events and that’s something that was inspired by Fair Share’s work with supermarkets in the UK, and also Roskilde Festival have got an absolutely outstanding project to collect the festival’s food waste. They maximise how much can be salvaged by using an onsite kitchen; cooking meals and then freezing them so they’re able to capture the perishable food and keep it so it can be distributed when it’s needed rather than all at once.
One of my favourite initiatives that I’ve seen at a festival is called ETAR, it’s water system at Boom Festival in Portugal where the water tank is put at the top of a hill, so they don’t need to use pumps for most of the water supply, and then it flows down the hill through different reed bed systems then into ETAR which is a series of chambers all in a circle with a fountain in the middle, the water runs through the chambers, each one has different plants and microbes in it which eat the pathogens in the water, so by the time its flowed through, the water is clean without even leaving the site. It’s amazing that their waste water system is absolutely beautiful, and it’s also provided new habitat for the frogs and various other species in the area.
It’s incredible the innovation seen in the last few years, you must be so proud to have been a part of that movement. So, how can us regular people get involved with AGF? Can anyone apply to be an assessor?
Anyone can apply yes! We ask that people send in their CV, and a bit of background information on why they want to get involved. The assessments are a volunteer position within the events industry where you get your expenses covered, and then if you have the experience to be able to complete the reports then thats something that’s a paid position later on. So the potential assessors would contact us, send their CV, and mention if they have some relevant experience that is within the events or environmental industries, or for example if they’re studying; we often get people doing their masters. If you’re successful, then we invite you to come to training which we currently hold twice a year (potentially more in the next few years, and we’re about to launch quite an exciting partnership for an online training – watch this space!). If there are people who want to get experience because they haven’t worked in events or environmental management before, but it’s something that they’re really passionate about and want to learn more, then on some events we can send out assessors and also take someone along to learn. You see, if someone has the passion, drive and energy for it then we’d love to help them learn more and become an assessor in the future once they’ve gained more experience. So anybody can get in touch and we’ll do what we can to get them on the track!
Thanks Claire! I’ll just round this off with the question I ask everyone! What is your favourite festival memory?
One of my favourite ‘watching a band’ experiences was Aerosmith at Download Festival which is quite a surprise! I was very clever, because I went along with a friend who was my designated driver so I could drink cocktails all day long, and I was in a bit of despair about how still the rest of the audience were so I crowd surfed to the front which was great. But probably my favourite experiences at festivals have been when I’ve been performing doing aerial acrobatics because you get to spin around on top of peoples heads which is always good fun. Do you do Arcadia every year? Yes I do! And actually, yeah, my favourite festival moment would have to be at the end of our Metamorphosis show at Arcadia at Glastonbury; we get span really fast while the giant flames go off and there’s usually tens of thousands of screaming people underneath whilst you’re getting spun around, the world has turned into a blur and you’re holding on for dear life with fireworks and flames going off. That would have to be my favourite festival experience, it’s awesome. Or maybe the bungee drop with all the jellyfish and the tentacles… that’s also really good fun.