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Pushing the limits of sustainability

In this European Festival Report Q&A, IQ meets France's WE LOVE GREEN, which acts as a living laboratory to test green event solutions

By IQ on 13 Dec 2023


image © Luc Marechaux

WE LOVE GREEN is a great example of what happens when a festival starts thinking about sustainability from the outset. As a self-proclaimed “laboratory for sustainable development solutions in the live entertainment and events industries,” everyone involved in the festival develops and tests eco-friendly solutions.

YOUROPE’s Katharina Weber talked to the festival’s head of sustainability Marianne Hocquard and head of engaged content Marie de La Giraudière to find out how WE LOVE GREEN successfully integrates all people involved with bringing the event to life, why it’s important to consider impacts beyond carbon emissions, and the advice they can give people who are new to sustainability.

How is WE LOVE GREEN’s ‘living laboratory’ approach incorporated into your everyday production life?
Marianne Hocquard: Sustainability is at the heart of our production. The sustainability work at WE LOVE GREEN is a collective effort, running through each department: management, production, partnerships, communication, artistic programming, and content management. It’s overseen by a dedicated team, which grows stronger every year. Starting with a sustainability coordinator at the festival’s creation in 2011, the sustainability department now has four people working year-round. This substantial payroll represents the festival’s primary expense related to sustainability and is the foremost indicator of its commitment. This is a significant specificity, particularly for a festival that is independent and associative.

What was the idea behind creating charters for all the different participant groups in your festival?
Marie de La Giraudière: Charters are essential: the production of the event involves a wide variety of stakeholders who are responsible for the setup, operation, and life of the festival. Organising and producing an event is a collective adventure. Since 2011, these charters have evolved to become more specific and suitable to the activities of each part of the festival. Today, there are charters for suppliers, artists, restaurants, volunteers, partners, and even festival-goers, who are required to sign their charter when buying tickets.

What’s in the charters?
MH: They contain the principles behind the festival’s policies, such as no single-use plastics, eco-certified products, waste sorting, water conservation, vegetarian catering, encouraging collaboration with local organisations, and so on. Beyond the charters, in 2023, we integrated binding sustainable development clauses directly into contracts: for example, clauses in artist contracts specifying maximum electrical power consumption in kWh per stage; and clauses in service provider contracts requiring them to complete the carbon assessment questionnaire to receive payment for their services after the festival.

How hard is it to get people to sign these requirements?
MH: Signing the charters happens quite naturally, primarily because our stakeholders are familiar with our festival and its commitments. Moreover, a charter remains a rather indicative document, without real contractual value, constraints, or obligations. However, the addition of contractual clauses led to more discussions; for example, the transition to 100% vegetarian artist catering, and the stipulations on maximum electrical power consumption or sound levels. But we are taking things gradually and provide comprehensive support, for example, by proposing production alternatives with less energy-intensive equipment and by developing vegetarian menus for restaurants with the creation of a specific recipe creation tool.

“Our carbon footprint has increased over the years due to the festival’s growth and the expansion of our calculation scope”

How has your carbon footprint developed over the years?
MH: Our carbon footprint has increased over the years due to the festival’s growth and the expansion of our calculation scope; for example, since 2022, we’ve been including festivalgoers’ accommodation in the calculation. A lack of complete data is also a critical factor because it leads to extrapolations, which can result in overestimations or underestimations of results. However, with comparable scopes in 2022 and 2023, the festival’s carbon footprint has decreased from 1,690 tonnes to approximately 800 tonnes CO2e, although the 2023 number isn’t final yet.

What led to this significant reduction?
MH: Primarily, it was about improved data collection. For example, in inputs, service providers’ freight, and artist travel, which limited extrapolations and overestimation, along with the shift to 100% vegetarian catering and a more domestic lineup attracting local audiences.

Why is it important to measure your carbon footprint?
MH: The carbon footprint is an accessible and proven monitoring tool for quantifying our carbon footprint, understanding it, and identifying areas for reduction. It allows us to evaluate the effectiveness of our actions by comparing results year-on-year. It’s a complex and time-consuming exercise as it requires collecting data from artists, suppliers, audience, and team, but this also means that it engages everyone in reducing their carbon impact. Still, it’s important to remember that a carbon footprint it is not comprehensive in assessing a festival’s total environmental impact. There is a need to complement it with other impact measurement tools.

One such complement would be the impact study on local biodiversity you did in 2022. What was the result?
MH: We conducted a preliminary small-scale study on our impact on biodiversity by targeting three bird species in collaboration with the League for the Protection of Birds. We found that the impact during the setup, which is related to the transport of materials, is just as significant as the impact during the event itself, which is related to sound and light peaks.

Are you planning any follow-up research to expand on this?
MH: Yes, we are planning an impact study that is unprecedented for an outdoor event and whose results we will turn into a practical guide for the industry. In partnership with the National Museum of Natural History, we will measure and objectively assess WE LOVE GREEN’s impact on the site’s wildlife and flora biodiversity and its surroundings over three years from autumn 2023. Protocols will be established to measure pressures and impacts on several animal and plant species, including counts, sound recordings, and GPS tracking. The project will also consider the positive impact of an outdoor event on reconnecting with nature.

“We collaborate with other European festivals to pool offers thereby creating a coherent tour routing while minimising distances between dates”

Do you have a no-fly policy or a no-private-jet policy for your acts?
MH: At the moment, it’s challenging for a festival of our size to mandate such requirements. However, we do a number of things to reduce artists’ travel footprint. We collaborate with other European festivals to pool offers thereby creating a coherent tour routing while minimising distances between dates. This year, we helped production teams to avoid air travel by proposing train alternatives, and we covered the costs of these journeys. Two artistic teams – a total of 20 people – chose the train over flying to or from the festival (one from Biarritz, the other to London). It’s a small victory that demonstrates that with guidance and explanation, we can achieve results and gradually change the habits of certain productions and artists.

How does your sustainability work affect your finances?
MdLG: We’ve calculated that sustainable energy, water, and dry-toilet choices in eco-responsible production cost the festival approximately 30% more than conventional providers and sometimes up to six times more for certain actions such as hosting committed associations and companies, supplying reusable tableware, diversifying the energy mix with solar panels and green hydrogen, having a year-round sustainability team, and so on.

Looking back at all the things you’ve tested over the years, what’s the craziest thing you’ve tried that still worked?
MdLG: The transition to 100% vegetarian this year, as the first major French festival to do so, was a challenge. We had to support the restaurants to offer a varied menu that might differ from their usual practices, and we also needed to ensure it was well-received by our diverse audience, artists, and teams. In the end, it went very well on both fronts, thanks to the dedication of our teams and the openness of festivalgoers to this topic. The operation was a success and will certainly be continued. This transition reduced the festival’s carbon food footprint by a factor of six compared to 2022, from 301 to 48 tonnes CO2e.

You also somehow manage to store the food of all 50 festival restaurants in only five refrigerated trucks…
MdGL: The logistics of that are definitely a challenge, but we have met it each year since 2017. This involves coordinating pickups from 50 different restaurants, managing the storage of their supplies while meeting operational requirements for speed, traceability, and security onsite. It’s a success that allows us to keep the impact of transportation and energy consumption in check in this aspect of production.

Was there anything you’ve tried that didn’t work at all?
MH: The adoption of compostable tableware for our public food court. These containers are meant to be composted or digested into methane. However, following an in-depth study involving the local authorities and several waste management providers, the festival’s teams realised that this wasn’t necessarily the case. The problem was that much so-called “compostable” tableware contains a layer of bioplastic (PLA) that degrades only over a very long time, hindering the compostability of the entire waste stream, so waste-processing platforms reject these containers. Also, most providers couldn’t handle the high volumes of waste produced at a large-scale festival. This is why we decided to supply reusable tableware instead.

“Don’t view sustainability as a constraint but as an opportunity to foster creativity and engagement for everyone”

Starting to work on sustainability can be hard because it’s such a huge field (if you’ll pardon the pun). What advice would you give festivals that don’t know where to start?
MH: 1. Start by making a ‘state of play’ of your festival, its practices, and note what could be considered an initiative related to sustainability. 2. Identify initiatives to enhance the festival’s sustainability and prioritise them. Keep in mind that you can’t do everything all at once; take a gradual approach by focusing on one or two areas and one or two actions each year. 3. Implement performance tracking and monitoring indicators for these actions. 4. Establish a dialogue process among the different festival teams to address sticking points and potential areas for improvement. 5. Above all, don’t view sustainability as a constraint but as an opportunity to foster creativity and engagement for everyone.

How can the small number of sustainability trailblazers in Europe help reach the large majority of festivals?
MdLG: By establishing methods, guidelines, and sharing acquired information and experiences, all while being supported by public authorities. This collaborative approach is at the forefront of sustainable festival development. At every opportunity, we share our experiences during conferences and professional events, both in France and internationally. Naturally, we respond to direct requests for information and guidance. Due to the increasing demand, we are currently developing specialised training modules for festivals and events looking to embark on the path of sustainability.

Would more regulations help or hinder sustainable development?
MdLG: We believe it is crucial for public authorities to take a proactive stance on this issue by implementing incentive mechanisms and even introducing eco-conditionality for financial support.

What’s WE LOVE GREEN’s next big target in sustainability?
MH: We already mentioned the biodiversity study, which will be the central focus of our eco-responsibility efforts for our next edition. In parallel, we will measure our festival’s impact on biodiversity at a global level. Just as we translate our impacts into CO2e emissions, we aim to provide translations in terms of biodiversity. For example, the shift to 100% vegetarian food has implications not only in terms of reducing CO2 emissions but also in preserving wildlife and flora, as well as preventing soil degradation. To date, these calculations do not exist in the event industry, and we aim to develop them.

This interview appears in the European Festival Report 2023, out this month.


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