Image for Leading lights: the sustainability champions making UK culture greener

Leading lights: the sustainability champions making UK culture greener

Musicians, TV producers and arts organisations have the power to make people understand and care about the climate crisis. Positive News meets three people driving positive change within the UK cultural sector

Musicians, TV producers and arts organisations have the power to make people understand and care about the climate crisis. Positive News meets three people driving positive change within the UK cultural sector

The creative industries have a unique opportunity for action on climate change.

“Artists interpret the world for the public,” says Alison Tickell, founder of Julie’s Bicycle, which helps the cultural sector take the lead on better environmental practice. “They can take complex issues and present them in intelligible ways, narrating the situations we face.”

Discussions about the climate crisis can be dry at times. But artists can relate it to people’s everyday lives, Tickell says. “They can place it at the top of the agenda, which is where it needs to be.”

We spoke to three people who are leading the way:

Jamie Saye, senior technician at Opera North and co-founder of Sustainable Arts in Leeds

“I’ve always been interested in sustainability. In my personal life I try to cut my carbon footprint, eat food from my allotment and not to buy things in plastic. So when Opera North said they were getting a team together to tackle sustainability in the company, it felt like an amazing opportunity.

We formed the ‘Green Team’ and hit the ground running. We started to get a handle on the company’s carbon footprint by doing things like moving to [renewable energy provider] Good Energy and began staff engagement and awareness campaigns. We also trialled a fully recycled set for a recent production of [musical drama] Not Such Quiet Girls, using bits of the set from another show called Don Carlos, so that was really cool.

Jamie Saye delivering carbon literacy training at Opera North

Jamie Saye delivering carbon literacy training at Opera North. Image: Opera North

I also co-founded Sustainable Arts in Leeds (Sail), a not-for-profit membership network, in 2018 to unite organisations in the creative and culture sector to take action on the climate emergency. I’m a big advocate of not reinventing the wheel; we don’t have much time so we should share knowledge and best practice and that’s what Sail does.

One of the things arts organisations are really good at is storytelling to loads of people. If we can do that in a really good way, there’s potential to engage a lot of people. Scientists lay out the facts, but I don’t think humans respond to facts that well. The creative industry has the power to make people feel it and see it and have an emotional response. I think that’s what’s going to turn this around.”

Aaron Matthews, head of industry sustainability at Albert

“We help people working in TV and film to understand how they can create positive environmental change. Our first objective is to eliminate the impact of making content. Our second is to make sure we’re telling the right stories. And that’s what I’m most passionate about.

Within this, we do three things. First, we measure to see how we’re doing. For example, last year we found the climate crisis was mentioned the same number of times as ‘zombies’ across a number of TV channels, which is not enough. We also offer guidance and training and encourage producers to make changes.

It’s not enough to have a storyline about recycling. We need to talk about climate change in discussions about absolutely everything, from fashion to food and homes. For example, home renovation projects should make homes that are fit for the future.

"If producers aren’t engaging with climate change, they’re jeopardising their own authenticity," says Aaron Matthews. Image: Albert

Our biggest challenge is to get in people’s diaries. When we talk to senior editors, they think we’re going to give them a telling off. But once we get people in the room, they normally get on board. Climate change is happening, so if producers aren’t engaging with it, they’re jeopardising their own authenticity and accessibility.

If you watch content from 30 years ago, casual sexism and attitudes towards smoking, for example, stick out like sore thumbs. I think we will look back on the way we talk about climate issues in the same way, but we don’t have 30 years to go through the transition.”

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Peter Quicke, joint chief executive of Ninja Tune and co-founder of Music Declares Emergency

“I’ve always had a strong interest in sustainability and political activism. Then a few years ago I looked at what Extinction Rebellion was doing and it was a wake-up call for me to do more too. That crystallised my thinking on the subject and catalysed Ninja Tune’s activity.

Since then, we’ve been doing a number of things to become more sustainable, such as using card sleeves for CDs. We no longer press vinyl at 180g (‘heavyweight’) but at standard 140g, which gives us a lower carbon footprint. We also have 18 solar panels on the roof of our London office and we get our electricity via renewables supplier Good Energy. We also offer a subsidy to all our staff to take trains.

"The cultural industries have a high profile, so we can get people interested," says Peter Quicke. Image: Ninja Tune

I was also involved in setting up Music Declares Emergency. It is a group of artists, music industry professionals and organisations who have joined together to help tackle the climate crisis by running campaigns and working to reduce our own carbon emissions. We have a great slogan – ‘no music on a dead planet’ – and have held up banners at the NME and Q awards. Billie Eilish even wore a top with the slogan at the American Music Awards.

Tackling the climate crisis is important and the whole world needs to be concerned with this. The cultural industries have a high profile and visibility, so we can get people interested. That’s the opportunity we have: we can speak out and make more noise than our size.”

Main image: illustration by Ryan Chapman

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