How a new green agenda is helping theatres to create a more sustainable future

Most theatres in London now aim to ensure their productions are as environmentally sustainable as they are artistically valuable, despite the huge challenge that can at first appear. Large commercial venues have long put ecology at the heart of their businesses. Leading the field, the huge Dominion has had an environmental policy since 2005, and a holistic approach that includes everyone from stage technicians to administrators. It drastically reduced it’s carbon footprint and water consumption between 2010 and 2015 through multiple initiatives including upgrading its lighting, heating/cooling system and toilets. In 2015 it became the first West End theatre to receive the Green Tourism Scheme’s Gold Award.

For subsidised theatres like the National Theatre or the Royal Court, sustainability is no longer a matter of choice. In 2013 Arts Council England became the first funding body in the world to embed environmental sustainability into its programmes. An environmental policy and action plan, and monitoring energy and water use, are now funding requirements. Partnering with not-for-profit Julie’s Bicycle, ACE provided advice and practical support to its funded organisations on how to meet those new minimum requirements and go beyond them.

A Julie’s Bicycle report on the first three years reported 98% participation from supported venues in the UK, with 40% exceeding the minimum requirements, and a total of £2.3 million savings through efficiencies. It concluded that, despite an increase in cultural activities, the related carbon emissions were dropping by 5% a year. More than half the participants reported financial benefits, two thirds saw better team morale, and 43% detected reputational benefit. In fact, the more engaged they were, the better those outcomes. Around 70% found their environmental policy useful for communicating with potential funders and other stakeholders.

Smaller venues tend to be run by smaller businesses, work within tighter financial margins and rent their premises, often in older, sometimes listed buildings. They may struggle even to access genuine metered information about their power and water usage. Unsurprisingly, many feel they simply can’t afford to consider their environmental impact. National public body The Theatres Trust, ran an Ecovenue scheme in London between 2009 and 2012, in response to then-mayor Boris Johnson’s Green Theatre: Taking Action on Climate Change 2008 initiative. 48 smaller theatres, identified as SMEs according to EU criteria, received targeted support.

Following an initial site visit and environmental audit, including using infra-red imaging to identify heat leaks, project staff presented each theatre with a clear view of exactly where improvements were possible, benchmarking its green performance against others. Following advice sessions, they created an environmental policy and DEC (Display Energy Certificate) plus a report with 5 to 10 recommendations for each. Typical suggestions were recycling materials from old sets, choosing wood from renewable sources and upgrading lighting and air-conditioning.

The scheme provided electronic tools like sMeasure and ENvibe to allow even those dependent on estimated bills to monitor resource-consumption and waste levels, and a cost/benefit calculator to help determine payback periods for upgrades like LED lighting. Further support included planning, architectural and heritage advice. Ideas-sharing workshops and a shared online space allowed them to plan their own longer-term initiatives. “We now have an Environmental Policy and a Green Team that is genuinely integrated in our company – we have buy-in from the top all the way down” said Erin Gavaghan of the Soho Theatre.

The most significant change was in energy efficiency, with one venue halving its heating bill, making it more financially as well as environmentally viable. David Duffy of the Little Angel children’s theatre, said: “We found one of the highest uses of electricity was front-of-house and auditorium lighting. It was a huge consideration to put in LED house lighting but it has reduced that background level of electrical consumption.”

Ecovenue was also able to establish typical performance levels and create a policy template which can be adapted for use by similar businesses worldwide. A UK-wide ‘Theatres DEC Pool’ continues to test and refine the benchmarks set for theatre DECs. Even for smaller organisations, it proved it’s cheaper to address environmental issues than to ignore them. The project spent £751,300, and the estimated financial benefits to the participating venues over 30 years can be conservatively estimated at £1.1 million.

By looking for bright ideas from elsewhere in the arts sector, and at more diverse businesses comparable in other ways, the London scene has proved considering environmental issues can help theatres maintain financial sustainability, too.

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