The Show Must Go On

Chris Johnson is co-founder of Shambala Festival, a Director of Kambe Events, and has managed over 50 festivals over nearly two decades. He co-founded and chairs Powerful Thinking, the UK festival industry forum on sustainable energy. A regular speaker at events, sustainability consultant, occasional lecturer and campaigner, Chris has practical knowledge of how to implement initiatives on the ground. Chris is also the Associate for Festivals and Events with Julie’s Bicycle. He lives in Bristol with his wife and two children and isn’t prepared to take a risk on their future by not taking action on climate change wherever he can.

I’ve been a festival organiser for fifteen years. Like many others, I enjoy the challenges and the team spirit that building an event involves. I often consider the similarities between festivals and disaster management, both in terms of people skills and infrastructure. There is potentially a big disaster ahead – climate change – and with the global talks taking place in Paris, I, like many of us perhaps, find myself asking the question: what role can festivals play in this urgent challenge?

When was the last time you remember wearing a T-shirt in November? The planet is literally on the verge of ecological collapse while we chase the consumer capitalist dream. It’s time to really think about how we do things.

At the COP21 talks in Paris, global leaders will be horse-trading about emissions quotas and targets, the decisions about which may well determine whether our kids have a decent world to live in. Whilst I don’t tend to be sceptical by default, I think that real change will have to come from mass movements of people demanding that common sense prevails; that quality of life and equity take centre stage rather than reckless resource use, fuelling a world of materialism for the profitable benefit of minority interests.

I passionately believe that festivals have a valuable and inspiring role to play in this conversation about our future, and that we can do this without trotting out doomsday scenarios – people come to our events for enjoyment, escapism and inspiration, and compromising this isn’t useful or clever.

What we can do is lead by example by managing our businesses and events responsibly, and having an active voice in the societal narrative about how to move toward a positive future. This is badly needed in order to contribute to changing attitudes and behaviour in the face of a media seemingly determined to avoid the facts and urgency around climate change. As creative businesses with communications expertise, we can weave the conversation into the context of genuine audience benefits. Most surveys tell us that audiences want festivals to be environmentally responsible: and there are many examples of how festivals have introduced effective initiatives to reduce impacts, which enhance the audience experience, either in practical terms onsite or in the feeling festivalgoers take away with them.

An example is the Bring a Bottle initiative at Shambala, a festival I am directly involved with as a company director. Bring a Bottle helped to eliminate disposable plastics from the festival, well-known to have diverse negative environmental impacts. We also replaced single use bar cups with reusable cups, banned the sale of drinks in disposable plastic and asked all festivalgoers, crew and artists to bring a reusable water bottle. The initiative reduced the amount and types of waste we were required to manage onsite, but perhaps most significantly, it reduced a key source of litter, making the site much cleaner. We also worked with the charity FRANK Water to provide free filtered water at all bars and at two water points, added more water taps to ensure the audience had easy access to water, and communicated clearly with the audience about why we were doing this – all of which resulted in 96% positive feedback ratings about the initiative in our post-event survey. The initiative saved tonnes of plastics from being used once and discarded and also improved our bottom line.

There are many other good examples at festivals across the UK, from recycling deposit systems, successful car sharing initiatives, clever approaches to energy saving and charity partnerships. All these are great, but things need to be ramped up across the industry.

Over the past five years there has been progress on sustainable approaches to energy in the sector, principally based on efficiency gains and the introduction of renewables. There are now plenty of examples of festivals achieving carbon and cost reductions. Whilst we have to accept that some new solutions and ways of doing things can be more costly in the short term – if the industry demands sustainable solutions there will be investment in research and development to deliver them on a larger scale – they will become affordable (and quite possibly the cheaper option) in the medium to long term.

We need to be thorough and robust about the science that underpins our approach to making the industry more environmentally responsible, to remain credible, and to make sure our efforts result in real impacts.

As an industry of natural leaders and innovators, we have the knowledge and ability to make changes. We know how to get things done. The change that is required is similar to the integration of new Health and Safety practices over the past decade – a real transformation in the way we do things. But in the absence of legislation to drive changes in environmental performance, it’s going to take a concerted commitment from individual festivals and from within the industry at large to achieve this.

We cannot expect every festival, especially smaller events, to suddenly acquire the expertise to make the right decisions when aiming to reduce impacts. Festival organisers also have some significant challenges to overcome, for example audiences leaving tents and campsite waste at festivals.

This is where I believe an industry body focused on sustainability will become invaluable; why learn the same lessons over and over again amongst a community of over 300 UK festivals, when we could develop qualified, objective advice by identifying priorities within the industry, commissioning research, sharing experiences and developing solutions, tools and guidance.

The current information about the level of green house gas (GHG) reductions required to stay under the 2 degrees ‘safe limit’ of global warming, is reflected in the UK Climate Change Act (2008), which legally demands a 50% reduction of GHGs by 2025. Things may change in the coming weeks, but that’s what we have to guide us at this moment.

If the festival industry is to play its role, and achieve this target for itself, we need to identify where the practical wins are, ideally measures that deliver environmental benefits, work with our bottom line and enhance audience experiences. Is this a tall order?

A group of committed festivals and industry membership organisations have been working hard in the background for a number of years on this very question. Initially set up to explore best practice in energy management, the Powerful Thinking group launched the Show Must Go On report at the UK Festival Awards & Conference this year. The report is a comprehensive assessment of industry impacts, an exploration of how we can achieve a 50% reduction in GHGs, and a call to action to join a vision for the industry.

The group of organisations that make up Powerful Thinking have guided, consulted on and funded the report. From my personal experience of working with the group, our commitment is an expression of genuine concern, on both personal and organisational levels, about the future. This reflects a wider commitment amongst festival organisers which I would say is clearly ’emerging’, although is yet to manifest into concrete action at many events. In a recent survey, 80% of festival organisers stated that they ‘think that we should work together on industry standards.’

The Show Must Go On report provides a foundation of shared knowledge to consider how we take the first steps toward becoming an industry that takes responsibility for its impacts and potentially inspires other sectors to do the same. The report aims to galvanise existing commitment and bring the industry together around a vision – Festival Vision: 2025.

It is my sincere hope that at least a hundred festivals join this movement, that we share this journey and learn as we go, that it becomes a significant enough priority for festivals that an industry body is properly funded through many small contributions, and that we are able to take effective and meaningful action to contribute to a world we are proud to leave to our children and future generations. It can often feel like there are more immediate or important issues than climate change, but I believe that keeping the planet habitable is a pretty high on the list, even if it is nice to be able to wear a T-shirt in November.

I was inspired by a quote presented by Holger Smidt (Europe’s ‘Green Anchorman’) at the Green Events Europe Conference in 2014, which I’d like to leave you with:

“Somebody said somebody should do something about that. Then I realised I am somebody.”

To download a free copy of the Show Must Go On report and to sign up to the Festival Vision: 2025 Pledge, visit