Ben Twist examines the impact that Edinburgh’s Festivals are having on the attitudes and behaviour of its audiences and its artists

Festivals are disruptive. They take over theatres, town halls, green spaces, whole villages and cities. They attract both locals and visitors. They transport sets and burn diesel. They have a carbon impact. But what is that impact? How you measure it, how do you understand and reduce it and what is the role of festivals in this increasingly climate conscious world of today?

In 2010, Festivals Edinburgh, the organisation created by the directors of Edinburgh’s 12 major festivals to lead on their joint strategic development and maintain their global competitive edge, commissioned a major impact study. For several years the Festivals had been working together to understand and improve their environmental footprint, but this was the first study that assessed the social, cultural and environmental impacts of the festivals, in addition to the economic return they bring to the nation and the city.
As expected, the study showed that the main source of greenhouse gas emissions across the Festivals is not the running of the Festivals themselves, nor the venues in which the performances and events take place, but the travel to and from Edinburgh and the accommodation, subsistence and non-Festival activities of audiences, artists and other participants.

To get a better understanding of what the Festivals can do to create more sustainable events Festivals Edinburgh recently partnered with the University of Edinburgh to take forward the Festivals’ Audience and Artist Impact Reduction Programme (AIR.) Postgraduate researcher Jasmine Kubski, whose dissertation focussed on the Edinburgh Festivals experience as a platform for fostering pro-environmental behaviour, interviewed delegates and audience members attending the 2011 Edinburgh International Film Festival. Delegates were asked about the role of the Festivals in changing organisational behaviour and also the behaviour of festival-goers. What comes out of the research most clearly, and is supported by other research considered by Kubski, is that whilst festivals in general are not responsible for significant carbon emissions, they have the potential for being powerful influences on the attitudes and behaviour of both audience members and artists. Film Festival delegates were almost unamimously supportive of festivals that were run and managed ‘greenly’ and where the environmental aims of the festival were made explicit, asking festival-goers to contribute to the wider ‘green’ agenda through their own choices and behaviours. Research shows that if Festivals both ensured that their own procurement and practices provided clear examples of pro-environmental behaviour, and provided information about green travel, green accommodation and so forth, then festival-goers would appreciate and use this information as part of their decision-making – including those who are not particularly green.

Festivals with a specific industry focus, such as the Edinburgh International Film Festival, could have a valuable role in promoting green practice within the industry, both through exemplar behaviour and by running seminars and workshops highlighting the benefits and solutions to sustainable ways of working. Kubski’s research demonstrates that it is not necessary for festivals to ‘green’ their artistic programming in order to achieve a more pro-environmental event, countering the argument that festivals risk compromising their artistic quality by going green. Much of the impact of the festival experience comes from being immersed with others in a celebratory atmosphere that is intellectually and emotionally stimulating, and this occurs as much between performances and events as it does at them. Festivals offer the opportunity to experience another way of being and individuals will respond to that if others, and particularly the festival organisers, are doing so too.

As Kubski states in her research, consistent messaging across all aspects of the Festivals’ management and operations is key: “This means leading by example and showing genuine commitment to reducing environmental impacts by being explicit about what the Festivals are doing to reduce emissions; the Festivals’ intent to engage audiences with environmental issues; and being clear about the motivations and goals driving the Festivals’ green initiatives.” She argues that if it can be shown that such behaviour change lasts beyond the festival itself, influencing the daily lives of attenders, this will help mitigate the festivals’ wider carbon impacts, but more importantly it will encourage long-term changes in lifestyles.

Kubski’s research has confirmed our view that the Edinburgh Festivals, the largest in the world, offer a great opportunity to stimulate audiences, artists and participants in new ways of thinking and behaving, both through the artistic programming and also through the wider immersive experience of the ‘festival environment’. Working individually and together, the Festivals have an ambitious environmental strategy which sets out to understand the impact they have and to work with key partners, including audiences and artists, to reduce their negative impacts and the overall green house gas emissions they produce both directly and indirectly. There is some way to go on this journey, but research to date shows that the willingness and demand from audiences to be attending and participating in green events is real, and the Edinburgh Festivals want to help make this happen, leading the way forward for audiences and artists. They are also playing a crucial role in developing expertise and working towards a Sustainable creative sector in Scotland.

Ben Twist is the Environmental Lead at Festivals Edinburgh