To Greener Pastures

May 31, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

How can production become environmentally sustainable? And what can it learn from Unilever?

Everyone knows the threat climate change poses to humanity. We’ve been hearing about it for years, with new scientific studies coming every month to remind us how serious it is. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of it. So it was encouraging to see so many of London’s advertising production community gather at the Picturehouse Cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue last Thursday for a seminar hosted by AdGreen and the APA about making production more sustainable.

With AdGreen founder Jo Coombes hosting, presentations and discussion came from Richard Brooke from Unilever, Suzanne Dolan and Louise Smith from the BBC and Tracy Courtney-Wills from Palma Pictures – a panel of speakers who have all made proactive moves for sustainability in their businesses.

Just in case anyone in the room needed reminding, Richard started by showing what he described as a “doom-mongering video” (embedded below) about humanity’s unsustainable trajectory, heading towards needing between three and five planets’ worth of resources by 2020. “We cannot continue to do what we are doing in the way are doing it and hope to leave a legacy for our grandchildren,” he said.

Richard went on to explain the journey that Unilever have been on since they set their Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 – their goals to double the size of the business in ten years while reducing the company’s environmental footprint and improving its social impact. They still have a way to go, but considering they’re the second biggest company in the world, their changes have been impressive. They now sustainably source over 60% of their agricultural materials, their water usage has reduced by 1% and, while sales have increased by 26%, their greenhouse gas emissions have only risen by 6%. “We’re getting to where we need to be,” he said.

Crucially, he refuted the idea that sustainability is bad for business with several points. “Sustainable living inspires people,” he said. Unilever is the world’s third most in-demand employer according to LinkedIn and Richard argued that one of the key reasons it’s up there with the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook was its responsible culture.

“Millennials are becoming far more environmentally demanding,” he said. “They actually care. They don’t just pay it lip service.” This has also been a huge benefit to their sales, he noted, and their share price reflects that. 

Turning more specifically to the ad industry, he highlighted production’s key role in the sector. Having spoken to creative and media agencies, he’d realised that while they can reduce their carbon footprint by making their offices more sustainable, “ultimately they don’t make anything.” Production is where the big progress is possible. “You are at the sharp end, making stuff,” he said to the room of production professionals. “There’s never been a better time to do something about this.”

Richard gave his first sustainability presentation four days after his youngest daughter was born “She’s now six,” he said, “and I can almost guarantee that as a communications industry, in her six years we have not done enough. I’d almost say we’ve done bugger all. We need to ask what world we’re going to leave for these kids if we carry on behaving as we’re behaving.”

It’s definitely time for the ad industry to step up in this regard. But the tools for green production are gradually making it more accessible. Jo spoke next about albert, which exists to help the UK production industry transition to environmental sustainability. Started by the BBC, chaired by BAFTA and supported by the biggest production companies and broadcasters in the country, it offers the production industry tools for carbon emissions calculation and free sustainability education for anyone who works in production. They also offer the albert+ certification, which aims to reward production teams who have embedded sustainable principles into their shows, and allows these programmes to communicate their achievements with both the broadcasting industry and audiences.

By collecting data from over 2,000 productions, albert have calculated that one hour of television produces 4.9 tonnes of carbon emissions. To put that in context, the average UK household would produce 15 tonnes in a year.

Louise next explained how the BBC is working to reduce its carbon footprint, stressing the importance of asking questions about how a production could be sustainable as early as possible in the process.

She also stressed the importance of albert’s educational aspect, raising awareness about environmental issues. “One the challenges of getting people to pick albert and albert+ up initially was awareness,” she said. “They don’t feel like they know enough about the environment, sustainability or carbon footprinting and it frightens them because it all sounds a bit science-y and not really relevant to the their jobs.” Explaining to people why this is important, not only as producers but as human beings on this planet. Once people are motivated to make a change, then they can learn how they can specifically make in impact.

Normalising sustainable behaviour is another way the BBC take responsibility, by including subtle things in their programming, such as having recycling bins in a scene, not including plastic water bottles or having characters drive hybrid cars. Without changing the narrative, this gradually makes green behaviours more acceptable.

EastEnders was where albert first originated – in Albert Square, hence the name. They began calculating their carbon footprint in 2009. “It was very frightening to start with because EastEnders is a massive machine,” recalled Suzanne.

Since then they’ve come on a long way, achieving a three-star rating from albert+ - the best certification possible for sustainable production. Suzanne attributes this to good communication and the accumulative effect of small changes, such as putting a massive un-ignorable sandwich board in front of the recycling bins telling people to recycle their coffee cups. They’ve even devised a requirements list that goes to every production manager that they have to check off every time they contact a supplier.

Tracy was always the one nagging people about recycling since she started as a Line Producer at Palma Pictures, so gradually became a driving force for making the company sustainable. “Every company needs someone to be the one to motivate people,” she said. They’re making an effort to be a sustainable company for their conscience, but she noted that it’s also good for marketing to people with a conscience.

She noted the benefits of adhering to recognised standards and accreditation, such as the ISO 14001 and the EMAS, rather than simply saying you’re ‘being green.’ “The best thing about that is it provided a strict framework to work to,” she said. Every year they must produce a sustainability report and show that they’re improving in different areas.

To begin with, the challenge was measuring which parts of their business made the biggest environmental impact, but once that was established Palma Pictures took action on reducing this. Some of these were replacing the almost 50,000 plastic water bottles they use per year with reusable aluminium bottles for all their crew and clients, water fountains on all sets and paper compostable cups. They’re working towards a building a tool to calculate the emissions of a production at the budgeting stage – a huge undertaking, but one which could make a massive impact.

In a panel discussion to round off the event, Richard emphasised that sustainability shouldn’t be, and eventually won’t be, optional. Although Unilever is ahead of most, many clients are sustainability up their agenda. “I think there’ll be a point in time where the client won’t book someone to produce something unless they’ve got sustainable credentials,” he said.

AdGreen and the APA are working to devise such a system of credentials, but the debate of who foots the bill for such accreditation was lively.

For now, production companies who want to move towards sustainability have the resources to help them on their journey thanks to the checklists and copy and paste items available on the AdGreen website. It has resources for every role in the production process to help you make sustainable choices. And while no production company will ever be a giant like Unilever, everyone at this event kept saying the same thing – small actions add up to making a big difference.

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