It’s Not Easy Being Green

October 26, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

AdGreen founder Jo Coombes knows it’s hard. But green production is coming and it’s getting easier.

If you ask them, most people in advertising production would say they care about climate change and sustainability. In their personal lives most people probably recycle as much as they can, buy locally sourced organic produce and try not to take long showers. But in their professional lives so many still jet around to shoots on every continent and throw mountains of on-set waste into landfill.

AdGreen founder and freelance production manager Jo Coombes knows how daunting the prospect of greener production is because for the past two years she’s been pushing against the way things are done, challenging unsustainable practices. AdGreen exists so that others can join her in this crusade: educating the ad industry on climate change and sustainability, and supporting production companies in acting more sustainably by developing best practice.

If you’ve ever wondered what you can do to take on climate change, the AdGreen website is a great place to start. We sat down with her to find out why.

The Beak Street Bugle: Why does production need initiatives like AdGreen?
Jo Coombes: Producing shoots is particularly wasteful - anyone who’s been on set would agree. Catering waste, sets and props, throwaway costume, drives: almost every department is responsible for something!

And of course, that’s only the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended): BAFTA’s albert initiative has concluded that the three biggest culprits in terms of emissions are waste, energy use and transport. Waste is something we can see, and easily reduce, but energy use is harder to make a dent in without more education (and innovation) around alternative fuel sources like solar generators, and more energy efficient lighting. Luckily, in advertising I would say that transport use is probably not as intensive as in film and TV, but it’s still a big factor (until Uber Electric arrives of course!).

Talking to crew on set I hear some real horror stories. Someone told me about a shoot for [a clothing brand]. They used two studios – one for the shoot and one for styling and catering – and they carpeted the whole studio, just to make it nice. At the end they pulled up the carpet and threw it away. This is [a brand] who have an ethically sustainable policy. Yet under their nose, their money is being spent on this kind of wasteful behaviour. It only takes one person to notice how wasteful their shoot is and they’ve got some really bad PR on their hands. I can’t believe in this day and age they’re not being more accountable.

I see it myself too - on a recent shoot, unusually, the pack shot had been relatively forgotten about. After a last minute trip to B&Q, we set up a small infinity pool using a cement mixing tray and some pond liner. I’d worked with the art director from the start of the job to make sure the main prop make had a home to go to, along with 400-odd lemons, and now I couldn’t help thinking ‘what’s going to happen to that?’ This was something that was decided at four in the afternoon and we ended up shooting until midnight. What’re you going to do with all that stuff when it’s gone twelve, you’ve been up since 5am, and everything is covered in mud? Sometimes there’s only so much you can do, and that’s incredibly frustrating.

BSB: How did it all start?
JC: When I was growing up, my dad used to call me ‘Sting’s right-hand man’. I remember my school collecting recyclables, and I tore off a bit of tin foil so that I had something to donate – not quite the right idea of course! I always said I was going to be vegetarian except on Sundays and that I’d ride a bike everywhere. Now I’m vegetarian even on Sundays (except for fish… it’s a work in progress) and I ride my bike almost everywhere.

I love working in production but I’d become more disenchanted with it due to the waste. I was collecting water bottles and call sheets on set and taking them home to smuggle into my recycling. In February 2014 I read an article about global warming which was really terrifying. It took a good few months to shake it off and convert that fear into something positive.

At first I didn’t really have the confidence to speak up about the issue – I was a relatively new freelancer at the time, and had not long moved up to production managing. I didn’t want to piss off my new producers with my eco-rantings. It wasn’t until I went on holiday that September that I thought maybe I could do something. I sent some emails from my sun lounger and arranged to meet the guys at BAFTA to find out more about their albert initiative, which works with the TV and film industry to calculate and reduce emissions through practical tips and tools. They really inspired me to try and apply their experience and knowledge to our industry. I got some people together – a few production folks and some suppliers – and we sat around the table at the APA and eventually came up with a sort of environmental risk assessment.

BSB: How did you refine that checklist once you had it?
JC: The first draft was far too involved and detailed – it would’ve taken about a week just to complete! But it was a starting point. We’d seen that some of the productions using albert’s guidance were issuing ‘green memos’ to crew at the start of their jobs, to communicate what was being done throughout the process, and what was expected of them. We realised that we could adapt these and create some copy-and-paste text to help production teams relay the information quickly to their crew and suppliers. We linked these up to the checklist, to make those points easier to accomplish. As we moved forward, I tested various ideas on my shoots, and other production managers did too, feeding back on what worked and what needed a bit more refining. Each time something worked well, we added it to the checklist along with any relevant resources. We recently found out you can recycle Nespresso pods for example, so included that on the list, along with details of where to get the free recycling bags, and a sign to print off and use at the tea table.

It’s trial and error. And it’s about breaking down the barriers that make doing these things difficult – mostly by making them less time consuming to accomplish. Telling people why something is being done works surprisingly well when you come up against resistance. Few people argue with saving the planet! Constantly reminding also helps. I feel confident in what I’ve got on the checklist because I know that I’ve done it and it’s worked. Not everything can be done on every job, but it’s a good place to start.

BSB: What have been some of the challenges?
JC: The main resistance is that there’s not enough time. If you’ve only got four days of a production manager’s time for a two-day shoot, you can only achieve so much. It also takes time to digest what’s on the website, to have crew read things, to ask extra questions, to follow up for answers, to order the extra bits and pieces to help you do things better, to think of how many 19-litre water containers you need instead of bottled water... For me, these things are now habit, but it’s taken a few months.

You also have to make people feel comfortable discussing these issues. There might be runners or production assistants who want to be greener but feel that they can’t approach their superiors because they don’t want to rock the boat or stand out. Whenever I start a new job, once I’ve read the treatment and gone through the budget, it’s the next thing I’ll discuss with the producer. Putting it out there at the start of a job also means crew and suppliers understand that sustainability is important to the production company, and that there is space for them to contribute.

BSB: What are people’s misconceptions about green production?
JC: The main one is that it costs more money to be green. There are so many studies that show it really doesn’t. When I get asked this, I generally give a threefold answer: 

There are things we’re not doing and they’re going to cost more to do properly like recycling for example.  There are also things that will save you money – we recently used water coolers instead of bottled water – they definitely came in cheaper and saved a fair amount of waste in the process. However, it’s a shame that rubbish collections aren’t priced in a way that saves money – being charged per collection rather than per bag doesn’t incentivise people to consider how to produce less waste. Perhaps if it was then we’d insist on water coolers all the time – and crew bringing their own sports bottles to refill.

Lastly, you’ve got bigger costs that should be discussed with the agency. Ethical disposal of sets will take longer than just skipping the whole thing, and therefore will cost money in studio and crew time. This is why we need agencies on board, and we need to embed sustainability discussions in the pitching process. If everyone knows there’s a big build, make sure your bid includes costs to dispose of it sustainably, and reference these costs in your bid letter. Not only are you highlighting why your bid might be higher than someone else’s in this area, you’re showing that you are considering environmental issues, which is likely to be something their client cares about.

BSB: How can you involve clients and agencies?
JC: I think the key is to help agencies understand what is possible at this point in time, what needs more development, and what things might have cost implications. The fact that more isn’t required of us is also indicative of a disconnect between client and agency in this area too. If a client asks for a 24-hour security to guard a product we’ll organise it (and likely extra-charge it if it’s a late request). Theoretically they have the power to ask for whatever they want. If a client wants recycling bins, we can organise that, but I wonder if the conversation is even being had? Perhaps there are also assumptions that these basics are already in place, as it’s 2016.

BSB: How do you feel about what you’ve achieved so far?
JC: I think about that article that I read now and it still terrifies me but not in quite the same way. Since I read it, there have been some really innovative developments – solar planes, kinetic bike paths, ridding oceans of plastic with a giant vacuum cleaner; and public figures from The Pope to Leonardo DiCaprio are raising awareness of climate change in a big way. These things give me hope that we’re moving in the right direction in general, and people are becoming more and more engaged with the issue.

I know that I’m doing what I can and taking control of a part of the problem (albeit a very small part). It won’t change the world. Bigger changes need to happen a national and international level, but for now it’s a start and as those bigger changes come in, hopefully we’ll be in a better place to handle them.

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