Sustainable Events

What can we do to make outdoor events more sustainable? asks NCASS director Mark Laurie

With world powers committing to endeavour to limit global warming to below the agreed two degree point of no return, the Paris Climate Talks could prove a watershed moment in finally dealing with the causes and effects of climate change.

If they don’t, we could all be in trouble! The clock is ticking to change the way we operate and limit the significant risks of climate change, before it’s too late.

Sustainable festival

Are festivals part of the problem?
The UK festival industry has always led the way in innovative experience creation. For many years this has included promoting environmental understanding. Festivals and alternative lifestyles have, it seems, always gone hand in hand. So it’s no surprise that many of those involved in putting on the shows and events that we all enjoy every summer would be leading the way in sustainable business.

Music festivals often offer alternative realities; safe spaces to explore, enjoy and learn about yourself. They create opportunities for punters to get away from the stresses and strains of modern life and have fun in a field with their mates.

But temporary events that take place in the countryside can have a significant environmental impact. Festivals may talk the talk when it comes to environmental issues, but what with waste, power usage and traffic, are they actually part of the problem? And if so, what are they doing about it and what can the wider outdoor event industry learn from them?

Cutting GHG emissions in half by 2025The Show Must Go On
In the lead-up to the Paris Climate Talks, Powerful Thinking – a not-for-profit industry working group made up of event organisers, infrastructure providers and event suppliers – developed a report called The Show Must Go On. Its aim was:

  • To outline the environmental impact of the UK festival industry in an accessible format
  • To provide a robust basis for an industry-wide approach to reducing environmental impact
  • To promote action.

The report called on festival organisers and industry stakeholders to commit to taking physical action in the shape of signing up to the Festival Vision 2025. It’s a pledge to achieve a 50% reduction in annual festival-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2025. You can find out more about it or sign up yourself at

With over 40 major events already signed up to the pledge, along with numerous stakeholders and suppliers, it’s safe to say that the report is clearly already having an impact. Now it is our responsibility as an industry to widen participation, make good on those pledges and deliver a more sustainable outdoor event industry in the UK.

Not everyone is the same
Every outdoor event is different. Clearly there will be different issues and challenges for different events and, as such, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is unlikely to be the answer. That’s why the 2016 season has been designated for the collation of information and the sharing of ideas in a non-judgmental manner. We don’t want to beat people over the head! We want to bring them with us. Creating a space for open discussion and information sharing is vital.

With events at many different stages of sustainability, it’s important to share and promote best practice. One festival that is arguably ahead of the curve is Shambala (see last issue – Time for Change). They have introduced numerous initiatives to reduce their environmental impact, particularly concerning power and waste, and have engaged their punters to improve understanding and response.

Small changes can have the biggest impact
In 2015 Shambala banned all plastic bottles from site and this year it has gone ‘full veggie’. There won’t be a single bacon butty on site! The idea is to challenge customers to take part in an experiment to discover whether or not they can live without meat for a few days.

Sometimes it’s the small changes that have a big impact. One of my personal favourites is Shambala’s initiative to attach ashtrays to poles at eye level. This way it’s more likely that people will actually use them instead of dropping butts onto the floor to be trodden into the mud and eaten by the local wildlife or livestock. Incremental change can be easier to achieve and less intimidating and problematic than wholesale change.

Shambala is not alone (thank goodness). Energy Revolution – a charity set up to tackle travel-related emissions and impacts in the outdoor event industry – has already turned 1.7 million fossil fuel travel miles into renewable energy investments. That was just by working with 10 UK festival organisers during its first year. Now it’s setting up a programme for event suppliers with a group of pioneer companies.

At the Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS), we are supporting the 2025 vision through several different initiatives. Last year we worked with A Greener Festival and Fare Share South West on a project we called Eighth Plate.

Food waste is regularly in the news these days due not only to its environmental impact but also to the sheer number of people around the world living in food poverty. The aim of Eighth Plate is to remove unused waste food from festival sites and distribute it to food banks and food poverty charities.

At just seven festivals we were able to salvage 27 tonnes of food (enough to make 55,000 meals)! We worked with festivals to reduce their environmental impact while ensuring that good food went to those that needed it, rather than to landfill. With around 770 festivals taking place each year in the UK, just think how much food could be salvaged and CO2 reduced if the entire industry joined the scheme.

You can find out more about the Eighth Plate project and download a free toolkit to help you introduce the scheme at your own events below.

A new energy calculator for events
This year at NCASS we are developing an energy calculator through our free ‘Connect’ system. The idea behind the energy calculator is to measure and understand how much power caterers actually need, with the hope of reducing the current approach of potential over supply.

We are hoping to enable power providers at festivals to better plan their energy needs, to cut both costs and emissions. We are also looking to work with Kambe, the company behind Shambala Festival, to provide training for both catering companies and event organisers, to help them better understand the issues and take action to counter them.

How can you make your event more sustainable?
Taking positive action, and certainly realising the pledge, will require buy-in and behavioural change from the public, suppliers, infrastructure providers and event organisers. So what can you do as an organiser or supplier to make events more sustainable?

  1. Sign the pledge
    It’s a great first step for you and your organisation (however small) to understanding your environmental impact and work out ways to reduce it (visit
  1. Connect
    Great organisations like A Greener Festival, Julie’s Bicycle and Powerful Thinking all provide support for events looking to reduce their impact and enhance their offering. Connect with them to find options that suit your event.
  1. Identify
    Work out what changes you could enact easily, or which may offer the best results, and begin to plan their implementation. If you are a supplier, identifying the sustainability needs of your clients early could help you to win contracts.
  1. Engage
    Talk to your punters and suppliers and get to understand what motivates them. Find ways to bring them on this sustainability journey with you. Equally, it can be great for your event’s reputation to engage with the local populace, press and authorities over your sustainability progress.
  1. Measure
    You’ll need to know your starting point in order to measure the success of your initiatives. Start measuring now – even those things that you may not be looking to change immediately.
  1. Report
    Celebrate your successes and compare them with what others have achieved. Together, you could just develop industry best practice. And make sure you tell NCASS about it!

Useful links

About the author

Mark Laurie is the director at the Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS), the only trade association and primary authority for mobile caterers and street food sellers in the UK. The NCASS mission is to provide traders with all the information, systems and support they need for a profitable, safe and legal business. From start-ups to fully-fledged mobile ventures, NCASS offers support and materials to help caterers at any stage of business. Currently looking after 3,500 UK catering businesses, NCASS continues to grow year on year as a result of its care for and support to the catering and events industry.

About Open Air Business 1380 Articles
The voice of outdoor hospitality - in print and online. If you liked this article, subscribe to the printed magazine here. We produce industry e-news between issues - please sign up here