‘It’s A Real Opportunity’: A Greener Festival’s Claire O’Neill On How To Come Back Stronger And More Sustainable

Boom Festival is all about sustainability, not just environmentally, but spiritually as well
– Boom Festival is all about sustainability, not just environmentally, but spiritually as well
One of Claire O’Neill’s favorite festivals

Pollstar spoke to Claire O’Neill, co-founder and director at A Greener Festival and producer of the annual Green Events & Innovations Conference in London, to find out how the current crisis may create opportunity. Because, as O’Neill pointed out, “if we’d continued doing things as we were, we’d be screwed.”
Her 15-plus years of working in event sustainability have made one thing very clear: the bottom line usually takes precedence over sustainability strategies. “Coldplay aside, you would have never paused a tour because of the environmental impacts, economics dictated to keep that tour running as it was, because that’s how the money is made,” O’Neill explained.
Claire O'Neill
– Claire O’Neill
Co-founder A Greener Festival

In the festival space, work on next year’s event usually starts soon after this year’s edition has concluded, so there’s not much time to halt operations and really look at how you could be doing things differently.

“Now that’ we’ve got the rare opportunity to pause while operations are sadly halted, before we put it back online, we can go, well, what were the problems with how things were being done before, and how can we reboot it in a way that negates some of those problems,” O’Neill said.
From the use of fossil fuel and plastic to waste reduction, local supply chains and composting – “there’s a potential to restructure some of the economic framework, and the business model that the industry’s built on,” she continued.
According to O’Neill, sustainability rests on three pillars: economic, social and environmental. “I think that, previously, we were doing very well as an industry economically. As businesses, we were pretty much nailing it, whereas environmentally, and possibly on a health and mental well-being factor, perhaps we weren’t doing as well. 
It was getting better, but still some way to go,” she explained. “Right now, the economics have gone through the floor, environmentally we’re actually doing very well, because we’re not releasing any carbon or producing any waste. How can we now look at, well, returning to a place where the economics work alongside the environmental and alongside the mental well-being, health and equality. Viewed this way it’s a real opportunity.”
O’Neill has no illusion about the fact that it’s a tricky time to be making plans for many reasons, and the very real hardships that the current situation has presented for business and individuals. The current crisis has also raised questions about best practice solutions that may be challenged, for instance reusables that have been replacing single use plastics on festival sites across Europe. Now, with the fear of catching a virus, reusables may not be the most appealing solution, certainly not for germaphobes. If there were restrictions on reusables, single-use plastics could celebrate a comeback.
Unless the industry expands industrial cleaning or management solutions, for instance, that will allow events to wash reusables at temperatures sufficiently high enough to kill anything that lives on surfaces. “These are things that take time and need infrastructure, and we could start working on them now,” said O’Neill.
Last year, AGF launched the Green Artist Rider in association with Paradigm, for artists, who want to make sure green solutions don’t end at the dressing room door. 
O’Neill thinks, with all touring on pause, it could be a good time to look at the obstacles and opportunities for venues, to create a rider that’s not just coming from the artist, or the promoter, but the whole industry together. “The rider would summarize what is the optimum solution for energy, transport, routing, materials, food supply, that we can all work towards collectively,” she explained.
One of the key elements of making events more sustainable is local networks and local supply, for instance in relation to food. Said O’Neill: “If you’ve got more local produce and local food supplies it’s a lot less fragile in the case of a pandemic or supply disruption, but it’s also something we could start working on now, and look at how we use the resources closer to the venue where possible.”
Scene from Wonderfruit Festival
– Scene from Wonderfruit Festival
The event takes place in Thailand

The social pillar of sustainability, according to O’Neill, not only comprises mental health and well-being, equality, accessibility, the ability for people to feed themselves, but also, very importantly, the need of people to socialize: “There’s certainly something to be said for those personal connections, and actually having collective experiences that we’ve had since the beginning of humans hanging out with each other. That’s something that needs to be put into the balance, as well, when looking to reach equality between the different pillars of sustainability. I just want to hang out with people again.” 

2020 would have seen some innovative sustainability projects launched at festivals, including sustainable scenography workshops as part of the GEX (Green Europe Experience), the GEM (Green Energy Mill), a tower that generates energy through solar panels and a wind turbine, storing the energy in a battery. Most of these ideas are bound to return with even more efficiency in 2021. 
Not being able to physically attend many of this summer’s events, which is a part of how AGF usually select the winners of the annual AGF Awards, the organization is still connecting with festival organizers about what sustainability measures they’re working on for next year and in the digital space. “And, who knows, let’s hope there’ll actually be some events at the end of the year,” O’Neill said.
And she added: “The most important thing is to not just go back to business as usual when we reboot this industry. Previously, to use an analogy, I felt like I was just running all the time, while thinking, ‘we might be going in the wrong direction, but anyways, we can’t stop.’ Now we’ve got the chance to stop for a second and reassess what direction we want to head in when we start to pick up pace again.”