Growing for Green: Bow Arts

Bow Arts are trailblazers when it comes to greening their work. Lydia Ashman talks about the value of engagement in embedding sustainable practice.

A sustainable arts sector means collectively taking responsibility for our actions, considering and understanding their impacts beyond our immediate circles, and countering short-term thinking.

Sustainability is inherent to Bow Arts: our business model is financially sustainable, without relying too heavily on sources of public funding. Many members of the team are practicing artists too and the careful and imaginative use of resources is second nature to them.

We formed our cross-departmental Green Team three years ago in response to Arts Council England’s mandate that all National Portfolio Organisations needed an Environmental Action Plan and Policy. A couple of individuals had experience in and felt passionately about working this way to embed sustainable practices across an organisation. However, none of us were experts and we decided to be very transparent about our approach by sharing successes, pitfalls and learning through a blog.

Since our last campaign in 2012, much has changed – staff members; growth of the organisational scope; our new office space; and the exciting news that we were invited to join a group leading in sustainability by Arts Council England. 2015 felt like the right time to raise the profile of environmental sustainability again.

This campaign was very much built around celebrating and drawing on people’s strengths and using existing resources to encourage positive behaviour changes. Former colleague and sustainability guru, Terry O’Dwyer from the National Centre for Circus Arts gave me the idea of using team members’ interests as a starting point.

Four of us from different departments pooled ideas and teased out a plan for a six-week campaign based on weekly events and communications, with each person taking a lead on one area of their choice. These included bike maintenance workshops, a swap shop, a switch off campaign and a herb garden initiative. Since the Bow Arts bunch are hugely motivated by rewards, we asked teams to complete as many ‘green tasks’ as possible over the campaign, with a prize going to the winners.

As a busy arts organisation, at times it felt challenging to fit the campaign around our own and others’ workloads. Though we had huge ambitions (“let’s re-configure the courtyard for a wood bin and vegetable patch!”), we kept things simple so we could easily communicate our message and colleagues would feel able to participate around other commitments. We also found that, because sustainability was in the air, people were more likely to shout about their green achievements; for example, our studios team re-used strip lighting from our outgoing studio complex at Bermondsey for our new space in Wapping.

The herb garden is a personal favourite of mine and is, I think, symbolic of our approach of gathering people together to use their skills and passion, and nurturing local connections. From team trips to the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for compost to getting plant advice from an artist we work, and discovering our Finance Administrator Amina, is a closet gardener, our modest tea garden has now been realised through a combination of hard work and collaboration.

As things came to an end we held a ‘closing ceremony’, giving the team a chance to feed back on the campaign and let us know the pressing issues going forwards. Focuses on waste management, better engaging our studio artists and keeping environmental sustainability on the agenda emerged. Since the campaign, we’ve put a call out for an artist representative to join the Green Team and we’re devising more regular ‘events’ and opportunities for conversations about sustainability amongst the organisation.

Not only does engagement raise awareness about the devastating consequences of climate change; it also starts conversations, creates connections and inspires people to understand their individual and joint role in tackling this huge challenge.

For those planning their own campaign, I would suggest the following:

  • Be bold: don’t be afraid to stress the urgency of climate change.
  • Start small and keep it simple: be clear on your aims and the themes you want to address.
  • Create and maintain a dialogue: include a forum for people to feed into how your organisation addresses environmental sustainability.
  • Find allies inside and outside of your organisation: use colleague’s strengths, knowledge and interests to support the campaign, and get buy in from Senior Management. A tiny bit of research revealed so many amazing organisations and people who let us come and visit, gave us free stuff, shared their expertise and offered to come and talk to us. There were also initiatives such as Walk to Work Week which we linked our campaign with.
  • Keep internal and external communications going: have a plan like a weekly email. Melody, our Communications Assistant, was amazing at keeping the campaign’s present on social media.

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