Meaningful hedonism

WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: MIKE FLETCHER

Access heads to swingamajig to talk sustainable festival planning with an organiser doing its bit to drive the environmental debate

In 2010, a committed bunch of festival organisers and interested parties met to discuss energy management within the industry. They formed a group, which became Powerful Thinking – a ‘think-do tank’ that funds work to tackle shared issues in creating a sustainable festival industry, while sharing resources and advice with other organisers. The chairman of Powerful Thinking is Chris Johnson, who is the operations director at Shambala Festival and a director of sustainable organiser Kambe Events, whose portfolio includes Starry Skies in the Brecon Beacons and Swingamajig in Birmingham.

When Access met up with Johnson, it was 4pm on a Sunday afternoon and a circus performer named Beth Sykess had just debuted her new burlesque aerial hoop act to a packed crowd gathered at Swingamajig’s Cabaret Stage, under the railway arches at the Rainbow Venues in Digbeth.

As Skyess soaked up the applause, vampiric drag compere Joe Black introduced the next
act at this one-day urban festival dedicated to performance, live music and vintage debauchery. Johnson took us blinking into the daylight and up onto the roof terrace, where Seattle six piece, Good Co were entertaining a 1920s dressed crowd with some electro swing.

“We’ve been involved with Swingamajig since 2014, when Kambe Events was asked to work with its founder to assist in producing the event to the highest possible standards,” Johnson says. “As you can see, it has evolved into quite a spectacle.”

That’s the kind of understatement we love at Access. Swingamajig is seven stages of vintage mayhem, surreal performances and some of the most inventive and entertaining acts currently working the outdoor events scene. It attracts more than 3,000 revellers, all dressed to impress in out its ranging from 1920s couture to steampunk and glitter.

Johnson is rightly proud of Swingamajig’s evolution but with his Powerful inking hat on, he also sees the opportunities to merge the hedonistic attitudes of these festival audiences with a more ethically responsible ethos.

“It’s something we’ve done successfully at Shambala for over 17 years and something we’re looking to drive forward, in partnership with other festivals through initiatives such as Energy Revolution and Festival Vision 2025,” Johnson says. “I believe audiences increasingly want
more meaningful experiences, and part of this is knowing that the festivals they visit are making an e ort to manage their environmental impact.”

Energy Revolution seeks to convert fossil-
fuel travel miles undertaken by festival goers
into renewable energy projects, through its partnerships with Converging World in India and the Bristol Energy Co-op in the UK. It does this by giving people the opportunity to donate and offset their mileage when they purchase festival tickets.

To date, Energy Revolution has balanced the equivalent of three million festival miles and was recently awarded charity status for its work.

“We’ve had such a good experience eliminating disposable plastics from our festival, we’re now aiming for the same success with disposable hot cups”

–  Chris Johnson

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“Charity status means that festival goers choosing to balance their travel miles will now also be able to add Gift Aid to their donations,” says Johnson, who has
become a trustee of the
 charity as a result. The Energy Revolution initiative was inspired by a 2015 report entitled, ‘The Show Must Go On’, which was co-authored by Johnson with the support of not-for-profit Julie’s Bicycle, Festival Republic, Plaster PR and Kambe Events.

The report outlined the environmental impacts of the UK festival industry, while suggesting the aims for change and the beginnings of a roadmap for action.

The 44-page report, based on 279 UK summer music festivals found that the industry is responsible for approximately 20 kilotonnes of on-site greenhouse emissions, 100 kilotonnes of annual travel emissions, 23,500 tonnes of waste and five million litres of diesel consumption.

“The report inspired the Festival Vision: 2025 Pledge, which has brought together those festivals who wish to help the industry take action,” explains Johnson. “The Pledge is a commitment for a 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2025 and almost 60 festivals have so far signed up.”

At Shambala, Kambe Events has been walking the talk for a while now with a series of ever-more progressive sustainable practices to reduce the environmental impact of the four-day event.

The festival has completely ditched disposable plastics, introduced sustainable travel initiatives, become 100 per cent renewably powered
and helped its supply chain to join it on this environmental journey with templates, and even seed-funding in some cases.

For last year’s event, Shambala took the radical decision to remove meat and fish from its on-site food offering, for both the public and festival staff.

“For us, the decision was an environmental one. If we’re serious about being the most sustainable festival on the planet, we can’t ignore the indisputable evidence that a diet predominantly based on meat and fish is having a devastating effect on this little blue and green marble we
call home,” Johnson says. “This was our most controversial, and risky environmental initiative to date – would it drastically affect ticket sales? Would we be regaling future generations about the great Shambala Bacon Riots of 2016? We needn’t have worried. Our food traders went down an absolute storm, and we were blown-away when our post-event survey showed 77 per cent of respondents wanted to keep Shambala meat and fish free. Even more incredible was that 33 per cent of our audience reported reducing their meat and fish intake since the festival – that’s not counting the 30 per cent that were already veggie or vegan. So effectively, half of the meat eaters we surveyed have changed their diet.”

For this year’s Shambala, which takes place 24–27 August, the team is committed to continuing the debate around sustainable food. However, whilst the food traders on site will remain vegetarian or vegan, the festival will also introduce a few truly sustainable meat and fish options in thought-provoking and unexpected ways, such as roasted squirrel as part of an invasive species menu.

“Would we be regaling future generations about the great Shambala Bacon Riots of 2016? We needn’t have worried”

– Chris Johnson

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Another environmental focus for this year’s Shambala concerns an icon of the throwaway society, the disposable coffee cup.

Britons drink more than 8 million takeaway coffees every day. Yet supposedly, fewer than one in 400 are being recycled. The problem is in the cup. It’s made from paper laminated with plastic, to make it watertight so it can’t be treated as pure paper. To recycle, the plastic coating needs to be separated from the paper fibre of the cup itself. The complexity of this process sees the vast majority end up in landfill.

“We’ve estimated that Shambala sees more than 30,000 disposable hot drinks cups used and discarded over the four days. This year, we’re encouraging people to buy a reusable cup or to bring their own by placing a levy of 25p on any disposable cups sold,” explains Johnson. “We’ve had such a good experience eliminating disposable plastics from our festival, we’re now aiming for the same success with disposable hot cups.”

It was very noticeable during our visit to Swingamajig that Kambe Events’ reusable plastic cup policy is a real hit with revellers of all ages.

Even the crowds packed in the Big Top for a Sunday service like no other, courtesy of ‘Oh My God! It’s e Church’ were all keeping a tight hold on their cups and waving them in the air in praise of the on-stage shenanigans from the Right Reverend Michael Alabama Jackson and his band.

Although it would be easy to hold-up Kambe Events, and Johnson in particular, as true pioneers of environmental progressiveness within the festival sector, he’s keen stress that his company has always had an entrenched philosophy of shared learnings and best practice. This has seen
it evolve alongside, and in partnership with other like-minded organisers and suppliers who have embraced the Powerful Thinking ethos.

To help build a community of event organisers and suppliers with aligned values, Powerful inking is currently compiling a list, which highlights the many UK suppliers that offer sustainable approaches and equipment.

The supplier list will be shared directly with the 60 festivals that have pledged to work together to reduce their environmental impacts, and with the Powerful inking database of over 2,500 event professionals. “We take inspiration from a host of UK and international festivals such as Fusion in Portugal, Roskilde in Denmark, and DGTL in Amsterdam,” concludes Johnson.

“As outdoor events have evolved, the whole festival supply chain has also developed a deeper understanding – it’s no longer about being ‘green’ per se. It’s about efficiencies and achieving long-term sustainability for business success. Not every supplier is up-to-scratch as yet but you have to accept that it’s a journey and companies are at different stages along the route.

“Collaboration is key to fulfilling the Festival Vision 2025 Pledge and we’re keen to keep proving that meaningful hedonism and environmental ethics can go hand-in-hand.”