Current economic systems are wasteful and have a significant negative impact on the environment.
In order to operate sustainably, we must work within the planet’s resource limitations. This requires significant systemic change.
A Circular Economy is an important part of the solution.
The art world needs innovation to overcome sector-specific challenges.
Some positive steps are being made, but we need to go further faster.
Collaboration is needed between galleries, artists, shippers and other art-sector businesses, including fabricators, material suppliers and fit-out builders.
We must be open to compromise and adapt our expectations to reduce environmental pressures.
Investment will lead to financial savings.
We must stop single use culture, whether exhibition furniture, plinths, benches, vitrines or crates. Where possible, reuse, repair and share.
Circular Economic Theory
The Circular Economy is an economic model that is restorative and regenerative by design.
In a circular economy, economic activity builds and rebuilds overall system health. The concept recognises the importance of the economy needing to work effectively at all scales – for big and small businesses, for organisations and individuals, globally and locally. It is based on three principles:
1. Design out waste and pollution
2. Keep products and materials in use
3. Regenerate natural systems
Definition courtesy of Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Economist Kate Raworth is the originator of Doughnut economics, which promotes and expands on the theory of circularity. The goal of Doughnut economics is to meet the needs of all people, within the means of the planet. Rather than focusing on endless growth, the theory calls for reprioritising our agenda so that ecology and community are valued more than growth and profit.
Doughnut economics seeks to rebalance the system to allow regenerative progress for all through the redistribution of investment, development and equal opportunities without over extending the limitations of the planet’s resources.
The goal of Doughnut economics is to meet the needs of all people, within the means of the planet. If we imagine an outer circle that represents the maximum pressure we can place on the natural world, and an inner circle that represents the amount of goods and services we need to meet everyone's needs, then we need to find a way to live 'within the doughnut' - meeting everyone's needs without crossing planetary limits.
Material Circularity in the Arts
A significant proportion of global emissions come from the everyday materials and products that are produced, used and discarded often when still usable. Whether it be artwork crates, polythene wrap, plinths/pedestals or packaging - the materials of our trade are often irresponsibly disposed of before they have completed their potential life cycle.
A linear economic model is based on constant resource extraction, production and disposal or ‘take, make, dispose’. With finite resources this system is the definition of unsustainable and has significant environmental impacts at every stage of the process.
For many galleries, artists and shippers, the area of activity with the highest annual material use will be packaging, as so much of it is single-use. But it's important to think about other areas of material use too, whether that's display materials, exhibition sets, gallery/office furniture and decor, materials used in artwork manufacture, catering items for events, promotional materials, publications and even artworks themselves.
In order to tackle the climate catastrophe we must address the attitude of disposable consumerism, and reassess our relationship with the materials and systems we interact with.
Put simply: we must waste less and reuse, repair and recycle more. This is the essential concept behind a circular economy.
By eradicating ‘bad’ materials, reducing unnecessary waste and reusing, repairing and recycling we can collectively alleviate demand on our planet’s resources and in doing so avoid CO2e emissions and environmental damage.
For individuals as well as organisations Material Circularity is a hands-on, scaleable, and, crucially, achievable short term solution in tackling the climate crisis.
This is a new and quickly evolving field. We anticipate that in the next few years there will be a significant shift in how materials are consumed, which would mean that whoever introduces packaging materials into the system remains ultimately responsible for those materials throughout their lifecycle. Until such systems are widely implemented GCC advises members to:
Eliminate the packaging we don't need. Refer to the GCC Banned Materials List for items that should be eradicated from circulation.
Educate staff and share new methods of operation with everyone throughout the supply chain. Communicate not just the importance of zero waste targets but also the methods by which they can be implemented.
Innovate and support the development of truly sustainable materials so that all products used are reusable, recyclable or compostable.
Circulate materials so that they remain within the system as long as possible.
Materials that cannot be eliminated or reused must be collected, sorted, recycled or composted after use. Improving and scaling these systems is a key challenge to achieving a Circular Economy. The same circular theory applies to exhibition furniture, equipment and artwork crates:
Reuse to the point of failure. Be aware of the items in your inventory and make your plans around them. Do not purchase materials or equipment that cannot be used multiple times.
Repair, modify and adapt existing items rather than sending them to landfill when they are still potentially usable.
Share equipment, furniture and materials with other organisations in your network to avoid the need to bring new objects into existence.
Starting Circular Networks
The theory of circularity can be applied in arts organisations via city-based integrated networks, collaborating within the ecosystem of the region’s art sector. Through cooperation, education, and innovation these networks could radically change consumer habits and responsibilities.
This idea will be developed further with the GCC International Volunteer Groups in the near future. In the meantime, members are encouraged to consider forming Circular Networks with like minded galleries, studios and non-profits to share exhibition furniture and equipment in specific areas. Network members could build a shared inventory of plinths, crates, vitrines etc and allow access for members to use the items. They could also club together to bulk by approved sustainable packing materials, which would significantly reduce costs.
Blueprint For an Alternative Model Based on Circular Economic Principles
To reach optimum efficiency, the concept of GCC Circular Networks could be scaled up by setting up businesses to serve art hubs. This would require the companies to have a) an inventory of reusable exhibition furniture / crates, b) a stock of environmentally approved packaging materials, both housed at a centralised storage facility / materials hub / workshop and c) a fleet of zero-emission vehicles.
a) In managing exhibition furniture / crates, the organisation would operate in a similar way to an AV equipment rental company or film ‘prop house’, with customers hiring items via a dedicated website with plinths, vitrines, tables, crates etc. listed with images, dimensions, conditions etc. Rental fees would include handling, delivery, maintenance and storage but would be priced to undercut the production cost of new equivalents. Users could donate existing items in exchange for a voucher redeemable during their next order; increasing the available stock, keeping objects in circulation and out of landfill.
The warehouse would require a modest workshop to repair and modify the crates and furniture as well as ‘upcycling’ new materials salvaged from exhibition wall builds etc to produce new inventory. This would give the facility and additional purpose and adaptability when handling the materials.
b) With regards to packaging materials; the company could operate as a distributor of GCC tested and approved packaging materials. Simultaneously, end-of-life packaging materials would be collected from users to be sorted into appropriate waste streams at the warehouse using the Terracycle infrastructure, meaning no materials from the Circular Network would ever enter landfill.
c) Collections / deliveries would be undertaken by a small fleet of zero-emission vehicles and the company would operate with an efficient daily collection and delivery service to simultaneously circulate the rented exhibition furniture and purchased packaging materials.
This suggested model highlights a gap in the market and is a call to arms for art-sector businesses to offer new, sustainable services that GCC can endorse. New systems will not appear overnight, and it's likely to be a step-by-step process in order to get there. If you are a shipper, art handler or storage company interested in developing these ideas, please get in touch: email@example.com.
A scaled version of this system could be set up in collaboration with an art shipper and exist as another service for customers. This would require the shipper to have an interactive inventory of exhibition furniture and crates that would be stored and distributed from their own storage facilities. Collections / deliveries could be fulfilled alongside usual operations.
If you are interested in developing these ideas, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Examples of Circularity in the Arts
Circularity is a relatively new concept but there are already a handful of positive examples that set the standard for a new way of working. We would love to hear about more schemes working in this way. Get in touch if you know of any more: email@example.com
Dutch architectural firm, Superuse Studios promotes circular and sustainable design to develop strategies for cities to connect different production and waste streams, while integrating these processes into the existing urban environment
They consider design to be part of a circular process rather than the beginning of a linear one.
German shippers Artseco have created revolutionary new services, allowing clients to donate their used crates instead of disposing or storing them unnecessarily. In return, users receive a voucher, redeemable through the Crate Bank when they next need a crate. There is an online inventory with images and dimensions to select the best fit. This is a brilliant solution and we hope other organisations will follow this example.
Circular Arts Network is a useful resource sharing platform primarily for used or surplus materials but also includes skills and labour listings.
Similarly, Barder is a fantastic tool allowing free exchange of exhibition furniture and materials in New York City.
Both CAN and Barder operate on a peer-to-peer system like Gumtree or Craig’s List, which requires users to store the items themselves within their own facilities and liaise with other users to arrange exchange of the items. These are positive initiatives and should be utilised by GCC members with access to their service.
Opera North is a travelling theatre company, which operates across the north of England. They are a fine example of what can be achieved by reevaluating priorities. A touring model can be inherently unsustainable but by developing environmentally conscious productions, Opera North has taken responsibility for its impact and adapted accordingly. Costumes, props and stage sets for productions are reused or sourced second hand with nothing newly purchased. End of life materials are recycled by a local specialist contractor.
Adapting With Compromise
One of the factors underpinning disposable consumerism is the fetishisation of newness. This drives production of new products when there are perfectly usable items already in existence. In order to overcome this, the benefits of the systems must be communicated to colleagues, clients, service providers, artists: everyone in the production and supply chain. Resistance to compromise is preventing sustainability. In this case, the hurdle is social rather than technological and could be overcome by effective communication about the environmental (and cost) benefits.
In terms of packaging materials - the use of new sustainable alternatives and reused / repurposed materials might not conform to client’s expectations of pristine artwork wrapping in abundant virgin plastics. From our conversations with art technicians and sales directors there seems to be a hesitation in changing current packing methods due to an anticipated displeasure from the clients if high-value art works were delivered in ‘messy’ or ‘used’ packaging.
This perceived hurdle is leading to inaction and unnecessary waste. This could be overcome by simply communicating the reasons and benefits of new packaging practices to clients as well as clear labelling reinforcing this point. GCC recommends members to overcome this by adding a sticker, tag or note to shipments with reused packaging simply explaining why new packaging was not used and the environmental benefits. If further justification was required the members could point to their commitment to the GCC GHG emission reduction and waste targets as the reason behind the changes.
Regarding exhibition furniture - a rental system would not lead to any impact on quality or efficiency. However, there would realistically be a reduction in variety and exact custom dimensions of plinths / crates available. This would be something to communicate to artists, clients, curators etc as part of the exhibition process. Plinth or crate dimensions might not be a 100% custom fit but compromise on dimension sizes will carry environmental benefits that outway the negatives.
Packing materials: eliminate, educate, innovate and circulate.
Exhibition furniture: reuse, repair and share.
If no such scheme operates in your area, establish a Circular Network by reaching out to other GCC members and other art organisations in your area to build a shared inventory of exhibition furniture.
Prior to ordering new exhibition furniture or crates, check whether an appropriate item already exists or could be adapted for the purpose.
Stop single use culture wherever you can. Plinths, benches, tables, vitrines, shelves, crates must be reused, repaired and shared.
Wherever possible, do not produce new products if they will only be used once.
Design new items to be adaptable, modular and reusable.
Speak to your suppliers and shippers to ask them to set up a Crate Bank scheme.
Communicate with galleries, artists, curators, and clients about the changes you are making and the reason behind your decision.
Inform fabricators and fit out builders that you want to reduce waste and reuse materials as much as possible.
- Assess all materials used by your organisation through the lens of circularity i.e. source recycled paper, avoid disposable catering items at events, consider life cycle of computer equipment.
Establish partnerships with studios, universities, schools and community centers, and offer them materials that might otherwise end up in landfill.