Christie's Becomes GCC Patron and Member. Tom Woolston, Christie's Global Head of Operations talks to GCC

Christie’s have recently joined the GCC as a member and a patron, the first auction house to do so. As a large transnational organisation the commitment to make systemic change at a company wide level cannot be underestimated. Change will not happen overnight but by publicly announcing their support of GCC and committing to radically adapt their business in order to reach reduction targets Christie’s have made a significant statement, which the GCC hopes will encourage others to follow suit. Global Head of Operations, Tom Woolston, is leading the sustainability program.



As an industry leader, when and how did you realise it was the responsibility of Christie’s to set the sustainability standards for the art sector?


We’ve taken an important first step in setting out clear and ambitious targets but we have a long way to go and we very much want to collaborate with others across the sector. I think we will all have a role to play in developing standards.


In terms of our journey to get to this point, we have a fabulous tradition of stewardship at Christie’s, playing a role in passing great artistic treasures across generations. We also recognise the relationship between great natural beauty and art. As a leader in our market we felt, and feel, a responsibility to build a sustainable business and play another stewarding role, helping to protect the environment so that precious natural places can be enjoyed by and inspire future generations.


So a little over a year ago we began our journey with measuring, for the first time, all of our operational activities to understand our overall environmental impact. The insights gained from this exercise formed the basis of our strategy and our targets which we recently announced.


I should also add that our clients increasingly expect sustainability to be an intrinsic element of the service we provide and it is very important to our employees, many of whom are incredibly committed to this cause.

We can see from the audit results of our member galleries that business travel and air freight make up the majority of their GHG emissions. With this in mind, how do Christie’s plan to make reductions in these particular areas?


Yes, unsurprisingly this was pretty similar for us. Both shipping and travel are tough nuts to crack; we operate in a very high touch, competitive business which is driven, understandably, by high expectations and levels of service. It is also a business where relationships matter and of course travelling to meet with our clients is an important part of that. However I am confident that we can find ways to operate more sustainably in both of these areas.


For shipping we need to optimise some of our ways of working to reduce our internal shipping (i.e. transport between Christie’s locations). We need to utilise lower carbon modes of transport such as sea freight, obviously when timelines allow. We also need to look at packaging, though this is less about emissions and more about waste, and we are currently researching ways of improving the re-use of crates.


For travel the simple truth is we need to do less of it. The pandemic has shown us what can be done without the ability to travel and we have become effective in finding new ways to communicate with each other, our clients and partners. There’s no question that when COVID restrictions allow we will look forward to meeting in person with many of our clients again, but we can do that whilst also reducing a great deal of the discretionary travel that we have historically undertaken.

Poor forward planning and last minute decisions contribute to inefficient practices. What can we do to break these bad habits?


A goodly chunk of our business will always be highly reactive, unpredictable and last minute, but alot of it does follow fairly routine patterns and we should certainly be able to optimise our ways of working to be more sustainable. I think a big part of it is awareness, pointing out where opportunities may exist for reducing our impact and providing more sustainable options. For example, setting up scheduled, consolidated sea-freight shipments between New York and London, our highest volume shipping route, and clearly showing the reduction in emissions this will deliver, will both encourage and facilitate better decision making.

How can technology be used in your organisation to improve sustainability?


Whilst digital tools can’t replace the thrill of the live auction or the magic of being moved by a great work of art viewed in person or, of course, be a substitute for personal relationships, they are tremendously important and a long term commitment to developing digital solutions is vital for sustainability. We already had in train a comprehensive program to enhance our capabilities but the events of the last 12 months were an extraordinary catalyst.


We reduced our catalogues by over 70% in 2020, which more than halved our publishing and print distribution emissions and this was made possible by really very beautiful photography, immersive digital viewing rooms, e-catalogues and a significantly updated website. The adoption of online events and auctions has meant that we were still able to convene audiences in spite of all the travel restrictions. Indeed adapting the way we hold and live stream our sales has been incredibly important for us and more than 1 million combined viewers watched Christie’s 4 live-streamed marquee sales in 2020.


Our clients are incredibly receptive and digitally savvy and continuing to fully utilize digital channels will be important in helping to deliver highly engaging market moments without the need to always get on a plane.


Yes, absolutely; and it has to be! Christie’s has committed to the Science Based Target Initiative to help us on our journey and one of their guiding principles for setting science based net-zero targets is ensuring the viability of the company’s business model in a net-zero economy. We need to act responsibly and reduce our environmental impact and of course we need to create shareholder value, like any commercial organisation. But these things are not mutually exclusive.


As I mentioned above, our clients expect sustainability to be an intrinsic element of the service they experience and they’ll increasingly punish firms who don’t offer that.

International cooperation, target alignment and collective action is central to GCC’s strategy for decarbonising the art sector. What advice do you have for other organisations on overcoming rivalries and market competition to work collaboratively towards shared goals?


If you truly care about sustainability it must follow that you’d like to see all firms achieve equally outstanding levels of success in reducing their environmental impact, so there should be no such thing as competition in sustainability.


I think that the important starting point here is transparency, obviously reporting emissions and clearly stating targets but also how you’re progressing towards them, sharing insights and lessons learned. Many of the challenges that we will face are systemic and this sharing of experiences and collaboration will make solving them far easier.


We were delighted to join the GCC precisely for that reason and we will continue to take a collaborative approach with suppliers and other stakeholders to reduce the collective environmental footprint up and down the supply chain. We know the broader art industry shares the desire to combat climate change so we must learn from one another.

April 17, 2021