Towards a Sustainable Production Culture

The motion picture industry requires systemic change in order to become sustainable. Real decarbonization is going to require a culture shift in our industry and in society at large. But culture change is a marathon, not a sprint - it involves a matrix of actions ranging from informal and formal practices, behaviour change, fulfillment of current goals, and driving progress towards net zero. 

Producers can cultivate a sustainable production culture by setting goals and policies that will help change practices, assigning responsibility to team members, incentivizing and celebrating wins, and ensuring that every voice is heard and valued. 

In order to ensure that sustainability is more than the ‘flavour-of-the-month’, it should be embedded into company, industry and on-set culture.  

On-set culture in the film industry varies from production to production, department to department. Producers can influence a sustainable on-set culture by communicating their sustainability priorities and goals, providing opportunities for engagement (such as committees, forums, suggestion boxes, open door policies, etc.), supporting department heads who want to be sustainable, and demonstrating their commitment by taking meaningful actions. The ‘action’ piece here is critical. Leaders who talk but don’t walk can quickly lose the trust of their teams and make real change much more difficult. 

Cultivating allies is key. Ensure that your creative teams and department heads are engaged and are behind taking a different approach. Start those conversations early to ensure that sustainability is embedded in the production and creative from early stages.

Challenge the “more-is-better” culture. Traditional on-set culture operates by a more-is-better approach. No one wants to be the one caught unprepared, which results in a culture of over-preparedness that also means buying and having more than we need. Caterers bring a plethora of food options, resulting in more food waste than necessary. Gaffers and genny operators build equipment lists that can respond to sudden pivots and new visions. The wardrobe department has to buy outfits before talent is hired, and needs to buy one of every size just to be sure. This culture of maximalism is inherently opposite to sustainability, which strives for intentionality, precision, and consuming only what you need.

Choice-editing is the practice of limiting choices to sustainable ones, or making sustainable choices the default, so that people must opt-out rather than opt-in. This is a popular tactic in consumer and manufacturing industries and may have some benefits for filmmakers as well. (e.g., setting menus so that vegetarian meals are the default with meat offered as an add-on). Consider the ways choice-editing can be used to advance sustainability on your team and projects. 

Build a track record of success by setting up your teams for small, short-term wins. Collect, celebrate and communicate these wins often. Wins not only help you track progress but they build engagement, energize teams and build confidence and credibility. Small tasks stack up, creating a cumulative effect that can significantly impact your environmental footprint.  But be careful not to use early wins as a reason to take your foot off the gas pedal. Use the momentum they create to push harder and drive further change. 

Take chances. Supporting transformation and a new way of doing things can be supported by a culture where it is okay to take chances, try new things, and have those things sometimes fail. Sustainability is new to everyone. Pilot new ideas, reflect on their effectiveness, iterate and try again. Seek external help where needed and connect with your peers to share ideas. Transparently share wins (and losses) with your teams and colleagues; this builds trust and helps everyone in the industry learn and grow together.

Be patient. New ways of working are going to take time to settle in, take root, and become the new normal. Support long term change by connecting the dots between new behaviours and positive outcomes and communicating it to your teams. Culture change, ultimately, is not the starting point of the sustainability journey; it’s the end result of altering many smaller practices which are practiced and refined over time.

1 Embedding Sustainability into organizational culture