How Leading Companies are Weaving Sustainability Practices onto Sets Across North America

As film and television production continues to experience significant growth, especially in Canada, the struggle to rein in waste and reduce a set’s carbon footprint remains real. In 2019 it was estimated that on average one production produces roughly 500 metric tonnes of CO2, for example. Add in lumber, craft services, lighting, travel, on-location shoots, and the newly necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), and it’s no surprise that sets can wreak havoc on the environment.

It’s an ongoing issue that has led to the advent of several organizations over the years, including Vancouver’s Sustainable Production Forum (SPF), Sustainable Media Production Canada, the Green Film School Alliance, and the Sustainable Production Alliance (SPA). SPA, whose body includes notable industry members like Netflix, Amazon Studios, The Walt Disney Company, WarnerMedia, Viacom CBS, NBC Universal and Sony Pictures, has been working for more than a decade to provide the tools and resources necessary for North American productions to adapt greener practices across the board.

In 2021, following a game-changing year in which players everywhere have had to reconsider best practices in the wake of a pandemic, SPA has also used the opportunity to review sustainability. “It’s really resulted in a review of all the practices we’re doing in production, but also how we’re approaching it from a sustainability perspective,” says Mike Slavich, WarnerMedia’s director of sustainability. “It kind of forced us to go back and review and say, ‘Okay, how can we do this as sustainably as we can while keeping cast and crew safe?’”

Tackling best practices

One of the ways SPA has attempted to distribute best practices across the board is by developing the Green Production Guide. The online tool kit includes sustainable practice checklists, a plywood tracking worksheet, a resource guide, and a carbon footprint calculator designed to not only allow managers to reconsider their resources, but to find ways to save on their overall budgets. The guide also encourages environmentally-impactful practices like incorporating reusable water bottles and hands-free refill stations, using FSC-certified plywood, or distributing information online and only providing printouts upon request.

Having collectives in an industry where players move from project to project (and from studio to studio) is the key to achieving universal practices, says John Rego, the vice president of sustainability at Sony Pictures Entertainment. “Collective action is how we succeed on this effort in a multi-dimensional way,” he explained during a panel on sustainability at Prime Time in January. “Really why [SPA] came together is our industry is unique… standardization and having everybody move toward the same end goal in ways that we believe we’re spending time on those most impactful activities is really important when you have individuals that are moving from place to place.”

In this post-COVID world some of the recommended practices, such as donating leftover food and materials, or using reusable plates and cutlery, have been affected as a result of new safety protocols. However Slavich reveals WarnerMedia productions have, “Been pretty creative trying to maintain some of the practices that we had in place before the pandemic.” Those include waste reduction and reusing materials to be sure, but also energy conservation through LED set lighting, and leveraging and leaning into the technology of battery generators and virtual production offices as the number of bodies on a set decreases to keep in line with pandemic protocols.

“How can we accelerate the investment in that?” Slavich poses. “We are looking at not only the other studios and streaming service companies and how we can partner, but the supply chain, the suppliers, the other stakeholders, the different cities and so on, that we can get together and collaborate towards accelerating the innovation in some of these areas that is going to be required, really, to achieve the systemic change we’re looking to make.”

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Diesel generators and the need for many such units to power big-budget productions has historically been (and continues to be) the number one environmental issue facing an aspiring green production. Over the years the technology has improved so that battery generators are now a viable option, as is the ability to plug into the grid in major production cities like Vancouver, where power drops are becoming more readily available. Slavich notes that there are now more vendors who are able to come in and help a production tie into the grids in places where a power drop might not be available, which all adds to the decarbonizing of the workflow and the electrification of a set. He adds that other cities (such as Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and London, where sustainability goals and plans are in place), have also been open to the important conversation surrounding sustainability. However those talks are really just starting.

“I've noticed anecdotally many productions using this equipment, the battery generators over the past year,” Slavich says. “I would equate it to the increase in LED lighting technology. Ten years ago it was pretty new and frankly, it didn't really do the job as well as some of the traditional tungsten lighting. But since that time, that technology has really accelerated and it has really been adopted and embraced by the industry, not only because of its energy conservation benefits, but also just its performance, and its ease of use, and its quality of life.”

Looking toward the future

As productions continue to plow ahead, SPA encourages producers to tackle the sustainability question across all departments. That includes setting out intentions and goals on the first day of production, often encouraging a quick session with all production members at the same time as the safety orientation. Rego reiterates that communication is key when it comes to consistent practices from beginning to end, but also in terms of relaying a company’s overall sustainability goals and targets.

“More and more organizations that are becoming either a part of these collectives or making a pledge or assigning people within their organization to focus on sustainability are starting to publicly provide targets and transparency about what that means,” he added during the Prime Time panel. “For many of us it’s difficult if we’re not making that progress—why aren’t we making that progress and who do we need as partners within our value chain to help us all succeed. The more that happens the more we each make progress faster.”

At Sony, the commitment began when the company pledged to plant one tree in a community for each day that one of its productions filmed there, and it has since grown to a commitment to reach a zero environmental footprint by 2050. At WarnerMedia, all scripted productions are required to track their carbon footprint, as well as adapt the company’s best environmental practices. Meanwhile NBC Universal uses on-site solar power wherever possible. They powered up in full force in 2020 on their pledge to generate enough power to provide approximately half the annual energy needs of their stages and connected office buildings, reducing CO2 emissions by 652 metric tons each year.

“These technologies, it takes time to get used to it, and I think a lot of production crews are used to doing something a certain way,” says Slavich, citing the future of virtual production, which expanded rapidly as a result of the pandemic. “Change is not always easy, and as the tools and technology improve it will take some time to get used to. Time will tell, but the important thing is that we’re developing the tools and putting them in place so that we have that option.”

Dig deeper:

Listen to the Now & Next podcast episode 'Staying eco-conscious on sets during COVID-19'

Amber Dowling
Amber Dowling is a Toronto-based freelance lifestyle and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in various newspapers, magazines and websites across Canada and the United States. A previous president of the Television Critics Association and former editor-in-chief of TV Guide Canada, she’s covered all aspects of the platinum age of television and the emerging industry for publications including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire, Playback, The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. Aside from watching too much boob tube she’s a world traveller and mom with a serious penchant for bold reds and stinky cheese.
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