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Sustainability in Production: Q&A with Nikki Saunders

Nikki Saunders on sustainable filming practices, COVID-19, and why carbon offsetting isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.
April 22, 2022
recycling conversation

Nikki Saunders started her career in the independent drama sector, working her way up from runner to line producer. In 2006 she joined the BBC, where she spent 15 years running operations across all continuing drama series and helping to build the Birmingham Drama Hub. In December 2021 she joined Firebird Pictures as Director of Production.

Over her career, Nikki has seen first hand how the production industry has strived to limit its environmental impact. We sat down with her to reflect on how far we’ve come and the steps production companies can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

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Nikki Saunders

Q. Thinking back to the start of your career, how has the production industry changed with respect to sustainability?

Nikki: The industry has changed so much in the past 25 years in all areas, not just sustainability. In that respect, I don’t think we really grasped what we needed to do early on, so the initial focus was on simple things like not throwing away plastic cups and giving people reusable water bottles.

Then we started questioning why we were printing so much paper, especially when everyone has a small device in their hands. We started looking at things like vehicles, lighting and energy use. And of course travel: how you travel, how far you travel and why you need to travel.

Disposal is another big issue, and even that’s shifted over time. The focus used to be on how you could dispose responsibly, but now it's on how you can operate so that you don’t need to dispose at all. There’s much more awareness about the amount of sets that are built and thrown away. Shows, particularly long-running shows, have become better at managing that.

Technology has also really helped the industry become more sustainable. 25 years ago we didn’t have the lighting or sensitive cameras that we have now, so you had to use lots of lights and pump lots of light into somewhere to actually capture it on camera. Now, the lights are not only much more sensitive - which means you need less of them - they’re also low energy. That’s huge.

And then of course what we’re showing on screen has evolved. We’re now looking at how we can represent the world so that we’re reinforcing the message of sustainability, not contradicting it.

Q. That’s an interesting point. Do you think production companies have a responsibility to talk about sustainability on screen?

Nikki: I don’t even think you need to talk about it; it can just be a part of how we portray everyday life - like showing someone using a recycling bin. I think where people go wrong is where they feel a need to say it. We don’t need to preach to people. We just need to make sure that what we’re creating reinforces how we should all be living.

Q. What’s the least sustainable part of production?

Nikki: It depends on the show. If it’s a precinct show where you build a main set and then go out on location and all your locations are nearby, that’s probably quite efficient. If it’s a short-term show and you’ve got lots of set builds and you’re travelling all over the place with cast coming from all over the world, it’s going to be very different. So I don’t think there’s a simple answer.

Q. In your experience, what changes have the biggest impact on a production’s carbon footprint?

Nikki: I think it’s a combination of things. When I was at the BBC, we created a zero-waste environment. We made the decision not to issue paper call sheets and to have people opt in to receive paper scripts. We stopped issuing water bottles. At some sites you couldn’t buy a takeaway coffee unless you took your own cup.

Surprisingly one of the most-effective things the BBC did was remove everybody’s bins and just have one bin for confidential waste, one bin for recycling. You’d stand there and put everything in the right bin, because it was all there in front of you.

So it’s changing those simple things and getting people into the habit. Sometimes you don’t notice that the small wins have the biggest impact.

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Q. How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected sustainable production?

Nikki: In some ways it’s taken us backwards, because we’ve gone back to single-use items to reduce the risk of infection. But the pandemic has also highlighted that we don’t need the office space we thought we did. We don’t necessarily need big offices if we manage how we work together. And I think that’s a healthy approach. Because the more space we take up, the more energy we use and the more things we purchase.

Q. How have you encouraged your cast and crew to adopt more sustainable working practices? Has there been much push back?

Nikki: Well there was a lot of push back about the bins!

No, I think it’s about finding the people on your productions who are really passionate about sustainability. When we used to greenlight our shows for the year, I would create a sustainable production plan, and each team would come up with ways to improve on the previous year’s plan. You need everyone to be on board with that. Because if you just say to someone “you’re now in charge of this,” it can become another box-ticking exercise. So it’s about finding people who are passionate, because they’re the ones who create the correct messaging and drive the behavior.

Q. What one piece of advice would you give a production company which wanted to reduce its carbon footprint?

Nikki: Learn how albert certification works and get the right advice when you need it - and don’t be scared! It used to be quite a complex process, but it’s been streamlined. It does take time and effort, but it’s not impossible and there’s a real benefit to it.

And then there’s offsetting. Offsetting shouldn’t be a way of buying your way out of something. It should be part of your overarching sustainability plan. And in that plan you’re effectively giving back to an agency which is going to invest in bringing some return to this planet.

Finally, remember that every little step adds up. When people are really busy or stressed, or they’ve been in an environment like we’ve been in for the past two years, it’s difficult to get them to lift their head up and look at the bigger picture. But lots of small changes, and making those a habit, really add up.

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Nikki’s top tips for sustainable production

  • Implement a sustainability plan and appoint people who are passionate about green initiatives to take the lead.
  • Don’t treat offsetting as a get-out-of-jail-free card; make sure it’s part of an overarching sustainability plan.
  • Re-evaluate your office size and whether you can work in a way that requires less space.
  • Avoid single-use items.
  • Think about how you can store and reuse your sets, particularly on long-running shows.
  • Look into the paints you’re using, as some chemicals can’t be recycled.
  • Take a sensible approach to travel. Opt for the train wherever possible (including on international trips, such as London to Paris or Brussels).

Topic: Spotlight

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