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Can a Sustainable Event Industry Create Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions?

Words by 3p Contributor

Positive Impact Sponsored Series

Sustainable Events
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By the Positive Impact Staff

This month's theme questions whether the sustainable event industry can create peace, justice and strong institutions in the world.

Positive Impact asked Liselore van der Heijden, deputy director of the cultural center Westergasfabriek, to discuss our theme further and to draw from her experience at an old polluted site that has been renovated into a beautiful and sustainable park in the heart of Amsterdam!

Positive Impact: Can a sustainable event industry create peace, justice and strong institutions in the world?

Liselore van der Heijden: Westergasfabriek is convinced that through the event industry, a major change can be initiated in the bigger goals in life and thus in creation of peace and justice, as these are definitely one of those bigger goals.

We would like to add emancipation, acceptance of the differences between people and respect for life in general and the planet.

But the influence of the event industry would be overestimated if we would claim that sustainable events would create peace, justice and strong institutions all over the world. The influence of events is great but not that big.

Having said that, the Westergasfabriek is the first to speak out that decreasing waste, pollution, use of energy et cetera in the event industry is key. But above all, creating awareness through events in how this and peace and justice can be realized in practice.

We believe that in the events industry, big steps can be taken and large examples can be set. Because of the positive reach and atmosphere of the event industry, subjects which can become ‘heavy’ can be illustrated in a lighter, more hopeful, free and creative environment. We would like to frame ourselves as a platform for innovation in the technical sense but also in moral perspective. Curiosity, freedom and lack of prejudice are the soils for that.

With respect to sustainability, the main aim would be to create (more) awareness at the visitors level, and get the whole supply chain involved: also the organizers, caterers, event locations, (local) government.

Positive Impact: What steps can we take to build a more sustainable events industry?

Liselore van der Heijden: The Westergasfabriek has already taken important steps, and though they may not seem big on paper, in practice these steps are truly complicated. But before we enter into details, we would like to take the opportunity to elaborate on the Westergasfabriek for the readers who do not know us, yet.

The Westergasfabriek is an old factory site, the West Gas Factory, whose foundation was initiated in 1883. The Westergasfabriek’s purpose was to provide the western part of Amsterdam with gas for lighting the city streets. In the meadows just outside the old city center, brick buildings in neo-renaissance style were raised. The high ceilings and large windows gave it an almost religious glow.

The Gasholder, the biggest round building in Amsterdam, was founded in 1903. After a very successful decennia, in the 1960s the Westergasfabriek was closed because of the discovery of natural gas in Groningen, in the northern part of the Netherlands. By then, the factory was no longer in the outskirts but part of the city, and left a heavily polluted ground to the surrounding neighborhoods.

And after some years of use as a storage by the Amsterdam municipality, the 19th-century buildings became open to the public around 1990. In a temporary phase, the buildings and surrounding space had a cultural and creative function. All sorts of festivals took place, handcraft studios and bar/restaurants were founded. This was the prelude for defining the use for the current identity of the Westergasfabriek.

But before the Westergasfabriek could take its current form, the ground in- and outside of the buildings needed to be purified. Since the buildings were neglected for decennia, restoration thereof together with the purification was too expensive for the local government. A third party, the commercial building company MAB (named BAM at that time) was asked to join, by purchasing all the real estate. This under the purchase condition that they would restore the buildings, purify the ground underneath and adhered the real estate’s purpose is creativity and cultural entrepreneurship.

The surroundings of the factory buildings were transformed in a modern park with a manifestation field and the round Gasholder as strong points of reference.

Nowadays, the Westergasfabriek is part of Amsterdam’s city center. A large part of the historic buildings can be rented for a day or more; they are empty, showing all the original leftovers of the factory. Annually, over 250 events take place, from small product launching events to more-days food (truck) festivals and high-end culture and art festivals like the Holland Festival.

And in the past years, sustainability was added by the Westergasfabriek to the cultural and creative purpose. As part of that, Westergasfabriek wrote together with the local municipality the vision document ‘The Green Manifesto.' In this Manifesto, the Westergasfabriek expresses her ambition in public ... to be carbon neutral in 2025.

This Manifesto was instrumental for the Westergasfabriek when financing of sustainable measurements was sought: In 2016 the Westergasfabriek has installed LED lights and insulated some of her buildings – both partly financed with grants and incentives by the (local) government. The insulation was achieved through roof insulations and double glass in the windows. By doing so, an enormous amount of energy is saved.

At first sight, these measurements look standard and simple. Only after one realizes that all buildings are National Monuments -- which implies that nothing from the outside may change, but also the inside needs to stay intact, and that the whole process is subject to stringent licence procedures -- that one can understand the difficulties faced in the realization.

In addition to the insolation, LED lights were installed in the buildings. Again, on paper an easy measurement, which is not subject to the license procedure. But in practice we experienced that finding the right LED in which the warmth of the building remains intact was very difficult.

Our third sustainable measurement achieved in 2016 is placing of the small waste transformer at the site of the Westergasfabriek. By giving a platform to Lara Van Druten’s Waste Transformer at the Westergasfabriek, waste from a swill of restaurants -- and future festivals and events -- will be transformed into green gas and energy. The changing the perspective that waste is an energy source implies a very interesting social innovation. After you have charged your battery during an event at the Westergasfabriek, the next day you charge your phone on the left-overs of the event.

Positive Impact: Have you personally noticed a change in your industry's approach to sustainability over the past year?

Liselore van der Heijden: Yes, I have. More and more of our customers (i.e., event organizers and their clients) have corporate social responsibilities which require them to measure how they buy in. This results in more awareness and in that they organize their events more sustainably. Also our partners are more and more ‘into sustainability.'

Positive Impact: How has Amsterdam adopted new ways to be a more sustainable event destination?

Liselore van der Heijden: We at Westergasfabriek are hosting every year more green events, that find us because of the shared sustainability purpose. And we can show what we do because of the steps we took in insulation, LED light and waste.

The local municipality of Amsterdam has concluded a covenant on ‘sustainable events’ with event organizers. The purpose is to decrease waste, use of energy through diesel generators, etcetera. It also provides the municipality grants and incentives for the coalition of the willing. In addition to that, in preparation are new Amsterdam regulations in order to regulate noise and hindrance from events and festivals in the outer space. In these regulations also sustainability goals are set.

Positive Impact: What are your hopes for the future?

Liselore van der Heijden: In our view, sustainability will become a condition for events to be allowed to take place in a high density of people, like the city of Amsterdam.

I hope that the aim and wish for sustainability is here to stay, and is not passing by like a fashion thrill; that sustainability is sustainable in itself. And that because of that it becomes a natural way of living and consuming. This is part of moral innovation, for our future generations.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Matt Kieffer; 2) Courtesy of Liselore van der Heijden

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