Away We Go Goes Green

Scott Macaulay looks at the way that the green initiatives on Away We Go are revolutionizing environmental production methods.

“We are probably one of the most wasteful businesses,” executive producer Mari-Jo Winkler told me when I visited the set of Sam Mendes’ new film, Away We Go, last Fall. “We set things up and then break them down and throw them away. But due to our current climate crisis, it is a necessity now more than ever for the film industry to change the way we work by keeping the environment in mind.”

Audiences have yet to see Away We Go, but it is safe to say that even weeks before its release, the film is already helping to achieve that goal of changing the film industry’s work practices. Not only did the film reduce its carbon emissions and environmental impact through a series of innovative and forward-thinking production strategies, it also documented its achievements in a seminal report on sustainable film practices.

When it comes time to discussing the achievements of Away We Go — or, in fact, any endeavor that seeks to reduce its carbon emissions and environment impact — one is faced with a bit of a conundrum. How does one call attention to what was not made, what was not produced? And, because there have been few environmental impact studies that have focused on filmmaking – and because each film itself presents an entirely different set of circumstances – there’s no real “baseline” set of numbers to compare any film’s carbon savings against. So, while attempting to make their own practices less wasteful, the Away We Go producers and crew, along with a bi-coastal team of “carbon consultants” from Green Media Solutions, worked just as hard at recording their activities, using copious recordkeeping and Excel spreadsheet calculations to quantify the impact of as much of the filmmaking process as they could. The result is an environmental impact report that in an industry first has been verified by scientists from a third-party organization, TerraChoice Environmental of Ottawa, Canada.

Says Winkler, TerraChoice allowed the Away We Go team to create “the most detailed carbon footprint measurement anyone has ever done on a film.” She explains, “Since fuel is such a big part of [the production of carbon emissions], [previous] productions have just looked at the cutback on airline miles and fuel.” Away We Go went further, seeking to document the movie’s carbon emissions and environmental impact across the whole range of production activities. The report, Away We Go: A Pilot Study of Sustainable Film Production Practices, not only speaks to this one film’s savings but also provides a portrait of the environmental impact of feature film production in general. This data will help film producers everywhere as they assess the impact of their own future productions.

Away We Go’s achievements can be broken down into four main areas: energy, transportation, catering/craft/water, and waste. Specific achievements include:

* For energy, biodiesel fuel was integrated into generators, using blends ranging from B-5 to B-99, resulting in substantial emissions reductions at point of combustion as well as through life-cycle analysis.* For transportation, hybrid vehicles were driven 45% of the total miles driven during the production, and also reduced carbon emissions through their reduced idling policy and charter flight avoidance policy.* For catering/craft/water, the production shifted its sourcing to local and organic sources for more than 50% of their meals and craft services, and eliminated plastic water bottles from their set.* For waste, the production redirected 49% of its waste from landfills into recycling and composting. 

Other achievements included consolidating shooting locations so as to reduce travel miles, adopting sustainable habits in the production office, and eliminating all those wasteful little plastic water bottles. The production switched to branded reusable bottles and, when it came to dinnerware, served with corn and sugar-based utensils.

Katie Carpenter -- who worked on Away We Go along with Meredith Bergmann, John Rego (currently Director of Environmental Sustainability at Sony Studios), and a team of consultants from Green Media Solutions -- is currently assigned to NBC-Universal’s “Green is Universal Initiative,” a pilot program that is measuring the carbon emissions and environmental impact of five television shows and five films, including Away We Go. Carpenter worked closely with the production and TerraChoice, who sent four “carbon accountants” to monitor the production’s recording and calculation activities and environmental claims. She remembers those early days, when her idealistic activist goals seemed subsumed by the sheer tedium of the work involved: “In those dark months of September and October, when we were awash in Excel spreadsheets, TerraChoice would say, ‘You are blazing a trail, and [this work] is going to make it easier for the people who come after you.’ They gave us context and meaning to our labors. Lit by the computer screens late into the night, they reminded us that what we were doing was going to be shared globally, and that gave us moral support and positive reinforcement.”

TerraChoice brought more to the Away We Go team than pep talks, however. “The carbon accountants pulled our spreadsheets apart cell by cell,” says Carpenter. “They went into every cell, checked the math and made sure the multipliers were the most up-to-do date in GHG [Greenhouse Gas] protocol. They verified and validated all the work we did on the whole movie, and by sharing the report with the whole industry they are now teaching us all how to do it.”

In issuing the report, TerraChoice’s Vice President, Science and Programs, Susan Herbert, wrote, “The film industry, because of its fluid nature, presents many challenges in terms of planning, communicating goals and tracking results. Focus Features and Green Media Solutions were determined to reduce this film’s environmental impacts and overcome these challenges. We believe these environmental achievements will inspire other film producers to follow this lead by greening their own productions.”

The report counted the emission of 975 tonnes of carbon dioxide during Away We Goes's production. 48% came from air travel; 26% from generators, equipment, diesel trucks and vans; 21% from automobiles; 4.5% from staying at hotels; and less than half a percent from production office electricity. Focus Features and Universal Pictures then coordinated the offset of these 975 tonnes, which was the equivalent of removing the emissions from over 2,200 flights from New York City to Los Angeles, or almost 90 minivans from the road in a year, or the electricity used by over 150 American homes in a year.

All of this work lead to an end credit that Focus Features, its business affairs execs, and the film’s producers wrote and which is now being used by several other Universal and Focus movies who qualify by measuring their carbon emissions and implementing sustainability strategies on set, including the recently released State of Play. It reads: “This motion picture used sustainability strategies to reduce its carbon emissions and environmental impact.” Affixed to the Focus films is a link providing detailed information on the specific achievements: “For more information visit”

Says Jane Evans, Executive Vice President, Physical Production, Focus Features, “The success of the pilot program inspired us to adopt sustainability strategies on Focus projects following Away We Go. It also began a dialogue between Focus and many other film studios and production companies, allowing us to share our experiences and information in a way that we hope will benefit the industry at large.”

Carpenter comments, “This is just one step in a long journey. Because the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the movie industry is going to take a big effort, the best first step for all of us is to learn how to measure our own carbon. Let’s all figure out how to calculate our carbon, to measure our emissions and environmental impact the same way before somebody starts charging us for emissions we don’t even know how to count!”

When I point out to Carpenter that the steps many studios are taking to “green” their productions, like consolidating locations to reduce travel costs, could simply be seen as cost-saving measures in general, she laughs, “You don’t need to separate the motives anymore. Environmental issues are public health issues as well as economic issues. They are all connected. If you found a way to make your movie more efficiently and in doing so you saved money, wear and tear on your crew, and reduced your carbon emissions, why figure out why you did it? You just did it! More efficient productions are easier on all of us.”

Concludes Winkler, “The biggest thing I took away from this is the response to our efforts and the ability to expand the dialogue on a larger level. Producing a verified sustainability report? Nobody has done that before. The report has gone to every production executive at every studio. It’s created real legitimacy [around the field of environmental sustainability in film production] because there are real facts in it that people can latch onto.”