Is There Such Thing As A Sustainable Photographer?

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When the use of digital photography became widely spread, many praised this new form of taking photos as environmentally friendly. At last, gone were the days when the planet was harmed by the film photo processing chemicals, they said. The truth is that digital photography is not as clean as we might think, and I am willing to say that sometimes it's even worse. With all the talk in recent years on sustainability in the fashion industry, I asked myself the question: could there be such a thing as a sustainable fashion photographer?

Last week, I wrote about assessing the environmental impact of our businesses and putting in place best practices to reduce the amount of waste that we generate. Today, after assessing my own practice, I have come up with ways in which my photography business can be more sustainable.

The aim is not to be 100% eco-friendly, because that concept might not even exist at all. Our own existence has a direct impact on the environment, and practices considered good for the planet, like recycling, have impacts of their own. The aim is to reduce our impact as much as we can. And, as photographers, there is so much that we can do to reduce our waste, not only in our practices, but in our personal lives as well.

To start my environmental-impact self-assessment, I asked myself: what is my business? I take photos. What are the tools of my trade? A digital camera and a computer. What is the impact that my equipment has on the planet? Contrary to what one might think, digital photography is not a low environmental-impact medium. All the technology that we use on a daily basis has an enormous impact on the environment:

  • Electronic waste: our photography businesses run on electronics. All this equipment has a very limited lifespan. Even if we tried to really get our money's worth, we would still have to replace our cameras, computers and phones every 5 years because they become obsolete (read about how manufacturers stimulate consumption by using planned obsolescence). In contrast, my 35mm film camera is from 1981 and I still use it regularly and for commercial purposes. None of my digital cameras will ever last that long and still be worth using.
  • Packaging: every time we buy new equipment, it comes protected by layers of packaging, most of it non-biodegradable and some of it, albeit recyclable, will end up in a landfill as we are unable to recycle all the waste that we produce.
  • Batteries: our cameras, computers, lights, phones, tablets and wireless equipment in general use batteries. Nowadays, most of these batteries have a lifespan of 3 years and need to be properly disposed of.
  • Data Storage: with digital photography we don't use film-processing chemicals anymore. Instead, we rely on a gigantic network of electronic devices to store our photos and documents. What we call the cloud (or internet in general) is a massive amount of data centres scattered across the planet that process and house everything that we do in the digital world. These data centres use an unbelievable amount of resources. They use electricity and fuel for generators, they need batteries for uninterruptible power supply, their equipment generates a lot of heat so cooling mechanisms need to be put in place (water, air conditioning, coolant), and they are in constant need of expansion so a lot of land is required.

These were just a few of the things that I could think of in which the core of my business has a direct negative impact on the planet. The reasonable thing to ask next was, what can I do as a photographer, and a business-owner in general, if I want to run an environmentally friendly business?

  • Buy from suppliers and manufacturers that are environmentally conscious, those which use less packaging material, and those which have strict environmental policies in place.
  • Turn off electrical equipment when not in use.
  • Use rechargeable batteries.
  • When buying new equipment, buy products that will last longer and that will not force me to replace them too often.
  • If I need to change my equipment, try to repurpose the old equipment by using it as a backup, by selling it on the second-hand market or by finding ways to reuse their individual parts or as a whole.

The concept of 100% green photography might be an oxymoron. To be a 100% eco-friendly I would not only have to stop taking photos, I would have to stop living completely. But, by putting some of the aforementioned practices in place and by trying to reduce my waste and to reuse as much as possible, I can make sure that my business is more environmentally friendly.

Photo credits: image by Andrzej Gruszka.

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Are You Running A Sustainable Business?

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A few weeks ago, while planning the catering for a shoot that I was producing, I decided to go with a vegan catering because one of the crew members was vegan. On the day of the shoot, when all the food arrived it came protected in layers after layers of plastic packaging. What is the point in going vegan for environmental reasons, if you will then generate so much plastic waste that it defeats your purpose? What you do with your hands, you destroy with your feet, my nan used to say.

The majority of people would argue that all that plastic waste is recyclable, so we would still be on the right track to saving the planet. But, the reality is that not only not all of our rubbish is recyclable nor reusable and will probably end up in a landfill, but from the part of that rubbish that is recyclable less than 45% will be recycled or reused in the end. What's worse, the amount of waste generated by households that can actually harm the environment is very small in comparison to the waste that industries generate. So, even if we recycle all the waste that consumers produce we still wouldn't be saving the planet. According to official figures in the UK, 15% of the waste generated comes from households, while 70% comes from commercial, industrial, construction, demolition and excavation activities.

Recycling is not the solution that we were promised, it's just a small part of it. It's easy to make consumers feel guilty about all the waste that we are generating and have us obediently separate all of our rubbish at home. This way, governments feel like they have done their part on the matter and consumers are happy because we are left feeling like we are doing something good for the planet. Meanwhile, producers keep on packaging their products in plastic because it's cheap and it's all about margins and profit, and the rubbish that is not recycled nor reused keeps piling up in a landfill in a town near you or it gets sent to other countries. Well, that is up until not so long ago, because we are using such bad quality materials in our production chains that developing countries don't want our rubbish anymore.

Specialists in waste management talk about the four R's: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover. Any waste that is not subject to these 4 principles ends up in landfills or incinerated without energy recovery. Recycling comes in third place of these principles because we don't have the capacity to recycle all the waste that we produce, and the multi-million pound recycling industry itself has an impact of its own (the economic impact, the pollution that comes from collection, transportation and operation of recycling equipment, and the production of greenhouse gases, to name a few). Priority is given to Reducing our waste and trying to Reuse as much as possible.

What can we do if we want to run an environmentally friendly business? Just last week, I spoke about this matter with fashion journalist Olivia Pinnock, who has written extensively about sustainability in the fashion industry. We both agreed that we can't possibly do everything that there is to be done to be 100% sustainable because the nature of our businesses will eventually have an impact on the environment. Instead, what we can do is assess our personal and professional environmental impact and make changes in the areas where we feel that we can contribute to generating less waste.

To reduce the amount of waste that we produce, we should start by paying attention to how much and how often we buy and whom we buy from, and source suppliers that are environmentally conscious. Suppliers that are actually doing something to reduce their environmental footprint and not just trying to comply with the minimum guidelines required by our governments. Suppliers that use biodegradable packaging instead of all that plastic. Suppliers that make products that can be reused or repurposed, in line with the Circular Economy principles.

Also, we should Reuse as much as possible, and give a second life to what we don't use anymore by repurposing it, selling it on the second-hand market or passing it on to those who might have a use for it. And, above all, we must use the power of voting to elect politicians that are more strict with the sectors that are the biggest producers of waste. Stop punishing consumers for something that we haven't done wrong and forget the notion that Recycling is the answer to our waste problem. This is a problem that has to be tackled at the source.

Photo credits: image by Andrzej Gruszka.

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