Sustainability is maintaining or supporting a process over time so that future generations can continue to inhabit the earth well into the future.
Within the last 5-10 years, major companies worldwide have started to establish corporate sustainability programs with broader goals that are ideal for preserving planet Earth. However, there’s still much more work to do before we see any subtle changes.
In Canon’s 2020-2021 sustainability report (pg47), the production of their raw materials resulted in an estimated 3,147,000 tons of CO2.
Furthermore, Canon’s development, production, and sales generated a further 940,100 tons. Transport of their products to their sales sites and other outlets, 304,000 tons.
This amounts to just under 4.4 million tonnes of CO2. That’s before adding on a further 2.264 million tons resulting from their products’ use. They say their total product life-cycle of CO2 is higher than that, at 7.72 million tonnes.
Since the release of Canon’s 2020-2021 sustainability report, the company has pledged to go net zero by 2050.
Small businesses have just as big a part to play as multinationals regarding sustainability as reported in the Telegraph (2018). 88% of small British businesses and enterprises (SMEs) value sustainability, but a worrying 70% struggle to make it a reality.
Notably, 40% thought sustainable practices were too costly to implement, while 42% claimed that the UK Government wasn’t doing enough to encourage sustainable business practices.
Adopting a sustainable business practice is easier said than done, and it can be expensive depending on what it is you’re looking at altering; however, whatever changes you make, whether it’s turning the power down, or changing vehicles from liquid fuel to electric, will pay off in the long run.
For example, 63% of British consumers prefer to shop with companies that care about the environment rather than neglect it.
Meanwhile, 32% would spend more on an item that had better environmental credentials, increasing to 45% among 18-34 year-olds.
In fact, 30% of shoppers also said that if the cost-of-living crisis wasn’t impacting their day-to-day spend, they’d be more inclined to shop sustainably.
A further 64% said they now prefer to shop from pre-loved retailers, whether in-store or online, while 41% said that an ‘end-of-line’ scheme to help them recycle goods would make them shop more regularly, or spend more with a retailer.
In addition, 91% agree that sustainable packaging, doing social good, and a brand’s ethical reputation are all important when deciding who to spend with.
However, the aforementioned is pointless unless businesses make their sustainable practices public knowledge. For example, 45% of British consumers are unaware of practices which consumer brands have adopted to encourage environmental sustainability.
Companies are therefore either not executing eco-friendly practices, or not adequately publicising their environmental impact.
Therefore, it’s essential for small and large companies, including us tiny one-person band businesses, to go that extra mile. Tell the world what eco-friendly activities we’ve adopted, compile an annual report regarding wastage, or make a promise to reduce your carbon footprint in the next ten years, adopt different packaging, but remember, you must keep to these promises, and never mislead the consumer.
As mentioned above, adopting a sustainable business practice isn’t easy, nor is it cheap, that said there are many ways in which photography businesses can begin reducing their carbon footprint, such as:
- REDUCE POWER
Bionic reported in 2023 that the average British business uses between £3,500-£16,000 of electricity based on annual usage.
- Micro-business – £3,369 (based on annual usage of 10,000kWh)
- Small business – £6,998 (based on annual usage of 22,500kWh)
- Medium business – £14,028 (based on annual usage of 47,500kWh)
- Large business – £15,809 (based on annual usage of 55,000kWh)
Keeping your power output to a bare minimum is a simple way to become a more sustainable photography company. Turning off, or putting to sleep, your camera gear, lights, display, computer, scanner, or printer is a simple and easy way to reduce your impact on the planet.
- RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES
Rechargeable batteries are highly effective in reducing your carbon footprint, as one rechargeable battery can replace thousands of single-use batteries.
As well as preventing thousands of single-use batteries from ending up in landfills, rechargeables significantly reduce the money spent on batteries thanks to the ability to use them repeatedly. Using and charging rechargeables properly can prolong the battery life, saving even more money in the long run.
- Invest & DONATE
Dishing out thousands on new camera equipment isn’t easy, but in doing so, you will reduce your carbon emissions. For example, LEDs have a better life than incandescent lights. Their life is 50 times more than the incandescent one.
With that said, it’s also best to invest wisely. Do you need to buy new photography equipment?
Used cameras, lights, computers, etc., are just as good and cheaper and reduce the amount of raw materials mined from Earth used to make new photography equipment.
In addition, when purchasing a new camera, light, or computer, consider donating your old equipment to a company or charity that may benefit from it for educational purposes.
- PRINT WISELY
The CO2 impact of printing is much smaller than you might first think, for example:
- One kilogram of paper produces approximately 1 kilo of CO2 (1.2kg of CO2 for unrecycled and 0.7kg of CO2 for recycled paper).
- If we take office paper, usually 80g/m², we end up with 16 pages per square meter.
- Dividing this 80g by the 16 sheets, we come to a figure of just 5g of CO2 per page.
You can also reduce your printing carbon footprint by choosing the correct photos to print first before sending them all off to the printer, thus reducing waste, and if you can, print using recycled paper with non-toxic plant-based inks.
- Shoot local
The majority of photographers I know do shoot locally. Still, in recent months I’ve read of some pretty shocking examples of large cooperate companies sending photographers up and down the country on a plane for a few hours of shooting instead of employing a local artist.
In 2022, UK transportation emissions increased by an estimated 3.8 percent year-on-year to 112.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MtCO₂), continuing to rebound from the record reductions caused by COVID-19-related lockdowns in 2020.
Therefore, look into remote shoots and keep them local. If you have a base of international clients, look into establishing a community hub supporting local and overseas businesses. Over time, your business will benefit from a network of trusted photographers working with you rather than competing.
- Eco-friendly MATERIALS
77% of UK consumers state brands should use as little packaging as possible. 66% said it is important to them that the packaging can be recycled. 49% of consumers said they would pay more for sustainable packaging and delivery. 33% say they have rejected a purchase because of unsustainable packaging.
Don’t just think of recycled photo paper or packaging, though; photo frames can also be made from eco-friendly materials or, better still, reclaimed materials. Before the pandemic destroyed my business, 80% of my own consumers preferred to invest in reclaimed wood to build photo frames.
Reclaimed wood and glass look much better, are more robust, and can stand the test of time if cleaned up professionally. On a side note, you may want to look into delivering your goods in person rather than employing a non-eco-friendly courier. Alternatively hire a courier that uses electric vehicles to deliver.
- Buy carbon off-setts
A carbon offset is a reduction or removal of carbon dioxide emissions or other greenhouse gases to compensate for emissions produced elsewhere.
Many companies or organisations run a carbon offsets program. You can buy carbon offsets from these organisations. They will prevent the release of greenhouse gases, which would have happened otherwise. Thus, they compensate for your greenhouse gases.
- Public Transport
Not everyone prefers this option, especially if your client has requested a shoot with lights and backdrops. Lugging all that gear about can be tedious at the best of times. However, if your shoot is simple and all that is required is a camera and flash, why take the car?
Greater utilisation of public transport services over personal vehicle use is one of the best ways to reduce emissions and helps to save the environment. Many British cities have successfully reduced CO2 emissions by as much as 50 per cent by reducing or limiting the flow of private cars.
- Digital Invoicing & Contract Agreements
Most customer invoices, model contract forms etc., can be signed digitally. Not only will it help you reduce the carbon footprint, but it will also help save some costs in the form of paper and ink. One piece of paper equates to one tree felled. Therefore, a digital approach regarding form signing is much more eco-friendly.
- FILM PHOTOGRAPHY
Did you know your average film photography studio goes through 200-300 film canisters a day? Furthermore, there’s little information about CO2 emissions online regarding the production of plastic film canisters.
The Guardian reported in 2020 that Blockbuster films with budgets of over $70m (£53.5m) produce an average of 2,840 tonnes of CO2 per production, the report reveals – a figure equivalent to the amount absorbed by 3,700 acres of forest in one year.
However, you can take several steps to reduce your CO2 emissions; for example, ensure that silver waste is disposed of correctly and not flushed down the sink, toilet, or dumped into a landfill. Use recyclable, eco-friendly photography packaging such as cardboard canisters rather than plastic.
While most plastics are recyclable, a whopping 12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent are emitted annually to produce plastic materials in the United States. Making 1 tonne of corrugated cardboard emits 538 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is 4 to 6 times less than the emissions caused by manufacturing aluminium and plastic.
Regarding film, purchasing metres worth of film at once and simply using a bulk loader instead can be much more cost-effective too.
There are other creative ways to reuse our film waste. For example, turning a canister of your favourite film into a keying accessory, fashion item, wedding invitation, or picture frame.
Next on the list are disposable cameras, and while most professional film photographers don’t use them, some still do because they’re cheaper, lighter, compact and allegedly eco-friendly.
Like all single-use items, disposable cameras take up lots of resources and energy through their production and distribution journey. Switching to a reusable point-and-shoot camera will drastically reduce the environmental impact your film photography hobby or living is having.
Film photography also uses a lot of water, in which there’s little reliable data available to assess how much water a commercial photography darkroom company uses per year.
Information from a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1997 preliminary data study showed photographic processes use up to 1,000 gallons (3785.412 litres) of wastewater per day. Since then, the process has largely remained the same.
Alternative methods such as the ‘soak and dump’ encourage you to soak your prints for a while, then change the water, rather than have a constantly flowing tap.
There’s also Ilford’s method with the Patterson development tank: fill the tank with water at the same temperature as the processing solution and invert it 5 times. Drain the water away and refill, then switch the tank 10 times. Finally, drain and fill the tank again, then invert it twenty times before draining.
With respect to eco-friendly photographic film, biodegradable film does not work well, though its an option if you’re a hobbyist new to the trade. That said, most commercial film photographers don’t use it.
Vegan-friendly photographic film isn’t an available option. All photographic film is currently covered in gelatin. Gelatin is a translucent, colourless, flavourless food ingredient commonly derived from collagen taken from animal body parts, predominantly cows. In 2019, 869 cows were required to make consumer film stock in the United Kingdom.
Sustainable practices support ecological, human, and economic health and vitality; without them, our lives, the ecosystem, and natural resources for future generations will undoubtedly suffer, and in worst-case scenarios, human and non-human life will cease to exist.
And while some folk deny humans are altering the environment, science speaks louder than ignorance.
When fossil fuels are burned, they release large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the air. Greenhouse gases trap heat in our atmosphere, causing global warming.
For the last 50 years, global temperature has risen at an average rate of about 0.13°C (around one-quarter degree Fahrenheit) per decade-almost twice as fast as the 0.07°C per decade increase observed over the previous half-century.
Indicators of environmental changes can be seen in the living organisms all around us, such as plants. In particular, temperature is a critical factor affecting plant growth.
Each plant species has a suitable temperature range. Within this range, higher temperatures generally promote shoot growth, including leaf expansion and stem elongation and thickening. However, temperatures above the optimal range suppress growth.
Burning fossil fuels also affect human and animal health; for example, motor vehicle emissions contribute to ambient air toxins known or suspected as human or animal carcinogens.
Exposure to air toxins can also cause noncancerous health effects, such as neurological, cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive and/or immune system damage in humans and animals.
Hence, we must all adopt a sustainable business and domestic attitude to reduce these threats.
The U.K. Government has set a “legal reduction target and time frame” for all registered businesses to go net zero by 2050. Business owners that fail or refuse to go net zero by that time will either be reprimanded, face hefty fines or risk being closed down.
And while many small business owners are struggling to reduce their carbon emissions because of costs, in doing so, businesses will actually be financially better off.
For example, 63% of British consumers prefer to shop with companies that care about the environment rather than neglect it. 32% would spend more on an item with better environmental credentials, increasing to 45% among 18-34 year-olds.
30% of shoppers also said that if the cost-of-living crisis wasn’t impacting their day-to-day spending, they’d be more inclined to shop sustainably.
A further 64% said they now prefer to shop from pre-loved retailers, whether in-store or online, while 41% said that an ‘end-of-line’ scheme to help them recycle goods would make them shop more regularly or spend more with a retailer.
In addition, 91% agree that sustainable packaging, doing social good, and a brand’s ethical reputation are all important when deciding who to spend with.
As mentioned, businesses need to make their sustainable practices public knowledge for the financial benefits to pay off.
However, less than one in ten UK businesses has a large sustainability team, and almost a third of small and medium firms in the U.K. have yet to make plans to implement a sustainability strategy.
Therefore, unless business owners plan to adopt sustainable practices, they will suffer financially in the long run.
It’s also worth noting that the younger generation is keener to learn about sustainability and climate change than the older generations, and they, too, are more inclined to shop with businesses that adopt proven sustainable practices rather than those that have no proven sustainability track record or refuse to adopt an eco-business attitude.
A Pew Research Center survey finds Millennials and Gen Z stand out for their high levels of engagement with the issue of climate change. 90% of Millennials are interested in pursuing sustainable investments.
Gen Z has a solid commitment to sustainability, with 82% expressing concern about the state of the planet. They are willing to take action, with 72% saying they have already changed their behaviour to reduce their environmental impact.
In addition, research shows that Millennials and Gen Z purchase more photography equipment, photos, and frames and are more inclined to book a photography session than any other age group.
There is a rather big misconception about adopting sustainable business practices. For example, some photography businesses I’ve spoken with believe they’ve got to completely refurbish their entire premises with eco-friendly materials, adopt a greener fuel system, or buy an electric car.
Indeed that would help; however, adopting sustainable practices is about benefiting you and your customers, such as:
- Use biodegradable packaging
- Eliminate paper usage where possible
- Save water
- Consider renewable energy
- Develop a recycling program for old cameras, photo frames, batteries, etc,
- Reassess your supply chain for example look into electric delivery vehicles or deliver yourself
- Educate yourself and employees about sustainability, such as reducing power, using power-saving technology etc.
- Look into having photo frames made locally or from reclaimed materials
- Involve yourself with environmental protection charities, and exchange ideas; trust me, it works, and consumers love it
- Make the public aware of your sustainable practices and what you intend to do in the future, for example, go net zero before 2050. Ideally, it would be best if you made these details public knowledge on the front page of your website, in newsletters, or in promos annually
Finally, it’s a good idea to look into the disadvantages of planting trees rather than the advantages many companies are green-washing consumers with.
For example, “planting a tree for every frame or print purchased” sounds good. Not necessarily.
Planting trees is not replacing the damage your company caused. Tree plantations end up wiping out native trees, and not all trees absorb carbon monoxide.
Moreover, many plantations have reduced stream flows which are bad for biodiversity, and there’s only so much land to plant trees.
The disadvantages of planting trees for climate change outweigh the advantages; all of these trees need care until they mature enough to fend for themselves too.
Planting the wrong type of trees can wipe out local endangered species as they fight for resources. They can often reduce the biodiversity of birds and bugs in the area.
Furthermore, indiscriminately planting trees can negatively affect moisture availability for other plants and even drain small dry streams that local animals rely on.
Therefore it’s essential to consult with environmental protection charities before you even consider going down this route because if consumers find out the company they love to shop with has misled them, it ends up with bad press and destroyed reputations. And that isn’t good for business.
Whether you adopt a sustainable business practice is up to you; however, you must make your sustainable practices, ideas and reports public knowledge; in addition, don’t green-wash the consumer with misleading information or lies. Good luck, and thank you for reading.
J. J. Williamson | The Norfolk Photographer
My name is Jon Williamson; I’m an ethical photographer and writer with fifteen years of experience in the industry. I shoot landscapes, seascapes, riverscapes, fine art, and portraits. I also run workshops, run tours, and offer one-on-one photography feedback.