Monday, 31 December 2012

A most unlikely sustainable event destination

I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so fuckin' heroic. ― George Carlin
Settling in to write my last post of 2012 I realise there are some amazing event sustainability stories I could go on about. The launch of event sustainability standards. Big examples of more sustainable events from the London Olympics and beyond. Exciting developments related to hybrid events. Record-setting waste reduction and diversion rates by treasured colleagues. Awards won. Inspiring onsite event experiences.

There have also been a few lows: frustration and cynicism that the event industry is not willing to confront and work on those issues that are the greatest impediments to sustainability. Waste production, carbon emissions, and labour issues being primary among them.

But as the year closes, one experience--captured in the image above--comes to the forefront for me.

Not all event sustainability has to be "epic" event sustainability. In fact, it can be the seemingly small steps that are the most rewarding, and those people enabling inches of progress in difficult situations who make me want to stand up and cheer.

And so it is that São Paulo, Brazil has emerged as the most unlikely "sustainable destination" I will ever love. Why? Because like the curls of ferns sprouting from the graffiti-encrusted walls of Vila Madalena, champions for event sustainability are taking it upon themselves to help this city provide more sustainable events.

I know what you're thinking: how can a city known for urban sprawl, high crime rates and some of the worst traffic and most polluted environments in the world ever aspire to the sustainability credentials of a Copenhagen, Melbourne or San Francisco?

One important reason: the people.

There are several I could mention, and likely will introduce in future posts, but today I will focus on one:  Antônio Hermes de Sousa.

Hermes de Sousa shows off a beautiful table made by NUA students using window frames and tropical hardwood reclaimed from torn down buildings in São Paulo
Hermes is the founder of the Instituto Nova União da Arte-NUA, an art and community development institute located in a neighbourhood of São Paulo where once stood a dump. I came to NUA looking for a simple solution to a common event waste problem: what to do with left-over vinyl banners from a large corporate event. I came away inspired by a person who, in spite of circumstances, is using his two hands and a simple idea to make his community better.

The Mission, Vision and Values of NUA

The Mission of NUA is posted on the wall of its dining room: to contribute to community development through art, culture, sport and income generation. Its Values: the preservation of life, mutual respect, freedom of expression, openness and co-operation.

Hermes created NUA as an after-school arts, crafts and dance program serving 180 school children in 2001. The project has since expanded to include an "Art Delivery" program that encourages students to design and share art with their community, a recycling cooperative that collects waste to earn money to support various programs, and discussion forums that involve citizens in planning to improve the surrounding neighbourhood. Many of these programs help keep local youth from the life of crime that Hermes himself fell into when he first migrated to São Paulo.

Endyara Mendonça tests out an Art Delivery installation at NUA
Amongst these community-minded projects is  Filó Cabruêra, the destination for our event banners. This program trains people to design, sew and market high quality materials made from discarded event canvas.

Custom-designed bags line the walls at Filó Cabruêra
Designers experiment with unique designs for wallets, bags and cases

Filó Cabruêra employs 70 women who learn to design, sew and market their products
Quality in production is of utmost importance at NUA, which makes bags to order or takes waste materials for resale
While the workers at Filó Cabruêra are likely transforming our event canvas into lovely wallets and bags as I type, I recall a serious instruction Hermes gave to me following my request for permission to share the story of his community service projects. He asked I not use the word "transformation" when I speak of NUA and the impact its programs have had on the surrounding community (which you have to see to believe). His reason: it implies he and his team are making the community into something other than it already was, rather than merely helping it and its residents achieve their fullest potential.

Perhaps there is wisdom in that for us in the event industry: that in the New Year we will dwell less on the transformative disruption and uncertainty new technology, a potential recession and diminishing resources bring, but rather embrace these forces to help us evolve the experiences we create to their fullest potential.

Special thanks to Paul Salinger of Oracle and Endyara Mendonça, Modesto Junior and the team at Rio360 for enabling the site visit to NUA, and to Hermes and his team for their inspiring story.


Dennis Shiao said...

Shawna: how great. Thanks for sharing. Very interesting point about not wanting to use the word "transformation."

Any idea if NUA sells any of these products online?

Shawna McKinley said...

Hi Dennis - thanks for the feedback. Not at present, unfortunately. Most of the material is taken back by the organizations that donate the canvas, so there is not a lot of stock-on-hand for retail sales. An online store would be a great next step as they continue to expand capacity and have sufficient stock.

As an aside, anyone not able to use the Portuguese links who is interested in being put in touch with NUA is welcome to leave a comment and will be happy to facilitate connections.

Anonymous said...

Shawna, what a fantastic, inspirational post! Love it! Please share more about the people you met on your trip... sounds like we could all benefit from your insights on what you experienced.

Shawna McKinley said...

Will do Doreen - thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

Deborah Oster Pannell said...

I echo the sentiments above. What a terrific post. Count me in to promote these folks online if and when they develop a web presence...
Happy New Year, and thanks for all the great info you share!

Jeremy Wallace said...

I work as an SEO for a company that makes vinyl banners and advertising. The waste bugs the crap out of me and your article has inspired me to look locally for a solution.

Shawna McKinley said...

Thanks Deborah! And Jeremy I wish you success - update us on what you're able to learn/do! Sometimes we have to find organizations locally in an event city we may be visiting, too, so it's always a grateful moment if the graphics company already has a solution for us. We've been helped by projects similar to NUA in other cities, and also local art galleries, schools, boys and girls clubs and theatre groups. There are also businesses that may take materials for repurposing projects if it's suitable. Sometimes there is a cost, though. It might be helpful to look into these kinds of groups in your local area. I've seen banners upcycled into everything from fashion, to bags, gym murals and set backdrops. Good luck - and send a blog post and pics! :)