Reading the recent article in The Stage “Set materials ‘double in price’ as theatres struck by nationwide shortage  got me thinking. This ‘news’ wasn’t news as such to some – a shortage of materials and long lead times for deliveries is something we’ve all been experiencing in this industry and in the wider construction industry for some time, an increasing consequence of the risks associated with a ‘linear economy’ (take, make, waste). Fuelled by the pandemic, Brexit and an increasingly competitive market, the prices of timber, fabric, metals and paints are rising. Some items that we could usually expect to be supplied ‘next day’ are now taking weeks and production teams are seeing their shows cost thousands more than originally budgeted for. All this at a time when budgets are reduced as theatres try to recover from the pandemic.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this is that we’ve been warned this was going to happen over 50 years ago. A report entitled Limits to Growth, produced by the Club of Rome in 1972 predicted the current trends with alarming precision. The report, conducted by a scientific team at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), warned that limited availability of natural resources relative to rising costs would undermine continued economic growth by around the second decade of the 21st century and cited 2021 as a year when the impact of this would be felt.
As with many ‘prophecies’, at the time, the findings were widely ridiculed. However, recent scientific reviews confirm that the original report’s projections remain right on schedule. The trends have been assessed by respected organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and EU Environmental policy makers to name just a few – and all agree the findings are substantiated.
The report paints a grim picture, warning that a continuation of ‘business as usual’ would trigger ecosystem collapse, pushing earth systems to breach tipping points (such as increasing wildfires, rising seas), leading to societal collapse. But despite this, it argues that neither a collapse of the current structure of civilisation nor the extinction of the human species are unavoidable.
If we really look to reorganise the way societies produce, manage and consume resources, a prosperous, ecologically literate and restorative civilisation could be supported. In a nutshell, if you’re not already working towards a circular business model within your organisation, it’s never to late to start. Technological solutions coupled with circular economy key principles. Such as scaling up like resource reuse across production and consumption chains and shifting to renewable energy. The report points out that limits to economic growth or even “degrowth” do not need to imply an end to prosperity, but instead require a conscious decision by societies to lower their environmental impacts, reduce wasteful consumption and increase efficiency.
The Stage article nods to the efforts of the National Theatre which has accelerated its sustainability efforts, recycling sets from previous shows and contributing its commitment to the Theatre Green Book and this is something to be celebrated. Creating a circular way of working in the live events industry is a passion of mine and something that Unusual has been striving towards for some years. In fact, there are many examples of circular business models to draw on that demonstrate that doing good can still yield a profit.
Last month, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane reopened following a major refurbishment with which we were proud to be involved. When we started on site in 2019, we recouped more than 5 tonnes worth of ‘technical nutrients’ from the venue - bits and pieces of old kit which we identified as being perfectly good for reuse. It would have been all too easy to take the attitude of scrapping it all. Instead, we now have a guy in the yard who has been tasked with sorting through every item we retrieve from project sites and to identify every item that can be put into use again. It’s actions like this that will make a huge difference over time.
 For Unusual, it’s imperative that we practice what we preach and reach out to other organisations looking to implement a sustainable business model. Our circularity looks like a blend of the suggestions below
D. Our design team prioritises simplicity, standardisation and utility over novelty ‘one off’ solutions and complexity.
I. With 100% of our electric chain hoists, truss and LX cables RFID’d, we can track resource re/use and trace an item’s footprint with utmost precision and predictive analytics through our bespoke asset tracking software.
S. By increasing our workforce (labour is a renewable resource which enhances local economic wellbeing), we are continuously maintaining and repairing our resources, hence designing out waste.
R. We are creating greater value to our customers/ clients by offering a continued service with all sales, therefore increasing our revenue opportunities too.
U. Many unwanted resources taken from stripped out theatres have been repurposed and used in new settings (one person’s rubbish is another’s treasure).
P. Our main warehouse decked out with 396 solar panels since 2017, represents the first giant leap towards our ambition to be 100% renewably energised by 2025.
T. Discussions across our supply chain (up and downstream, from resource providers to resource collectors) have furthered our ambitions on designing out waste and ensuring effective resource reuse; whilst increasing transparency on longevity. This has ensured alignment to our ISO accreditations and offers the opportunity for refined collaboration within the transition to a fully circular economy. Such collaboration has ensured we have been zero waste to landfill since 2016.
Within theatre, we have the capacity to inspire and share narratives that help escalate this transition towards social ‘tipping points’, leading to ecosystem regeneration by their design. Yes, we live on a finite planet but as an industry, we have infinite creativity.
In essence, it’s time we all change the way we think about resources and aim to radically adjust our concept of waste (to zero waste). In nature, there is no such thing as waste – our economy does not have a waste problem, it has a design problem, as waste is a product of bad design – and that is something we can work on.