A Starter Pack for Sustainable Collecting

By Louisa Buck, Contemporary Art Correspondent for The Art Newspaper and Founding Member of the Gallery Climate Coalition

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Charlotte Johannesson, 'Take Me To Another World', 2021, © Charlotte Johannesson. Image courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens

Calling all collectors! The art world has woken up to the fact that we are in a climate and ecological emergency. And as prime players within the art market, whose choices and activities permeate its every aspect, collectors can play a major part in helping our sector change its wasteful, carbon-heavy ways. Deeds, not words are now what’s needed, so here’s a basic starter kit for collectors to make a real difference in greening the art world.

Harness your purchasing power

Check the green credentials of the galleries, museums, and artists that you do business with. Have they joined one of the environmental initiatives that are now gaining momentum throughout the art world? Notable among these is the Gallery Climate Coalition (declaration of interest, I’m a founder member) an international charity which in under two years has grown an 800-plus membership of galleries, artists, organisations - and yes, collectors - worldwide, all of whom are committed to reducing their carbon footprints by at least 50% over the next decade. GCC is also allied with other organisations such as Galleries Commit in New York, Art + Climate Action in California and Ki Culture in Amsterdam.

Slow is the new fast

Tight deadlines can mean a heavy carbon footprint. Do you really need to airlift that work you’ve just bought? If you can wait a bit longer and transport it by sea or road, the planet will thank you. Encourage the galleries and artists you work with to do likewise. Transporting an artwork by sea can reduce its carbon impact by up to 95%. And how about slowing down your own movements too? Do you have to zip around the world, battling with jetlag? How about taking the train or just staying home and having a Zoom? And if you do need to be airborne, bear in mind that travelling economy uses around five times less carbon than first class, so maybe just splash out for your (very occasional) long haul.

Count your carbon and cut your waste

Whether a gallery, an artist’s studio, a business, or an individual – logging and calculating carbon expenditure needs to become as automatic as doing your accounts. GCC offers a handy carbon calculator with which to identify main areas of carbon cost and then to make the necessary adjustments. The GCC website also has copious information on best practice across the art industry – from flying to shipping, packaging and green energy – so your decisions can be informed ones.

Don’t offset, invest.

Of course we all still have to fly. But when we do, let’s offer the planet some proper payback. Beware of schemes that sound too good/cheap to be true: they usually are, and all they will offset is your guilt. It’s nice to plant trees, but most schemes won’t compensate effectively or in time for the carbon that’s just been cooked up by yesterday’s flight to LA. Far better to fund projects that offer genuine strategic impact, whether in keeping fossil fuel in the ground, defending and expanding forests and wetlands or shifting to climate-friendly agriculture. Organisations such as Client Earth, Solar Aid, Art to Acres or Forest People’s Programme won’t make emissions vanish, but they do offer an effective way to take responsibility for unavoidable greenhouse gas generation and are helping to speed up the wider systemic change that has to take place.

Shabby is the new chic

Does a new purchase need to arrive housed in a gleaming brand-new crate, swathed in metres of pristine plastic? Wherever possible insist instead on recycled and/or reusable packaging for work in transit. An old blanket, some sturdy straps and a reusable or well-travelled crate should be a badge of honour for the art that it contains. And all eyes are now on mycelium as the growable, compostable art packaging of the future.

Lead by Example and Spread the Word

Park that private jet, scale down the high-end multicourse dinners and help to persuade gallerists, artists, and fellow art buyers that lavish consumption is no longer a good look. Generosity doesn’t need to be incompatible with sustainability, it’s a matter of investment choice. And remember, there’s nothing wrong in signalling virtue if the actions are genuinely virtuous!