Art has engaged with the principles of environmentalism and sustainability since using dye made from plants. The local flora and fauna being celebrated and used to enrich people’s lives and codify our species’ place amongst the rest of nature. As our cultures developed, our relationship with our world and fellow inhabitants has changed dramatically. The contemporary art world, that is the industry we see in today’s form, rather than the specific work of post war artists, is at the start of a new journey; a self-examination of its practices in relation to our sustainability as a species. The Arts Council’s public report stated that last year the Arts and Culture sector in the UK was responsible for 114,547 tCO2e in GHG emissions as a minimum with only certain contributions factored in. The total in reality will be far higher. For the first time the art is sharing the attention with the business practices underpinning the sales. The buyers, sellers, gallerists, dealers, artists and auction houses are under closer inspection because Christie’s, the world’s most successful auction house, has committed to a 1.5°C net zero path.


What the net zero target means

Net zero commitments require several key pieces. A timeframe, a standard of reduction to aim at, and a public commitment to the process. The timeframe in this case is 2030. That is less than nine years away, which for a company with a global estate and considerable operational scope, is a very ambitious timeframe. The standard they have chosen is the 1.5°C aligned Science Based Target (SBT).  This means that they are following the Paris agreement’s guidance of aiming to keep the warming of the earth to within an extra 1.5°C since pre-industrial levels. Two weeks ago, Christie’s made their commitment public making them the first global auction house to do so and send a palpable shockwave across an industry. But what does this mean for the art world?

Firstly, it must be pointed out that the 1.5°C target is the most ambitious available within the SBT framework. This is not the easy path. It requires decarbonisation at a scale which is largely unprecedented. Christie’s could easily have chosen the original “well below 2°C” target (a lower ambition SBT pathway which targets lower annual emissions reductions) and still be lauded as leaders within the sector and enjoy first mover status. The fact that they have gone for 1.5°C is a statement of intent: sustainability is important to us, we are going to engage with it and implement change to succeed at it. With Christie’s position in the market in mind, this ambition is hugely important. The industry must now engage and do so meaningfully.


The effect on Art business

The first effect of this is to place Christie’s firmly as a sustainability leader in the industry. They will capture the kudos and sales that come as part of that status and it should prove to be a shrewd business decision. The nature of the art world, and auctioneering specifically within that, means that everyone must now scramble to catch up. Any small competitive advantage can mean hundreds of millions of pounds in revenue as there are realistically so few choices.

From a buyer’s perspective this is excellent as, for the first time, there is the sustainable option for purchase. I have written previously about the ascendency of sustainability as a major influencer in retail and art retail is no different. As the demographic and power players move to the next generation, this effect is compounded. Putting myself in a buyer’s shoes for a moment. I have a budget and an artist in mind. For the same artist to be sold in the same season by multiple auction houses is so commonplace that it’s safe to assume we will have a fair representation across the field. I want to act responsibly and align my buying wherever possible with my beliefs that we should all do our part to protect the planet. Why on earth wouldn’t I go for the more sustainable option when it costs me nothing? Sustainability is not only good ethics, it’s good business.


The culture of sustainability

Many galleries have shown their intent by forming the Gallery Climate Coalition and are clearly taking the need for better practices seriously. Thaddeus Ropac addressed their shipping associated emissions for the 2019 London Frieze fair by using sea instead of air freight and reusing crates where possible. Hauser & Wirth have created a position for Head of Environmental Sustainability to be filled next month. The ambition is being backed up by action and many are trying hard to offer sustainable solutions often in very creative ways. A net zero target however is a much larger commitment. Getting a Science-Based Target is a process requiring a deep dive into the company’s practices, principles, culture and ambition. The emissions reduction strategy is created through a long process of collaboration with the client to make a realistic, achievable program of change that is costed and practical. No doubt Christie’s competitors will be working on this, but it takes time and expertise to create something that will work as well as adhere to the strict standards in place.

The knock-on effect of committing to a goal like this doesn’t end at Christie’s front door. Companies aiming at this level of ambition are required to look throughout Scope 3 emissions, delving deep into their supply chain. Their emissions in turn all flow upwards towards the reduction goal set. Auction houses and galleries rely heavily on specialist transporters to ship pieces both internally between company sites, but also globally for client viewings. Private views for ultra-high net worth clients, sales in specific markets and seasonal art fairs like Frieze are common practice for major works but will these practices be able to continue in the same format? The suppliers themselves will need to adapt their own practices as pressure comes from their clients. This is the beauty of this type of commitment and why the public disclosure of emissions is so powerful. Christie’s needs to reduce its emissions. Their suppliers’ emissions make up part of this story and will be seen as a potential area for change. If you as a supplier can’t help your client reduce their footprint when one of your competitors can then they will soon not be able to afford (from a carbon perspective) to continue working with you. This is why the impact of Christie’s commitment will be so widely felt. The whole industry will now have to begin emission reductions across the entire value chain as more and more companies adopt these standards.

The art world has been rocked by COVID-19 no less than anywhere else and many of the traditional sales practices have had to be halted or creatively solved by other methods. Online only sales have flourished and virtual viewings enhanced by 3D mapping technologies are replacing the traditional open gallery approach. Digital transformation has dominated the market during the last year and is rewarding those who are embracing it earliest. This change has given the successful adopters a head start into more sustainable options but interestingly has also created potential minefields. The associated emissions from NFT’s and the use of crypto-currency to pay for them need to be addressed. At some point we may see clients come to expect lots to be submitted for sale with a Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) to prove a carbon provenance. The nature of digital art and its creation, highlighted most recently with the exceptional price realised for Beeple’s “EVERYDAYS:  THE FIRST 5000 DAYS”, is now being assessed on its impact as well as its artistic and cultural merit. The conversation around art is changing constantly but sustainability is now firmly part of it.

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