Theatre sustainability


What many don’t know about Estonians is that we’re theatre people. We’re not kidding –  it’s really hard to find a person in Estonia who hasn’t been to the theatre. And this is supported by statistics – in 2019, 959,6 people per 1000 had been to the theatre. Furthermore, a total of 7047 shows were played, which is approximately 19,3 shows per day. What has theatre to do with fashion, sustainability or Reet? Well, everything!

Before beginning her journey with her fashion brand and as a pioneer in industrial upcycling, Reet worked as a costume and set designer for various theatre productions both in Estonia and abroad. She soon acknowledged that theatrical production has a significant ecological footprint that shouldn’t be ignored. From there on, she experimented her way forward, finding new ways to work – from implementing upcycling in costume design to sustainable set designs and embedding sustainability across theatres as organisations.

At first, one might not think of theatre productions as strikingly polluting. We know that transportation is the real culprit and there’s really not much transportation going on there. Therefore, everything’s local, right? Well, not really. Powering the lighting and sound for each show consumes a huge amount of energy and unfortunately, a high percentage of Estonia’s energy comes from oil shale. We’re the only country in the world which still relies on this environmentally disastrous production as our primary source of energy.

Then come the more materialistic aspects – costume and set design. It’s common to produce new designs for each play and after the curtains close, and these won’t usually find immediate use afterwards. So, naturally, theatres end up piling a lot of items mostly bought and intended for one play. Finally, a common issue for each play taking place in a theatre is the infrastructure and maintenance of the facility. Energy and water consumption, waste management, and so on.

As a costume designer, Reet is devoted to being as sustainable as possible in her practice. The best thing you could do, of course, is to reuse previous costumes. But if that’s not possible, the second best thing is to upcycle – to rework or combine previous costumes and clothes to make something new. This is often confused with recycling, which actually means that you’d pull apart a material completely before producing it anew. Sourcing materials, from recycling centers, factories and the like, wasn’t common when Reet started out, and therefore took some time to convince others and get them involved. If you don’t get through to a person or the person isn’t on the same level with you, it’s hard to get them to understand.

On her quest to make theatres more sustainable, Reet has come across a number of hurdles. For instance, during her work on making the Tallinn City Theatre daily activities sustainable, surprising issues seemed to pop up wherever she turned. As the theatre is divided between multiple buildings, with some buildings built in medieval times, infrastructural issues such as piping, heating, renovations etc. were the main concern. However, once you get people on board and decide to go through a common process, everything’s possible.

Reet’s work at Tallinn City Theatre went on further to include upcycling as a method to showcase that it can be implemented in theatres, too. As you know, a major element of our fashion label is the UPMADE® certification and production system, which enables brands and manufacturers to implement industrial upcycling in order to turn excess materials into garments and thus present savings in water, CO2, and energy usage. Although the UPMADE certificate is designed for the textile and fashion industry, that doesn’t mean it can’t be implemented in other industries as well. The core methodology goes like this – you map the waste’s phases, the types of waste, where it goes, what you can bring back to the organisation by upcycling, what you can recycle, and what goes to waste management. In this way, whatever the industry, the knowledge and the tools remain the same. So yes, this method can also be applied in theatres in order to become more energy efficient, save water, and emit less CO2.