Environment & Culture Partners | interview with founders

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Environment & Culture Partners (ECP) is a non-profit organisation on a mission to accelerate the environmental leadership of the cultural sector. It empowers museums, zoos, gardens, aquariums and historic sites to implement evidence-based environment and climate solutions by providing clarity of work and connection of resources to deliver impact at scale.

Environment & Culture Partners logo

ECP works at the sector level to provide more cultural organisations with the knowledge and skills needed to influence change; the partnership needed to do the work; and the voice to advocate for culture in every climate conversation. Since 2021, it has collaborated on eight major projects and engaged with over 500 cultural institutions and associations.

The three main pillars of ECP’s activity are capacity building, engagement, and representation. With ECP, the global cultural sector can lead evidence-based climate action for a healthy and resilient future.

Its current projects include the Caretakers of Wonder, the Frankenthaler Climate Initiative, the Carbon Inventory Project, Culture Over Carbon: Understanding the Impact of Museums’ Energy Use, Climate Resilience Resources for Cultural Heritage, a project of Held in Trust and the American Psychological Association Task Force on Climate Change.

To find out more about Environment & Culture Partners’ inception and its mission, and to explore some of its past and future projects, blooloop spoke to Sarah Sutton, co-founder and CEO, Stephanie Shapiro, co-founder and managing director, and Danielle Sakowski, program manager.

The Green Museum

Speaking about how she first got into the field of sustainability within the cultural sector, Sutton goes back to her education, her work in the museum world, and one of the key connections she met along the way:

Sarah Sutton ECP
Sarah Sutton

“My history degree is from the College of William and Mary, paired with an administration program at Colonial Williamsburg. When I was there, I asked my mentor, ‘What’s the one thing I need to leave here knowing how to do?’

“He said, ‘Raise money’, which was not the answer I’d hoped for. But I did follow his instructions – and grant writing has been a part of every job that I’ve had since. It was writing a grant that got me into sustainability. 20 years ago, Elizabeth Wylie, who is now one of our board members, asked me to write a grant application on sustainability for a campus. She had been a museum director in her previous career, and so when I got done with that work, I said to her, ‘Why aren’t museums doing this? They have to do this work.’

“We committed to each other to try and figure out how to promote this work and started writing together. She and I wrote The Green Museum [The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice, first published in 2008 with a second edition in 2013].

“While she was working for an architectural firm, I was working for myself as a museum consultant. I started to use The Green Museum to be the pattern of the work that I wanted to do. And, incrementally, it became all the work that I do.”

Environment & Culture Partners and We Are All In

While the cultural sector had been making some early progress in terms of sustainability, this was thrown into crisis in the US by the 2016 presidential election. Upon taking office in 2017, President Trump announced that he was taking the US out of the Paris Agreement.

“When I heard about it my first thought was, ‘I need to move to Canada. I need to live in a country that shares my values.’ But my second thought was, ‘If I moved to Canada, how am I helping to solve the problem?’

“I felt that those of us who care about this work would do it anyway, whether the government was in an agreement or providing leadership or not.  So, I started calling peers, colleagues and clients. I said, ‘If we formed a coalition of folks who did climate work, would you say yes?’”

America is all in

“So many people said yes that I knew I was not going to be able to pull this off alone. At the same time, I heard about We Are Still In on the radio. They were talking about the coalition of sectors; higher ed, big business, cities and states, mayors and governors, but they don’t have a public engagement section. At that point, the national Museum Associations didn’t want to adopt this work.

“So, I knocked on the door at We Are Still In. In 2018, they added the cultural sector as part of We Are Still In.”

The importance of the cultural sector in climate action

In 2021, President Biden put the US back in the Paris Agreement, meaning We Are Still In needed to evolve:

“We Are Still In was formed to hold the door open to climate action in the United States so that other nations saw that we were still working and that they shouldn’t leave the agreement.

“By the time the US re-joined, you could say, ‘Maybe we don’t need the coalition.’ But so much had happened between 2017 and 2021 that it was clear that even if the federal government were fully engaged, they couldn’t get us to our climate goals without the civil sector also participating. So, we became America Is All In and kept up, if not increased the work that we do.

“I would not be despondent if there were to be an anti-climate leadership in the United States in the next cycle. Civil society now is so effective at this work that we will just keep going. It will be harder. But we will keep going.”

Environment & Culture Partners COP25
COP25

Shapiro adds: “2017 into 2018 is when the cultural sector was welcomed into the partner circle of America Is All In. We started increasing representation of the cultural sector then. That led us to be able to attend the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) in Madrid, where we represented the cultural sector, which was exciting.

“There were some other members from across the world there representing culture, but it was exciting to be there for the US and be able to share that cross-sector collaboration and the importance of civil society. It’s the foundation of economic, social, and environmental value for the country. It is work that will be continuing no matter what the leadership is in the government.”

Forming Environment & Culture Partners

Shapiro first met Sutton while studying for her master’s degree in Museum Studies/Museology at George Washington University.

Stephanie Shapiro ECP
Stephanie Shapiro

“Sarah taught the inaugural Green Museum class at George Washington University. I was her student and that was when I realised that this was the type of work I wanted to focus on. Sarah was there at that intersection of culture and climate then, and we were able to create a relationship and collaborate on lots of different things until we established ECP.”

Following COP in Madrid, Sutton and Shapiro began to talk about how they could work together and focus on climate work in the cultural sector.

“We thought about what format would create the most change, fastest,” says Sutton. “The gaps in the sector are funding to do green work and leadership to drive the sector to do that work. As a non-profit, we could attract and drive funding to others to get the work done. And if we established ourselves as a non-profit, in parallel to the national associations but separate, we could provide the leadership that we didn’t see.”

Two becomes three

“That is what has evolved in the last three-plus years of effort and two years of being Environment & Culture Partners, she continues. “There’s been a lovely reception to the fact that someone is here to do this work. The evolution has been dramatic in how our work has gone from trying to get some good green work done to leveraging good and new green work across not just groups of institutions, but now across associations.

Danielle Sakowski ECP
Danielle Sakowski

“Plus, we’ve gone from two of us to three of us, hiring Danielle in January 2023.”

“My master’s degree is also in Museology/Museum Studies, and my thesis work was on climate communications and museums,” says Sakowski. “So, that was how I found Sarah and her work.”

“Danielle volunteered too,” adds Sutton. “She said, ‘Is there something we could do together?’ We figured out what that was maybe two years before ECP. She volunteered to help create one of the ECP programs. When it was time to expand, we knew that we already had somebody who understood, was motivated, and came with a commitment and the capacity to learn and adapt to something that we couldn’t even predict what it would be like.

“I love my job, and I have loved my museum career, but I tell you, the last four years, have just been the most exciting ever. Who knew that it could be this marvellous?”

Culture Over Carbon

In 2021, funded by a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, ECP developed Culture Over Carbon: Understanding Museums’ Energy Use. This was the first comprehensive energy use analysis of the cultural sector.

“The goal behind Culture Over Carbon is that the first thing we need to do is cut our carbon production. That’s our most direct and immediate impact on climate,” says Sutton. “We’re still going to have to deal with climate change, but we’ve got to hopefully slow the change. We needed to establish a way to help museums monitor their energy so that they could use it to reduce their impacts.”

Environment and Culture Partners culture over carbon

“We are not engineers or architects. Environment & Culture Partners has “partners” in its name because we need those partnerships to affect system change. We need people who have talent in other areas to help us influence these systems. And so New Buildings Institute was our engineering partner. New England Museum Association was the first of the major museum associations to commit to climate action and to sign on to We Are Still In, back in 2018. So, that’s why we approached them to also be partners on this project.

“After two years of research, 139 institutions and 230 buildings worth of data, participating institutions ended up with a roadmap to cut their energy use. We ended up with a full document that talks about energy use in the sector and the trends among nine different types of museums and created a fact sheet for anticipating policy and regulation changes that will influence the capacity for museums to reduce their carbon impact.

“For instance, what kind of laws and what kind of manufacturing restrictions are there that change the choices museums will be making in their planning?”

Environment & Culture Partners and The Carbon Inventory Project

Culture Over Carbon also spawned the Carbon Inventory Project, as Sakowski explains:

“We got all this great data from Culture Over Carbon. But we also found that one of the barriers to participating was knowing how to monitor and report your energy use. In Culture Over Carbon our partners at New Buildings Institute used their own software to analyse energy use. That’s how they were able to get that data from the museums.”

“But for the Carbon Inventory Project, we set up a series of training courses every month to help organisations learn how to use Energy Star Portfolio Manager, which is from the US Environmental Protection Agency. It’s a free tool that anyone can use to manage energy consumption in their buildings.

“While we were helping them learn how to monitor their energy, we were also helping them report that number, so we could get an idea of their carbon impact. Through that, we got our first estimate of the cultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. We hope to make it an annual opportunity where all culture organisations can start reporting that number and we can start to see what that overall impact is, and then start to try and reduce from there.”

Creating a building performance rating for museums

That work is now leading into another project, which the ECP team is currently working on, Sakowski adds:

“We want to create a building performance rating for museums in Energy Star Portfolio Manager. Right now, there isn’t one for museums. The significance of that is that organisations will be able to see how well their buildings are performing based on a national sample of similar buildings and organisations. And, if we learned one thing from Culture Over Carbon, it was that museums have unique building and energy use patterns.

“So, when they get a rating in Energy Star, they can say, ‘Hey, we got a 75, we’re doing really well’. Or, they can say, ‘We’re falling short, maybe we can do a little bit better’. That’s the great thing about this rating. We hope it will be a good step for reducing energy use.”