Sustainability at Yorck: A Look Back, A Look Forward

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No place on earth remains unaffected by climate change. Many films in our programming deal with the consequences for our planet and urge us to act. As art house cinemas, we have to consider our own environmental impact as well. In late 2019, a “sustainability task force” was formed to advance Yorck’s efforts in this field. We chat with Lucie Morvan, Yorck’s Head of Operations, and Marcel Danner, a member of the sustainability task force.

Looking back, Yorck’s first steps towards more sustainability happened isolated or almost by accident: Sticking to recyclable glass bottles instead of single-use plastic cups. Introducing more organic snacks. Recycling old cinema furniture instead of throwing it away. These were first steps into the field, albeit without a larger plan in mind. A milestone and turning point was the switch to renewable energy provider Naturstrom in 2014, which saved more than 500 tons of CO² per year. It became the foundation of a year-long partnership that rewards customers with free movie tickets when they switch to Naturstrom.

The groundwork seemed solid, and everyone across the company more than willing to make changes for the sake of sustainability. No wonder that a sustainability plan seemed like a pretty easy thing to do. But when Lucie Morvan, Yorck’s Head of Operations, set out to do just that, she quickly came to a different realization: “To be completely honest, when I took up this topic, I first thought it would be a lot easier.” 

Forming a "sustainability task force"

It wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm. But in practice, logistics, laws, regulations, and tight budgets made for more significant hurdles than anticipated. And because Yorck consists of many different historical theaters built in the early and mid-20th century, not many processes were centralized or similar to enact quick changes that work for everyone. “Any measure we take can have a real impact. But every measure must be well thought out and implemented”, Lucie says. To overcome what seemed like an unclimbable hill of questions, Lucie founded a sustainability task force with five colleagues stemming from all different company areas, from the box office to the back office. 

Every team member brings in a different set of company knowledge. “My colleagues have very different workdays and think differently about aspects of work than I sometimes do. We are more creative in finding solutions, and each of us is an ambassador for the project within their team”, Lucie describes.

In its first meeting, the task force identified four fundamental areas of action: waste management, resources, mobility, and programming. They then proceeded to start with a status analysis. “We asked questions like: Which cinema uses how much electricity and water? What are simple steps to become more energy-efficient? Where is disposable tableware still used and what is needed to change that?” Marcel, a member of the sustainability task force, recounts.

The task force then quickly moved to act on the first steps swiftly. “You have to start somewhere, and done is nearly always better than perfect,” Lucie says. “We follow the 80/20 rule, meaning we prefer to act on a good-enough solution that gets us to 80% of your goals, especially if perfecting the last 20% would require a huge amount of effort.”

Making the first steps

The first steps included switching to LED lighting, different water measures, a consequent waste management system, and a transition to reusable cutlery. The switch to reusable cutlery proved especially tricky. While some cinemas have a ready and certified infrastructure to wash and re-use cutlery, other smaller and older theaters do not have any equipment. Such a simple switch required rebuilding counters, moving water supply lines, new equipment, and certification by hygienic regulation authorities. Ten cinemas made the transition in 2020, with the original Yorck Kino remaining the only exception. The cinema’s facilities do not provide enough space to comply with hygienic standards for multi-use cutlery. So alternative solutions and concepts have to be developed and tested.

But on the other hand, the knowledge gathered throughout successes and setbacks ultimately helped when the Blauer Stern cinema became one of Germany’s “Grünes Kino” model cinemas for sustainability. A renovation completely transformed the foyer and routines of the theater, allowing for a thorough green revamp of all areas. Some of the changes made seemed evident from day one – a new recycling system, bike parking spaces, and LED lighting. Other changes were only possible because of the experience gathered during the entire project. For instance, the team was able to reduce the energy consumption of the concession counter by optimizing the positions of freezers and other devices.

Impact of Covid-19

At the time of publishing, German cinemas are entering the sixth consecutive month of a second lockdown. The Covid-19 pandemic might have put sustainability efforts at crossroads. And while it has increased demand for single-use plastic waste and put some actions on hold for budget reasons, it also gave the team an unprecedented benefit: time.

The Sustainability Team kept their work ongoing in the first months of the pandemic by moving all meetings online and aggressively acting on action. Without any daily business interfering, decisions could be implemented quickly. “Challenges that seemed like they would take years were solved in weeks, thanks to the will of everyone and great internal and digital communication,” Lucie says. 

Currently, the team is more focused on a larger strategy on implementing further sustainability measures. “The pandemic gave us the opportunity to act fast on nearly everything we could. Now we are at a point where we need the input of professionals, researchers and experts to move further.” 

The team spent the recent months connecting with sustainability experts from other cultural organizations, applying for public grants, and crafting a professional CO² balance of the entire company. Once completed, Yorck will set concrete objectives and goals for the year 2030 and detail how to meet those goals. Once completed, Lucie plans to share this manifest across the entire company: “Our goal is to establish a common vision and clear goals, as well as to communicate transparently about the status and progress. Also, this statement intends to serve as a reference for decision-making processes, self-monitoring, and accountability.”

What's Next

Looking back on the past year, Marcel and Lucie agree that “the sustainability task force has challenged our understanding of what sustainability involves for our customers, our colleagues, our business partners, and for everyone in the environment of art-house cinemas.” 

For every cinema aiming to make operations more sustainable, Lucie and Marcel have one suggestion: start. 

“Share the goal of becoming more sustainable with your team. Be open for their ideas. Without their enthusiasm, nothing will happen. But when you invite people in, motivation, ideas, and support will flourish even throughout the inevitable difficult moments. Next, I recommend action. You don’t need to begin with grand gestures, but it is important to take the first step. Not within a year, not within six months, but in the next three days. The most important thing you can do is just start somewhere.” 

Marcel agrees: “Every sustainability plan can only bear fruit if all employees believe in the measures and participate. Sustainability is not just a business idea, it is also intertwined in private life. Our actions are only as strong and lasting as the weakest link behind them.”