Environmental sustainability in conservation: why should we care?

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Image created by and provided by Marina Herriges.

By Marina Herriges

It is becoming increasingly hard to ignore the call for action against climate change as well as the evidence of this global crisis, which we can watch first-hand. The United Nations acknowledges that climate change “is a global emergency that goes beyond national borders.” With this in mind, we conservators can do our part to contribute to this agenda, while also making our profession relevant to the world we all live in.

Many professionals have approached me saying, “we are such a small field; it [environmental sustainability] does not matter.” But I would argue it does matter! I usually say that there is no such thing as too small a field to make a difference. In fact, why would we choose not to contribute if we are passionate about our profession and committed to best practices in preserving heritage for everyone?

We have been seeing the effects of climate change in heritage all over the globe. The increase in floods affecting buildings and cultural sites as well as the rise in insect infestations are just a couple of the consequences of climate change within heritage. Various conservation institutions have been emphasising the importance of environmental sustainability, and IIC wants to inspire and encourage its members to be part of this debate and endeavour. We should re-examine our professional practice to identify which areas we might change and improve. Of course, there is a need to acknowledge that conservation, like many other fields, struggles to achieve the ideal of 100% environmentally sustainable. In my view, environmental sustainability is still evolving and finding ways to be more effective. Therefore, it is a continuous work in progress that everyone can support.

Environmental sustainability is a subject I have been interested in for a long time, not only within conservation but also in my personal life. I regularly look at my practice and try to make better, more conscientious and greener decisions. I also work with students at the Centre for Textile Conservation, University of Glasgow, to help empower them to be active voices for environmental sustainability within our profession. My enthusiasm for this subject and my understanding that together we can make great things happen, meant that I did not have to think twice when asked to become the NiC environmental sustainability associate editor. Starting in this issue, I will be writing a new column intended to deliver content that will help our readers include more environmentally friendly measures in their daily practice. Hopefully, interviews with other conservators will inspire you to think about environmental sustainability and how to approach it in your own work. In addition, shared experiences will help you understand that sustainable conservation practices are actually not as difficult as you might have first thought. The content will be combined with the invaluable environmental sustainability resource centre that IIC is putting together to help conservators all over the world make better informed decisions within their practice.

This is a space to make you feel confident and bring you on board. I am keen on promoting conversation and empowering us to discuss the subject with colleagues at work, present possible solutions or even say “I am not entirely sure, but we can find out together.” There is no right or wrong; I believe that in sustainability we are all learning and trying to implement solutions to improve everyone’s lives. The more we act and talk about the subject, the more other professionals will realise that they can also be part of the discussion.

So keep an eye out for this column in every NiC issue where we will discuss a range of subjects: from re-using and recycling (first tip: reusing is always better than recycling) to more complex topics such as Life Cycle Assessment and green sol-vents. I look forward to sharing helpful information with you and encouraging us to make better decisions in our daily routines. Please stay connected and share your thoughts and ideas with us. Let's work together towards a more environmentally friendly profession.

Author Byline

Marina Herriges works as a textile conservator at the Textile Conservation Limited Studio in Bristol, UK. She holds an MPhil in textile conservation from the University of Glasgow, where she is currently researching environmental sustainability in conservation education. Marina has worked in a range of different heritage and conservation organizations in Brazil, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.

(Read the article in the August-September 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 85, p. 32-33)

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Many professionals have approached me saying, “we are such a small field; it [environmental sustainability] does not matter.” But I would argue it does matter! I usually say that there is no such thing as too small a field to make a difference.
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