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Antiques are green but what about how they are packaged and delivered?

Have you thought about getting that Old Master picture you snapped up at a country house auction delivered by airship? Or perhaps the dining room table and chairs you bid for online silently floated over to your house?

This might sound fanciful, but one art specialist believes it isn’t that far-fetched.

Companies such as Hybrid Air Vehicles in Cardington, Bedfordshire are developing passenger and freight airships powered by electricity. British art historian and museologist Dr Peter Cannon-Brookes (formerly Keeper of Art at Birmingham and at the National Museum of Wales) is a believer. “I have plugged airships as an option for over 20 years. People think I am mad but now prototypes are being built. The key to their adoption is economic necessity.”

Although it may be some time before this sort of transport become an option for logistics, what is certain is the art and antiques sector, like many others, must adapt to more sustainable and green delivery methods. This means new vehicles and new materials used in packing.

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One of the Hybrid Air Vehicles in Cardington, Bedfordshire.

The art and antiques sector is already regarded as ‘green’ due to the objects being re-used and recycled rather than created new each time. It has been estimated that the carbon footprint of a Georgian mahogany chest of drawers is one 17th that of a modern equivalent.

But there is pressure to become greener still. There are various ways to try from carbon offset schemes to reducing waste.

Some initiatives are bordering on greenwashing – promoting something that is supposedly ‘green’ when in fact the decision behind it is purely one of cost. Reducing printed catalogues, moving online and cutting travel budgets can all be explained away as environentally positive. Seldom do they amount to fundamental changes in the way a business is being run.

It is understandable that some firms have recently put important green measures on the back burner. Dr Cannon-Brookes adds: “There has of course been less emphasis recently on climate change as a priority due to Brexit and the pandemic. But that cannot indefinitely be shoved into the background.

“One area in which rapid improvements could be achieved in terms of greener packaging would start at the top with the insurance market, the museums and auction houses. Some of the top museums now demand such high standards that the single-use cases are the equivalent of pieces made by cabinet makers.

“Packing cases have become more and more extravagant over the years. I personally received last year one such case and I couldn’t dismantle it to recycle the beautiful wood because it was glued together. It is now repurposed as a garden planter in Birmingham.

“Another major issue is the way freight charges are calculated on the basis of volumetric weight, not absolute weight. There is thus no incentive to use lighter-weight cases and more efficient packaging materials when the cost for transport remains the same.

“The waste of energy involved in shipping excessive and unnecessary packing is, on environmental grounds, not affordable. One hopes that the arrival of cargo airships for freight transportation will change the way charges are made. Long overdue, these will have a massive impact not only on the airfreight industry but in the longer term on all specifications for all packing and transport.”

The leading auction houses are aware they have to make changes.

Christie’s has pledged (among other things) to reduce its carbon emissions by 50%, divert 90% of its waste from landfill and ensure all its clients only receive packaging and printed products that are 100% recyclable. It is also undertaking a pilot project with crate provider Rok Box (see Handy Hints below).

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An example of Rok Box crates at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.

Tom Woolston, global head of operations and leading Christie’s sustainability program, says: “It is obviously incredibly important for us to ensure that the works of art that we’re entrusted with are packed to the best possible standards to ensure their safety and I don’t believe that our packing is over the top. That said, we certainly want to work with all stakeholders, fine art logistics firms, our insurers and other organisations in the art sector, not just to bring about sustainable ways of working but also to innovate the best, most effective methods for packing.

“We have begun work on a sustainable packaging programme which has two parts; first to examine how, at the top end of our business, we can improve the re-use of crates. This could be with one of a number of proprietary re-usable crating solutions which we’ve seen emerging recently or it could be examining how we can better facilitate the re-use of the more traditional wooden crates.

“Second is to work with our suppliers and find ways to make packing materials themselves more sustainable, the key target we have set ourselves here is to ensure that all of the materials used are not just high quality but 100% recyclable.”

Christie’s, alongside many other firms has in the art and antiques sector, have joined a new group formed to try to tackle some of the issues.

Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) is a not-for-profit group founded by London-based gallerists and professionals working in the arts.

Woolston explains: “It is so important that we collaborate as an industry to find solutions, which is why we have joined the GCC. They have recently set up a task force dedicated to shipping and packaging because many of the challenges that we face are systemic and we need collective action to address them.”

GCC recently received charitable status after being launched in October 2020. It aims to foster an industry-specific response to the climate crisis, and is recruiting other dealers, art workers, and artists to commit to reducing carbon emissions.

GCC’s goal, in line with the Paris Agreement, is to cut the art world’s carbon footprint by 50% over the next ten years as well as promoting near-zero-waste practices, foremost via the ‘carbon calculator’ on its website galleryclimatecoalition.org.

A spokesperson for the GCC says: “There are a great number of changes art businesses can make in order to become more sustainable. Because the issue of sustainable packaging is complex and involves many variables, the GCC is working to provide resources and guidelines to make the best sustainable packaging choices on a case by case basis. The GCC aims for these changes to be adopted across the sector, including suppliers to the industry like shippers and insurers, and are already working with some of these groups to help make that possible.

“There are also some exciting developments to keep an eye on, for example a new Mycelium Composite packaging material made from a network of fine fungal roots and is actually carbon-negative.”

Logistics firm Queen’s Fine Art has signed up to the GCC and has made steps to become greener. James Quirk, lead marketing manager at the firm, says: “As one of the main carbon contributing sectors in the industry, we are committed to reaching the Paris target and are confident we have a clear plan in place.

“We don’t believe off-setting is the answer to eco-friendly shipping. Although offset programmes are positive initiatives, they can’t be relied on to remove sufficient carbon from the atmosphere in any reasonable timeframe.

“We use 100% recycled card when packing works but our crates are certified by the Forestry Commission and our warehouse is set up to recycle as much of our own, and our clients, packaging as possible.”

Many firms are already switching to more sustainable materials.

Greg Bradley of Bradley’s Furniture Carriers says the firm is using nearly 100% recyclable materials for its packing services business. However, costs have to be considered. He says: “Packaging, prices for materials and shipping costs have both gone up a lot this year.”

It has also been hard to maintain a focus on green issues when so much has been thrown at businesses in the past year (see page 32 for an update on current trading in the art and antiques delivery sector).

Graeme Rhodes, head of marketing at Pack & Send, says: “An anecdotal view would be that the scale of the impact from Brexit and Covid would have diminished the focus on any other initiative for the time-being. Our business has been fully focused on mastering the admin requirements of Brexit to the expense of most other things to ensure we give good service to customers and to carve a competitive advantage.”

However, green issues are not being forgotten: “We already use recyclable packaging for most shipments (including art and antiques). As many of our shipments are higher value items we also use a lot of crates which are produced from sustainable sources and we encourage our customers to reuse these. We also offer green freight services which carry a higher cost to allow the carbon footprint of the delivery to be offset with carbon credits.”

Mail Boxes Etc has also undertaken green initiatives but notes that these are not yet at the top of the agenda of every customer.

James Simmons, Mail Boxes Etc marketing manager in the UK & Ireland, says: “Customers praise [our] quality packaging and choices in using appropriate packing materials. The primary concern expressed by customers is one of safe receipt. Neither Brexit nor the pandemic has indicated any change in this behaviour. It is extremely rare that we receive a concern from buyers about our choice of packaging.

“When sourcing and considering packaging materials for each shipment, we balance the needs of our customers with the needs of the environment, reusing cartons and void-fill where doing so would not compromise the safety of an item in transit. Where we use brand new cartons, or other specialist packing such as bespoke crates, we take a considered view, reusing materials internally where appropriate.

“We continue to lobby our packaging suppliers to increase their range of suitable greener materials and use them when appropriate.”

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One of Mail Boxes Etc’s branches.

Like many other art and antiques businesses, logistics firm Gander & White is a member of GCC and has its own environmental policy that it adheres to such as minimising waste by seeking to reduce, reuse and recycle where possible, and bringing in re-useable crates (like those from Rokbox) as well as encouraging the recycling and re-use of wooden crates.

Victor Khureya of Gander & White says: “As a company, we have not allowed post Brexit issues and Covid to have a negative impact on our environmental policies. We have managed to work with our clients and managed to implement our environmental procedures and ensure compliance with all relevant environmental legislation in all the industry sectors we operate in.”

Dealers are also looking at ways to improve their packaging’s impact on the planet.

The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association has a number of initiatives it is working on and will coordinate with its members. ABA current president Pom Harrington of Peter Harrington said his firm had “finally found postage bags that are 100% recyclable and biodegradable”.

Furniture dealer Howe London in Pimlico Road tries to reuse packaging and fabric remnants from its upholstered furniture. It has a number of sustainable initiatives and is beginning to deliver some of its larger products in reusable material padded bags (pictured).

However, it is not easy for the entire trade to move forward together.

Dealer Nigel Worboys of Worboys Antiques started the website antiquesaregreen.org more than a decade ago and is continuing to promote how to become ‘greener’.

He believes things are starting to head in the right direction.

Worboys says: “When I started we didn’t have as much gravitas but now dealers, auction houses and consumers are really taking notice.

“The actual instruction from consumers is what is pushing this. People expect the art and antiques sector to be environmentally considerate. It is the added value people are looking for. Being green shouldn’t mean more cost, just more effort.”

Whether the advent of air ships in the logistics market comes to pass, many consumers and climate change campaigners will be looking for meaningful action and genuine change from the businesses that have pledged to become greener.

Handy hints and tips to be a little bit greener

Find helpful tips and a guide to the most sustainable packaging options and best practices for recycling, as well as advice on shipping, travel, energy and other areas.

Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC)

galleryclimatecoalition.org

Antiques Are Green

Nigel Worboys of Worboys Antiques founded Antiques Are Green. Its website continues to champion green initiatives. Here is a selection of handy hints:

Delivery

• Use a carbon neutral or the greenest delivery company you can source. Worboys uses DPD for parcels.

• Ask couriers to ensure they consolidate deliveries in close proximity to create the most efficient journey – Worboys works with carefully selected couriers who collect for multiple clients from the same auction rooms. Anyvan and Shipley are among those that provide shipping based on the proximity of collections and deliveries.

Packaging

• Paper packaging is best

• A good filler inside boxes is stiff recycled brown paper

• Bubblewrap is not great for the environment. The green biodegradable and recycled versions are only marginally more expensive and Worboys uses The Green Stationery Company. Receive a 10% discount using the GREENDAY code on the greenstat.co.uk website.

• Biodegradable clingwrap. Worboys recommends Kingfisher Packaging’s Omegatech – it negates the need for sticky tape on bubble wrap making the wrap reusuable.

• Use recycled material furniture blankets (around £4-5 each) - relatively low cost on most furniture sales. They can be reused by the courier or customer.

antiquesaregreen.org

Rok Box

The company designs crates specifically to reduce the environmental impact, risk and cost of shipping high value art and is used by a number of auction houses, galleries and the major shpping firms. Its shipping crates are reusable.

rok-box.com

Useful links

Dav Pack

davpack.co.uk

DS Smith

dssmithepack.co.uk

Eco Packaging Solutions

ecopackagingsolutions.co.uk

Kingfisher Packaging

kingfisherpackaging.com

Noissue

noissue.co.uk

Polybags

polybags.co.uk

Prior Direct

priorydirect.co.uk

The Green Stationery Company

greenstat.co.uk