When Colin Smith’s 1996 Toyota Camry careened off the side of the Trans Canada Highway one night, he and his friend both miraculously escaped with only minor cuts and bruises — but the event forever changed the path of Smith’s life.
At the time, Smith was a journeyman electrician in Calgary with a secure future, financially speaking, and a penchant for music festivals. He and his friend were driving back from The Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival on a Sunday night in August 2011 to make it on time for work the following Monday morning, when his friend fell asleep at the wheel and they wound up in the ditch.
An ambulance took them to the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital to get stitched up. From there, Smith’s father picked them up, and as they were driving home, they passed his written-off Camry, and stopped to pick out a few items. Smith, then 23, recalls it as a surreal moment in his life.
“Luckily we were both okay, but it changed my perspective on work and I wanted to do something a little more meaningful and something that was closer to my heart and I didn’t even know what that was at the time. But that was a summer of going to a lot of music festivals and that was the last one for that summer.”
Smith, now 29, recalls all this on a wintery Saturday afternoon from the basement office of Sled Island. It’s a somewhat shadowy, dusty space made warm and cozy by the enthusiastic and colourful characters who call it home. Located on 4th Street, the office is just a short bike ride away from Smith’s Mission home he shares with his girlfriend.
The post-accident epiphany manifested itself in a series of events beginning with leaving his career as an electrician and culminating with the inception of his company, Green Event Services in 2013. The company diverts waste away from the landfill at music festivals and other events in and around Calgary and currently boasts more than 1 million tonnes of diverted waste from more than 100 festivals. Workers for the company sort through the waste and ensure that recyclables and compostables are removed and sent to the proper facilities in trucks and trailers the business owns — or they partner with City of Calgary to use their roll-off dumpsters for the largest events they work. The refunds from returned bottles and cans are either returned to the event organizers or donated to charity or the volunteer organization supporting the particular event.
The concept of having a ‘green event’ is not necessarily new, but it is gaining more and more importance for both festival goers and festival organizers; where sustainable policies on their website is becoming a necessity and a point of pride.
In a 2010 article for the International Journal of Hospitality Management, Jennifer Laing and Warwick Frost define a green event as, “an event that has a sustainability policy or incorporates sustainable practices into its management and operations.”
They cite a survey that found 56 per cent of festival goers in the UK believed that the festivals they were attending were bad for the environment. Furthermore, 36 per cent of attendees claimed they consider a festival’s environmental policy before they choose to buy a ticket for that particular event and 48 per cent said that they would actually pay extra to attend a greener event. Based on this research, and the positive reception and results Green Events Services has attained, it has capitalized on an entertainment trend.
Green Event Services is still in the growth phases, but Smith is rapidly building a good reputation for himself among both his employers and employees. He says that last year he paid himself under $30,000 and paid his employees substantially more simply saying, “the leader eats last.”
As the business continues growing, each summer season Smith takes on more staff and more customers, knowing things need to be continually more planned out and organized in order to ensure the business operates smoothly. Their first contract was in February 2013 with Market Collective, a local market that seeks to encourage independent artisans and businesses in Calgary.
“Green Event Services is a young company,” says Angela Dione co-founder of Market Collective. “The growth we have seen over the last years of their operation has been inspiring. The future holds for them whatever they set their minds to accomplish, and the positive impact they have on the city will only increase in its importance and strength.”
Dione states that Green Event Services has worked for the past four years with Market Collective, throughout which time they have exponentially increased their percentage of waste diverted from landfills at their events. She says that since 2013 they have diverted over 7,433 kg of waste from the landfill and they now have an average diversion rate of 87 per cent.
“Market Collective requires all food vendors to use only compostable foodware at our events,” she explains. “We are currently working with Colin to develop this program, and have began a transition into reusable ware to go a step further with our environmental decisions.”
Smith reflects on his first contract saying, “it wasn’t a streamlined process, but everything went pretty good but we had to haul away all the material in my van which wasn’t ideal. That was the most comical hiccup was stuffing all this garbage and recycling and compost into my camper van.”
In terms of the employees that Smith seeks out, he looks for people with positive attitudes, good work ethics and having values centred around environmental work and community building. A love of music is part and parcel with the gig as well and as Smith says, “really it’s just [about] willing to work hard and have a good time while doing it.”
Colin Gallant, a journalism student at Mount Royal University, and music editor at BeatRoute magazine is one such individual. He first heard about Green Event Services while working his first internship at Sled Island in 2013. He recalls Smith being very passionate and that he worked with Sled Island as a partnership rather than for a standard fee. When Gallant applied, Smith already had a season stacked with gigs and a team of people that Gallant admired.
“I needed work and I wanted to work with dope people so it was no brainer,” states Colin in an email from South by Southwest festival he was attending at the time in Austin, Texas. He asked Smith about a job and was invited to a training session in order to see if he made a good fit.
“Colin knows business from his past careers and he has more passion than most entrepreneurs I've met,” Gallant says. “He also trusts the people he works with and gives them the opportunity to use and develop their strengths.”
Since then, Gallant has worked dozens of events with Green Event Services and says he’s always had a blast doing it.
“We bust our humps with labour and sorting, but we also laugh when we have time.”
Smith’s staff works behind the scenes at a huge range of music festivals encompassing the full spectrum of genre, from techno to country, which for Smith makes a lot of sense as he lists his favourite music as metal, bluegrass, country, electronic, hip hop and rock and roll.
“It’s a wide range, but really we’re focused on getting the job done and just being able to work and actively get your hands involved in reducing waste while Kiss is playing on the stage,” Smith says. He adds that while it is certainly an interesting work environment, the coolest thing about working for them is the friendships he sees forged amongst his staff while they sort through compost and haul bags of beer cans.
While it’s not always the most objectively pleasant work, as it does involve a lot of trash sifting, he says it’s not as bad as it sounds and he also stresses that he adamantly endeavours to pay a living wage. Smith says he pays his employees between $15 and $20 an hour.
“I think that feels good for me to be able to pay people better than minimum wage or what seems like a fair wage for the work and I think that our staff appreciate that too instead of volunteering.”
Another unexpected turn
The car accident wasn’t just the first time Smith’s life took an unexpected turn. Fresh out of high school, he enrolled in engineering at the University of Calgary. A year in however, Smith felt strongly the program wasn’t the life for him. He dropped out to become a self proclaimed ‘ski bum,’ snowboarding the slopes at Silver Star in Vernon, B.C.
“I decided it [university] wasn’t for me,” Smith says. “Starting this business has been a lot of my education and continues to be for sure. I try to learn from life experience rather than school.”
After a year of snowboarding Smith enrolled at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) and started the four-year process of becoming a Red Seal electrician.
A growing awareness
Smith had attended numerous music festivals throughout his early adulthood. Seeing how larger scale festivals handle their environmental footprint like Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, which annually draws around 80,000 attendees or locally with the Calgary Folk Festival. Smith knew there was something to it.
“I had a growing awareness of resource squandering and appreciated seeing resource conservation,” Smith says. Bonnaroo’s website reads, “A festival as large as Bonnaroo can produce a lot of trash. We are very committed to reducing the amount of trash that is sent to the landfill and have been developing an extensive recycling and composting program.”
The Calgary Folk Festival’s approach to the issue also resonated with Smith. “Folk Fest did a fantastic job of making effort to reduce their environmental impact and communicating that to attendees and it was the type of audience that that resonated with,” he explains. “So I’m very grateful for their willingness and the action that they did there and it was part of the inspiration for me to try to do it for other events.”
After his near fatal accident, he decided to get involved with another local festival that had a “transformative” impact upon him, Sled Island. Sled Island has been staged in Calgary every June since 2007 and each year brings hundreds of artists from a colossal spectrum of genres and backgrounds and puts them on stages at numerous bars and venues across the city for five days.
He put a call into the festival and they brought him on as a volunteer. And then, another unfortunate event befell him; he broke his arm snowboarding.
However, in keeping with his Midas-like, quasi-alchemical ability to transform something bad into something good, Smith used the injury to his advantage.
“Thankfully, my employer (while working as an electrician) had a good benefits and disability package,” said Smith. So I went on short term disability and I got my full wage and was able to dedicate most of the healing time of my broken arm to Sled Island.”
He made productive use of this downtime and found the experience to be energizing for him, and beneficial with regards to his work with Sled Island. It was also during this time that Smith met some people at the then fledgling Village Brewery.
“So the day I was supposed to be going back to my electrical job I told them ‘sorry I got this opportunity to go work at a brewery for minimum wage ... ’” recalls Smith. “ ... and for some reason I’m going to go do it, and it was a good decision. I met lots of amazing people and got lots of interesting work experience, and ended up being their event coordinator.”
He began his stint at Village filling growlers before moving up to his position as event coordinator, which had him delivering, setting up, serving and promoting the beer. As event coordinator, Smith found himself at events the Brewery sponsored all over the city like Lilac Fest, Reggae Fest and Afrikadey.
“It was awesome,” Smith recalls. “There was lots of beer being drank and food being consumed, but that also left a lot of waste — and at pretty much event I saw very poor waste management happening and it didn't resonate with me, or I knew there was a better way based on what I had made happen at Sled and just what I saw on travels to other music festivals.”
Solving the waste problem
It was then that Smith started thinking more about how he could potentially solve that problem, and had the idea to start a small business that offered a service to event organizers that allowed them to successfully mitigate their waste.
“That winter [in 2013] I decided to pursue the idea and bought a few recycling bins and started pandering event organizers for bringing us on board as a service provider.”
Smith says that he thinks the origins of his passion for sustainability can in part be traced to his upbringing. His mother immigrated to Canada from England with her family in the 1970s. She met Smith’s father in Lethbridge, and they started their family on a farm near the town of Coaldale where Smith spent the first years of his life and learned to tend to animals and grow food.
His parents didn’t necessarily instil environmental activism in him at a young age, though his mother did attend a protest for the Old Man River dam when he was a baby. The dam however, has since been built. He thinks that between his parents and grandparents love of nature and the large amount of time they spent together outside in the mountains, left an impression.
“I’m sure there was some things that I was exposed to that resonated and imprinted themselves,” Smith says. “I think they [my parents and grandparents] cared for nature in some form or fashion, but it kind of definitely left a legacy.”
The nature of business
The first two years of the business Smith describes as a steady progression, during which he continued to pour beers at Village part time. After the second year, he decided to quit Village and go at it full time and Green Event Services are now in their fifth summer.
The nature of his business is centred on the summer season and Smith uses the winter months to rest up, and strategize in advance of the busy summer season, which generally begins with Lilac Fest, which is a free one-day event in May that draws tens of thousands of people to Calgary’s 4th Street for music, food and art vendors and high-quality people watching.
“I get to sleep in more and everything goes a bit slower,” explains Smith from his desk surrounded by lanyards from past events that hang on his walls like sports medals. “The amount of hours and workload in the summer is very high, so I kind of balance it out by trying to take it a bit easier in the winter.” In exchange for their sponsorship of the festival, Sled Island provides office space to Green Event Services.
He says he puts in 30-40 hours a week during the winter, which may not seem like small potatoes, but when compared to the 60 to 80 hours he works in the summer months, his perspective makes more sense. In the winter he does a lot of correspondence, preparing proposals and quotes and planning for the summer, he also transports equipment and compost from events to a processing facility.
“If you know him [Smith] well he’s not exactly a suit and tie kinda guy,” says Jennifer Rempel, executive director of the 4th Street Business Revitalization Zone and 4th Street Festival society which runs Lilac Festival. “But he showed up for his first meeting with me wearing a suit and a tie and he didn’t even have to say anything and I had just already decided that I should work with him because I knew that if he was taking his business that seriously I knew that he would be the right guy for the job.”
Beyond the many accolades from those he has worked with, Smith was also officially recognized for his work by Avenue Magazine, who in 2016 named him one of their Top 40 Under 40.
Smith’s plan for the future involves more slow and steady expansion and continuing to raise awareness of what it means to host a green event.
“We’re also looking at ways we can evolve to be more year round or have greater impact but that is balanced with staying focused with what differentiates ourselves currently and doing events is definitely part of that, but I would love to continue to employ more people, more regularly, more long term.”
- By Paul RG Rodgers