Case Study
  • Posted on December 1st, 2022

Towards a greener Carnival with The New Carnival Company

Person wearing colourful mardi gras costume

New Carnival had become increasingly aware of the need for Carnival to become more sustainable and environmentally responsible from around 2018. When we looked at the materials we were using, and how they perhaps only get used for one event, we realised that things needed to change. Carnival is, by its very nature, not sustainable.

In 2019, New Carnival began to organise a carnival conference for February 2020, through its associations with Carnival Network South’s ‘Towards a Greener Carnival’, we brought many carnival associations and carnival artists together for this to explore how we might start to collectively make changes to our practise. We had speakers, case studies, and practical workshops over a two-day period. Ultimately, we learnt that there is a demand for this dialogue, and that people are open to looking towards a better future for carnival and the planet. One participant pointed out that unless we start to change, there is no future for our sector, as carnival arts in their present form are not sustainable. Another key learning point was that although we are looking to the future, many of the techniques we need to re-employ are in fact quite old, carnival costumes have been made for centuries and often used natural materials, paper mâché, straw, bamboo etc. There is a history within carnival of making things from found materials. We did not want to look ‘junk-esque’, however, we wanted to show that new technologies have made it more possible to still have bright colours and bling, we just need to re-imagine and re-assess what we are using.

By running ‘sustainable costume’ courses, we introduced learners to new ways of working and discussing materials, whilst there are many grey areas, we broadly separated the current materials we used into three categories, a traffic light system of red, amber or green – with green being the more environmentally friendly. We looked at not using foam, or shimmer curtain, foils and plastics unless recycled. Textiles were perhaps the most difficult to address, as much of the carnival silks, sequin fabric and stretch nylons are clearly not very good. We explored natural dyes to see if it would be possible to get bright colours and more natural fabrics. The dilemma is that, whilst it is possible to dye small amounts of fabric, it is much harder to do so for larger amounts with uniform results. Getting wholesale fabric, which is environmentally responsible, is expensive, so we need to think creatively again, re-using fabric and buying second hand.

Over the last few years, we have dramatically reduced the amount of plastazote foam that we use, both in house and sold to school groups and community groups, we have used much more cardboard. Plastazote foam is a ‘polyethylene’ foam, which is a plastic that derives usually from petroleum or natural gas. As a plastic, it is not biodegradable or easily recycled, hence it would often end up in landfill and would not break down for a long time. In carnival it is somewhat of a wonder material in that it holds its form well; it is water proof and is crucially very lightweight. We often use it either as it comes, in all different colours, or by covering it in fabric with spray glue . We have switched to buying part-recycled PET plastic sequins, from a small innovative supplier. On our parade in 2022, we banned all petrol and diesel vehicles, only allowing electric. In the end, there was only one vehicle in the parade and people used trollies and pushchairs to wheel their sound systems around. We created two large individual costumes with around 75% sustainable materials – no foam or foils. We switched to using felt and wool for decorations and used willow and wire to create structure. This year we have noticed that there is a better selection of environmentally responsible materials available, from tape to paint, and that the prices are becoming less extortionate as new products are more available. Our groups are managing to recycle and re-use more, keeping back packs and base costumes from year to year and changing them up rather than completely starting from scratch.

Our Adult and Community Learning courses are funded by the Isle of Wight Council for whom we are a learning provider. They are very supportive of our work and the carnivals.

On the back of Carnival Network South, the Conference and also lockdown zooms, which enabled carnivals from around the country to come together more and talk, we established the ‘Sustainable Carnival Alliance’. This group comprises of 18 hrs Hastings, St Pauls Carnival Bristol and Cowley Road Oxford. We wanted to establish this group so that we can forward our exploration into making carnival more environmentally responsible, by creating a focus group who can share ideas on costume production, but also ensuring our parades and events are working to become carbon neutral. This group undertook an artist skills exchange at room 101 in February 2022 for a weekend, attempting to create some showcase environmentally friendly costumes.

The Isle of Wights newly recognised UNESCO Biosphere status has become a force for change and opportunity locally, we are driven to ensure that the future is greener and better for the residents and visitors alike, this has helped with the momentum to keep looking for innovative ways forward. We have worked closely with the IW Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), they value how the arts can communicate positive concepts and messages whilst engaging people.

Shifting people’s perceptions towards carnival will take time but we are forging ahead with our ideas and plans, the time is now. Speaking to other makers, it is great to discuss and find things that are working and swap techniques and materials that we come across, a mutually beneficial exercise, we want to share things that work to precipitate collective change in approach. Teachers and educators welcome the change as they want to be setting the best example for their students. Young people are acutely aware of climate change and the problems our world is facing – they want to do something about it.


  • Hannah Ray Research and Development project 2019
  • Greening Up Carnival, Adult and Community Learning Course 2019 (6 Weeks)
  • Greening up Carnival Conference, Carnival Network South 2020
  • Making Carnival Costumes Sustainably, Adult and Community Learning course 2021 (online delivery- 4 weeks-)
  • Room 101 Artist weekend, Sustainable Carnival Alliance 2022
  • Large Sustainable Backpack Costumes, Adult and Community Learning course 2022 (6 weeks)