‘Dead niche’ green festivals need to move mainstream

If only we could all get this excited about tackling climate change. EvaRinaldi/flickr, CC BY

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people up sticks and camp out at UK music festivals. These events are more popular than ever – there are now scores of festivals, ranging from the massive, mainstream Reading Festival to smaller-scale “boutique” festivals such as Buddhafield, catering for every taste.

The UN Music and Environment Initiative observed recently that music is “one of the most powerful media to communicate environmental messages to billions of people worldwide regardless of race, religion, income, gender or age”. While music’s ability to excite the senses is unquestionable, the whole industry faces a range of significant challenges if it is to become more environmentally sustainable. Production and consumption sit at the heart of the music industry, meaning that any change might question its economic model.

Festivals in particular have a significant impact on the area they occupy, often causing traffic, waste, water, litter and sustainability issues that are bad for the local environment.

Festivals and gigs account for 75% of total carbon emissions of the UK music sector – 43% of which is just from audience travel. These are conservative estimates that do not include waste and emissions from food and drink, even though large gatherings test the capacity of water and energy resources and generate significant amounts of waste.

Europe leads the way

Across Europe, a range of festivals have signed up to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) initiative. In addition, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) 2012 was developed as a standard for those wishing to stage environmentally sustainable events. Highlighted music festivals include Hove in Norway, which has become carbon neutral, and Roskilde in Denmark, where the European Environment Agency distributed various messages on the state of the European environment during 2009.

Spreading the news… Angela Connolly, Author provided

Many UK festivals have also started engaging with climate change. Glastonbury has devoted an enormous amount of effort towards improving its sustainability by installing 1,200 compostable toilets, encouraging the reduction of waste, promoting the culture of recycling on the site and donating large proportions of the festival’s profits to environmental charities.

Meanwhile, Julie’s Bicycle, an organisation that exists to promote sustainability in the arts, has developed a number of tools to allow festival coordinators to measure and reduce their carbon footprint.

The high profile T in the Park festival, held at Strathallan Castle in Perthshire, sparked controversy this year when the festival relocated to a site where protected ospreys visited. Planning approval was only granted when the main stage was moved and exclusion zones were created.

Changing behaviour

But there is always more to do. The hundreds of smaller festivals must not be overlooked. Our research focuses on Scotland and goes beyond technical attempts to provide green energy sources and deal with waste management. We want to probe the different understandings of sustainability among the temporary communities that gather at festivals.

Creative Carbon Scotland. Angela Connelly, Author provided

So, armed with surveys and musical instruments, we have attended two such festivals. At one, we encountered a catering van that reused food waste and sought to subvert the economic system by asking festival goers to pay what they thought was a “fair” price.

Audience behaviour remains tricky to unpick. We engaged in many climate change conversations from divestment to recycling. We often heard that “Scotland has plenty of water. We don’t need to conserve it”; or that people felt they were on a “responsibility holiday”, confirming evidence from the tourism sector that even the most committed environmentalists take a break from routine during a down period. Tellingly, our activities were described by one festival-goer as “dead niche”.

We hope to start a conversation on how to move from being “dead niche” to making climate change a mainstream issue in the Scottish live music sector and beyond. There needs to be a cultural shift from below as well as above and this means communicating the climate change challenge through all available formats and working beyond the purely technical domain of energy efficiency targets.

It is a challenge that needs a wide variety of people to make work: from suppliers to audiences and musicians, lest we fulfil the vision conveyed in an environmental protest song from 1971:

I was working one day at my desk
The air was thick with pollution
The trees existed no more
For we hadn’t found a solution.