Music Festivals Are Ushering in an Era of Environmentalism - Rolling Stone
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The Environmental Revolution Comes to Music Festivals

Recyclable cardboard tents at Sziget festival, Budapest, 2019Recyclable cardboard tents at Sziget festival, Budapest, 2019

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When Guster took the stage at Red Rocks Amphitheater in July 2021, it was a triumphant return after months of lockdown amid a pandemic that forced live music into hiatus. As the opening bars of “Do You Love Me” rang out, fans started to sing along in a pure expression of joy, knowing that they were taking part in history.

That Guster show was the first climate-positive concert to be held at the venue. It was a small step towards helping to remedy a swiftly heating planet and an excellent example of how music festivals can help lead the charge towards environmentalism. As music festivals are slowly returning, there is an argument to be made that they shouldn’t return in the form we once knew. Instead, live music’s triumphant return should hinge on a more concerted (pun intended!) effort to help make music more environmentally conscientious.

That Guster show, for instance, looked and felt like a regular concert. However, $1 per ticket went to REVERB, an organization founded by Guster member Adam Gardner and his wife environmentalist Lauren Sullivan. The group partners with festivals and venues as well as musicians like Billie Eilish, Pink, and the Dave Matthews Band, to lessen the toll of their concerts on the planet.

REVERB works to make concerts and tours climate positive by offsetting a show’s entire carbon footprint (including fan, band, crew travel, accommodations, energy use at the venue, etc.). They do so by supporting vetted projects that will eliminate significantly more carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions than the concert created, making it climate positive. They have also helped lead the charge to get venues to make small changes to help the planet, like swapping in paper straws for plastic and encouraging the use of refillable water bottles. “We’ve eliminated over four million single-use plastic water bottles just through that program,” Gardner says. As the music community increases its focus on environmentalism, more venues and festivals are coming onboard. “We’re seeing a lot more interest from venues and promoters than ever before,” he says.

It’s not just REVERB working towards a sustainable revolution in the music world, of course. Since 2002, Norway’s Øya Festival has set out to be one of the world’s greenest events. “For us, this means finding sustainable solutions for waste, food, transportation, energy, and the things we buy – from toilet paper to power grids,” Claes Olsen, founder of the festival, says. “We want our festival to contribute to a sustainable future – and work towards a festival that is renewable, plant-based, and circular.” Some of the steps include a fossil-free construction site, cutting out single-use plastics, encouraging the audience to arrive by walking, biking or using public transportation, mandating that food packaging be compostable, and hand-sorting waste to ensure the largest haul of recyclable materials possible. “By sorting as much as possible instead of throwing everything as waste, we have saved 14,000 kg CO2,” Olsen says. “This corresponds to emissions from 11 cars for an entire year.”

What Øya does at a small scale (it’s capped at 20,000 attendees), San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival does with a capacity of 80,000. “Our overall goal at Outside Lands is to be the industry leader in large-scale event sustainability,” says Morgan Fitzgibbons, Director of Sustainability and Community Engagement of Outside Lands. That means working to become carbon-neutral, eliminating single-use plastic, and, perhaps most importantly, trying to inspire fans to carry the message of environmental responsibility with them. “We feel that maximizing our positive cultural impact is every bit as important as minimizing our waste during our event,” says Fitzgibbons.

One such fan who was moved to foment change was Jan Portheine. He came up with the idea for his company after seeing “a graveyard of plastic tents” left in the wake of a festival. “That’s where he started thinking that a cardboard sleeping tent, which is fully recyclable, could solve the problem,” said Sofie Van Eeden, marketing manager of KarTent. The company now crafts temporary cardboard shelters that serve as an easy and fully recyclable option for festival attendees who don’t want to lug a tent from, say, Nevada to the Bonnaroo grounds. Instead, festival organizers can offer KarTent as an affordable, environmentally-friendly option made from 73% recycled cardboard that can be turned back into paper when the festival is over.

Another company making innovative strides towards environmentally friendly products is the award-winning FestivalChair, a versatile cardboard stool sturdy enough to support 440 pounds. It’s stylish and made of FSC certified cardboard, much of which comes from recycled sources. While it’s designed to be quickly folded up and reused, it is also completely recyclable, allowing for easy, sustainable seating options for temporary festivals that don’t want to leave a permanent mark on the planet.

Those are just two examples of how festivals and concert venues can swap in renewables for plastics. Artists and promoters looking for more ways to help improve sustainability efforts can team up with an organization like REVERB to help make touring and festivals more  mindful, while connecting with fans. “The fans are so crucial to pushing sustainability at events,” says Outside Lands’ Fitzgibbons. “We can create the best-laid plans, but unless fans bring a conscientious attitude, whether by bringing their own water bottle, or taking a moment at the waste bins to make sure they are sorting their trash properly, then it all kind of falls apart.”

Fans are the secret to making these environmental pushes effective, and because they’re already engaged on a certain level just by being at the festival, it’s an excellent opportunity to push for real change. As Fitzgibbons says, “We really hope that the effort we put in at the event reverberates out and affects the choices fans make in their everyday lives.”

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