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Can music festivals go from generators of garbage to sustainable innovators?

As small, temporary, purpose-built communities, music festivals have a chance to experiment with new ways to get people to live sustainably. Three are trying to clean up the usually dirty festival business.

Can music festivals go from generators of garbage to sustainable innovators?
[Photo: Thomas Dufresne/courtesy FME Festival]

Rouyn-Noranda is a tree-heavy, lakeside copper mining community of 42,334 people, located eight hours outside of Montreal. It’s also the home of FME (Le Festival de Musique Émergente), a festival featuring emergent artists who perform on stages and at special pop-up venues throughout the city. With its the proximity to national parks, festival creators realized early on in the event’s 17-year history the impact they could have, both positive and negative, on the nature around them.

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[Photo: Louis Jalbert 2019/courtesy FME Festival]

“We are super aware that festivals have a bad ecological footprint,” Myriam Charconnet, head of festival communications, explains through a translator. “Each year we’re trying to get better at it and be more responsible.”

[Photo: Christian Leduc/courtesy FME Festival]

Music festivals have becoming an increasingly large slice of the music industry, both due to a crowd that has moved to valuing experiences over consumer goods, and the spike in digital streaming that requires musicians to seek revenue via touring. As reported by Time, “A 2019 Deloitte survey of millennials—a group that makes up at least 45% of the 32 million people who attend music festivals—finds that most value experiences: 57% of respondents said they prioritized travel and seeing the world over owning a home.” And while summer is generally considered prime music festival time, events like Life Is Beautiful, Austin City Limits, and Voodoo Music + Arts Experience extend the season well into the winter and fall months, creating a glut of events, which could mean even more fields left covered in plastic water bottles.

Having to essentially create mini-cities for the influx of people looking to dance, drink, eat, shop, and leave behind waste, festivals across the world have begun looking at their events as an opportunity to not only provide music fans with a memorable weekend, but also offer innovative ways to solve the problems of waste and pollution.

[Photo: courtesy FME Festival]
For FME, it’s been a mind-set incrementally implemented through a series of gradual policy changes. Although they removed plastic from the backstage areas several years ago—a move that dovetailed with more ecologically sound artist riders (musicians’ requests for backstage food and amenities), in 2019 the festival began reducing paper usage by replacing their programs with an app, a move Charconnet estimates will save almost a half-ton of paper. Continued from last year is the “environmental tax” of $1.50 per person, a first for Canadian music festivals in the region. This year, those extra funds, which came to $5,000, along with a donation provided by their partner Géco, will be fueled into protecting the local environment.

“Basically what we’re going to do together is plant an entire forest—1.9 hectares,” says Charconnet. “That’s going to be our way to give back to the community.”

Located in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Welcome to the Village is a music and arts event that draws acts as diverse as former Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis, Dutch ambient artist Jacco Gardner, and Gahanna collective King Ayisoba & Bongo All Star Band. The name reflects its founders’ utopic aspirations—if only for four days a year. If they can create a temporary nearly sustainable village (with a target of being completely circular by 2022), why can’t it translate into the real world?

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[Photo: courtesy Welcome to the Village]

To that end, artistic director Sjoerd Bootsma and his crew of “happy activists” don’t see the benefit of feel-good activities like having attendees power their phones via electricity created on a bike, one of the many demonstrations of renewable power that festivals often highlight in lieu of providing actual, renewable sources. Although in the second year of the festival they purchased a cow and announced they were going to eat it to draw attention to food waste (much to the dismay of vegan protesters around the country), he’s come to realize that stunts don’t create lasting change.

[Photo: courtesy Welcome to the Village]

“I don’t think we should do awareness projects,” says Bootsma. “I think we should do innovation projects. And then the awareness will come . . . Instead we open up to startups who want to test their sustainable prototype in the live context of the festival. We have 8,000 people who will destroy your product if it’s not working. And they don’t necessarily care about it. That’s what you want! You need to fail. So, we create a place where you can fail. Because if you fail, you can improve.”

Projects tested and brought to market after testing at Welcome to the Village have included compostable cardboard tents, cricket burgers, and the thick, gray insulated cups we’re currently sipping tea out of. The program underscores what Bootsma sees as the festival’s greatest asset in the fight for sustainability—great minds in one place.

“Everyone wants to come to a festival,” says Bootsma. “If I sent invitations to directors of businesses, they all come. So, we bring a lot of expertise to these startups they would normally not reach. It’s like a medieval fair. There would be music and joy and singing. But innovations would also come. There would be cross-pollination. That’s what’s happening here.”

[Photo: courtesy Welcome to the Village]

The unspoken advantage that Welcome to the Village has is its size. With under 10,000 guests and volunteers, it’s easy to get everyone on the same page. Scaling up becomes trickier, but as Flow Festival discovered, it can be done. The Helsinki event, which drew 83,000 attendees this year and featured headline sets from Tame Impala, The Cure, and Robyn, quietly went zero waste in 2009, with help from a cleaning staff of 400 who sort recycling by hand, using green electricity, and buying carbon credits.

Flow’s ethos is hardwired into larger, citywide sustainability initiatives. Launched in 2017, the website My Helsinki recently updated its “Think Sustainably” section, which allows consumers to see in detail how restaurants, shops, hotels, and events, are complying with the citywide goal of going fully sustainable by 2035. As Laura Aalto, CEO of Helsinki Marketing sees it, their secret power is the transparency already built into Finnish daily life.

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“Fins tend to be quite pragmatic about problems,” she says. “We certainly thing this is a problem that all of us share. When it comes to a global community, our website is a one-of-a-kind service that makes it easy for everyone to choose sustainability.”

The festival is featured on My Helsinki, fulfilling an impressive 14 of the city’s 17 sustainability criteria, which includes entries like: “The establishment recycles more that the regional waste management guidelines require, for example, it recycles plastic.” Also, “The organizers have a plan on how to minimize the visitors’ environmental impact when traveling to and from the event and have taken measures to ensure that travel to and from the event is more environmentally friendly.”

While some of the entries on the list are accidental—an example being in the center of the city with zero parking options, attendees are required to bike, walk, or take public transportation. Larger initiatives were launched this year, including encouraging vendors to provide at least one sustainable meal. Those who participated were entered into a special contest where attendees voted for their favorite and then were rewarded with a reduced vendor price in 2020.

In a first, the festival partnered with marketing and strategy company Reaktor to allow bottle deposits to be donated to a tree-planting project. By the end of the weekend they had earned enough for 11,700 trees, a mini-forest that will be planted in Madagascar. There’s still work to be done, though: In upcoming editions, Flow Festival hopes to check off the remaining list items, including making it possible for fans to offset their carbon footprint when buying a ticket, and making sure “the average carbon footprint of each visitor is calculated and visible on the event communications.”

[Photo: Petri Anttila/courtesy Flow Festival]
“When you’re doing a festival, you can’t [achieve everything you hope to],” says Flow Festival press officer Susanna Hulkkonen. “With all the transportation and flights—we’re trying our best and doing everything. I think it’s good to point out is that we can act as opinion leaders. That is our power, really. To say something. To get people to recycle here or drink tap water. Basic things. People see that and then people do that at home.”

[Photo: Petri Anttila/courtesy Flow Festival]

That takeaway is shared by each festival. There’s a temptation to think of entertainment and music festivals as separate from daily life. However, it’s only when they’re viewed as an extension of our existence can questions of waste management and sustainability be addressed—even without the presence of a one-size-fits-all solution.

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“The only way of doing that is to use everybody you have,” Bootsma notes emphatically, adding that it’s important everyone pool resources to face environmental challenges. “We have so many islands, everyone is on their own island . . . What you need in a time of change is for everyone to pitch in. You need everyone’s different disciplines and skills. You need to work together.”

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