Lucy, a 28-year-old music teacher, has just cycled to a public park for Envirolution, Manchester’s first plastic-free festival. She's wearing second-hand clothes bought from charity shops, and carrying a reusable water bottle. Lucy tells me that she recycles all of her household waste, and any plastic that the local council won’t take away, she turns into ecobricks.
Lucy is also going to Primavera Sound, the music festival running in Barcelona this week and weekend. Does she worry about the carbon footprint of travelling by plane from the UK to a three-day event in Spain? She shrugs and says, “I’m doing more than most people.”
Taking over Platt Fields Park, Envirolution is an annual, community-organised event that champions sustainability in the city. On the morning I visit, Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion have pitched up alongside vegan food vendors, natural cosmetics stalls and bike repair specialists. Its organisers take a sympathetic view of the questionable green ethics displayed by attendees like Lucy.
“You don’t need to feel bad about yourself for trying,” says Dan Gibbon-Walsh, an Envirolution festival organiser. “Not everyone has access to make a difference in the same way. Someone living next to a local fruit and veg market will produce less waste than someone whose only options are to go to a big supermarket. For us, it’s all about showing how all of the little changes can be magnified into something much bigger.”
Jon Drape, managing director of Ground Control, the production company behind festivals Kendal Calling and Manchester’s Parklife, agrees that when it comes to music festival sustainability, it’s all about “baby steps". After all, Parklife joins other Live Nation-promoted festivals like Reading and Leeds and WIreless, in pledging last week to eliminate single-use plastic by 2021.
“This is the third year that we’ve publicly put out sustainability pledges [for Parklife],” he says. “Every year, we’re trying to add to those pledges, such as the reduction of single-use plastics.” Other Ground Control environmental initiatives include a ban on plastic water bottles backstage, “Meat Free Mondays” for production crew catering and reusing stage infrastructure.
Parklife is a non-camping festival and easily accessible by public transport. Last year, 35,000 of its 80,000 attendees travelled to the site by tram or bus. This makes a big difference. According to the Association of Independent Festivals, two of the main problem areas when it comes to festival sustainability are car travel emissions and discarded tents. “But apart from that,” Drape continues, “we’re not preachy to our audience about what they should do because at the end of the day, your festival’s got to be fun.”
Parklife’s approach mirrors the gentle sustainability initiatives being adopted by other major UK music festivals. This year, Glastonbury is banning the sale of single-use plastic bottles and the organisers of more than 60 independent festivals have called on retailers to stop marketing tents as single-use items.
But some fairly brutal stats also underscore the festival economy. British music festivals are responsible for 23,500 tonnes of waste annually and festival-goer travel constitutes 80 percent of the average festival’s total known CO2e emissions – so is the softly-softly approach really enough? When teenagers are skipping school to attend environmental protests, and high profile figures have publicly given up flying, perhaps we need to rethink our attendance of these events altogether.
Dr Hugues Séraphin, co-editor of Green Events and Green Tourism, agrees that small, gradual change to our leisure habits is not enough.
“All academic research agrees on the fact that we still have not reached sustainability in events and tourism,” he tells me over the phone. “It’s because we only act upon things when they happen, when the impacts become visible, as opposed to being proactive. Banning plastics is a drop in the ocean.”
As Séraphin sees it, many music festivals’ make not only reactionary but surface-level environmental pledges. “At many events, organisers are now promoting the fact that the food and drink served is local, when it is the case,” he says. “If it is not the case, they do not refer to it. It’s the same for suppliers. So basically, the supply chain is hidden. Unless someone starts digging, no one will know about this aspect of the event. This is because customers want the green events but at a low cost.”
This is perhaps understandable, given how massive an investment you need to put on a festival. Really, food vendor and alcohol sales are often the most profitable areas for festival organisers –even though they generate large amounts of both plastic and food waste. Those vendors in turn rely on suppliers who may not take kindly to being asked to operate without plastic or adopt more sustainable methods.
“For sectors with long-lasting partnerships and change where it is easy to make a big push for sustainability without risking feasibility of operations, it is much easier to do,” says Gibbon-Walsh of Envirolution. “But festivals are always relying on supply chains that can fall apart at the most unexpected times.”
A 2015 report on the environmental impact of Britain’s festival industry takes as similar view. Researchers found that “fear of increased costs, lack of internal resources and the time to make changes, along with lack of expertise” were the most common barriers preventing festivals from adopting more sustainable approaches.
But one of the most damaging environmental aspects of music festivals may actually be down to audience demand. “We hear loud and clear that they want Cardi B or Migos, so one of the challenges within festivals is they have to book the best talent possible,” says Drape. “Clearly, that means artists are not all from the UK; a lot of air travel is inevitable.”
As many artists now receive most of their revenue through touring, the music industry as a whole would have to change for the carbon footprint of artist travel to be reduced in a significant way. And while hologrammed and virtual events will be the norm for generation Alpha, millennials like Lucy are not likely to go to a music festival without a strong line-up.
“We already have our way of living: we work hard and we want to spend our money to enjoy our free time,” Séraphin says.
Back on the Envirolution site, Gibbon-Walsh believes that even small steps will lead to bigger change. When it started ten years ago, you'd find as many attendees as volunteers at the event. Now, organisers say 7,000 people head over to the park each year.
“If people come to festivals and just see rubbish on the floor next to mountains of waste and unloved items, it becomes normalised,” he says. “If we change that from the bottom up, people get used to a very different way of behaviour.”
As we continue through Platt Fields Park, Lucy spots one of her pupils. Indeed, it seems that there are more children than adults at Envirolution, which is encouraging. Music festivals may have a long way to go in terms of improving their sustainability practices, but at least the work of educating the next generation is well underway.