Despite being stereotypically seen as left wing, liberal, hippy paradises, festivals don't have a green image.
Creating a mini world for a clutch of days – often displacing animals, ruining fields and releasing vast quantities of fuel into transport structures and people to sites in the countryside – isn't too environmental. And that's before abandoned tents, sleeping bags, food containers, plastic bottles and human waste are brought into the equation.
But change is coming.
After over 10,000 tents were left behind at the Isle of Wight Festival in 2011, a group of punters set up Love Your Tent: a campaign to encourage festival-goers to be more aware of the impact of leaving waste behind. On a larger scale, non-profit A Greener Festival has analysed the results of a survey about fans' concerns when it comes to festival sustainability, and has awarded their Greener Festival Award since 2007.
Julie's Bicycle, a London-based charity that supports creatives to be more aware of environmental sustainability, believes that "the creative community is uniquely placed to transform the conversation around climate change and translate it into action". In 2012 they launched Powerful Thinking, a non-profit think tank that works "towards an energy efficient, low carbon and cost effective future for festivals". Festivals across the UK and around Europe make good use of the organisation's advice, information and resources.
According to Programme Manager Chiara Badiali, "We pulled together roundtables of power providers, festival organisers, and industry representatives to have a conversation about how energy was being supplied at events. We all undertook some monitoring of generator loads on festival sites, and supported a research project on the overall deployment and market for renewable energy use at festivals."
Featuring a coalition of industry stakeholders including Arts Council England and music mega-promoters Festival Republic, the yearly release of The Powerful Thinking Guide has made a huge difference. "The conversation about energy use at festivals has changed fundamentally," Chiara continues.
"There has been a significant shift towards greater efficiencies and control, and a better understanding of energy management in the festival industry has been reinforced by countless examples of events saving between 10 - 50 per cent of their fuel consumption and integrating low carbon technologies into how their events are powered. One of the most exciting areas I can see is where festivals are working closely with engineers, researchers and technology developers to tackle some of the event industry's – and even society's – key challenges around energy, water, and waste, and pilot new solutions on site that can then be rolled out within the events sector, or also in a humanitarian or development context."
One of the biggest players in the sustainable festivals conversation is Shambala. The Northamptonshire-based festival prides itself on being family friendly and sticks sustainability at the centre of what they do.
Christopher Johnson, co-founder, operations director and sustainability lead of Shambala, also happens to have co-founded Powerful Thinking, and co-authors the Guide each year."In 2010 we [Shambala Festival] were frustrated at the lack of sustainable energy solutions in the events industry" Christopher tells us. "I approached Julie's Bicycle and we embarked on a symposium, inviting festivals, temporary energy providers, and interested organisations such as universities and the BBC to discuss aspirations. Powerful Thinking was born from this seed – a shared desire to find low carbon solutions."
Amongst festival-goers, Shambala has a reputation for its environmentally focused decisions like compost toilets and, in 2016, only offering vegetarian and vegan food to punters. But the future looks even more exciting. Christopher continues: "At the festival we have reduced our carbon footprint by over 80 per cent [per person], transitioned from diesel generators to 100 per cent renewable energy, eliminated single-use plastics, become meat and fish free and 100 per cent organic dairy.
"We also actively recycle and aim to be waste free by 2020. As a company we have made investments in renewable energy, which means we are significantly carbon net positive, and we share any knowledge we gain online as policy."
For smaller festivals, this knowledge sharing is crucial in helping them be more sustainable. Set up by university students in 2012, Brainchild is an independent, volunteer-run event. The winners of the Best Independent Festival at the AIM Awards two years running, this year saw the fifth Brainchild take place on their East Sussex site. Catering to a couple thousand people (as opposed to Shambala's 15,000), this year the festival appointed sustainability officers Hannah Biggs and Ollie Richards to focus on limiting the festival's environmental impact.
Hannah describes how "a big thing we did this year was to measure all of our impacts such as water, carbon and waste, to use as a benchmark for future years. We also set about writing a sustainable food policy and decided to focus on Brainchild's main challenges, which were predominantly waste-related. Waste isn't as easy as it seems - waste contractors are only happy to take your recycling if they know it is properly sorted and separated, which is quite hard at a festival. We had recycling bins across the site and back of house and volunteers to collect and sort the waste at recycling stations throughout the day. The sorting stations were very obvious, and they acted as an engagement tool, showing festival-goers how much waste the festival produced, and what could and couldn't be recycled."
Aiming to also reduce waste in the first instance, Brainchild implemented a reusable cup system, as well as fuelling its cinema with the use of hydrogen — alongside talks and workshops about the science of hydrogen fuel cells, too. A car-sharing Facebook page, vegetarian options for every meat dish, bio-degradable food containers and Freecycled furniture were also initiatives successfully trialled this year.
These changes aren't easy. "The main challenge is making operations more sustainable initially, " Hannah continues. "So ensuring that all of the materials we use come from sustainable sources and aren't thrown away at the end, and ensuring our power is used efficiently so we reduce our carbon footprint and use renewable alternatives were possible. The next challenge is to get the festival-goers on board with all of our initiatives. Communications and messaging has to be properly thought out to make initiatives easy [but also] fun so that it doesn't become preachy and boring." Festivals like Brainchild might be making steps to be more sustainable, but the question remains: do people even care?
"Yes. Why wouldn't you?" says Lauren Haine, a 23-year-old who has attended Brainchid for three years in various roles from volunteer to a member of the creative team. "It's so essential. Every festival has the responsibility to not only reduce their environmental impact and actively challenge themselves to put sustainability at the core of what their festival is about. At the end of the day, I don't go to festivals simply because they're sustainable, [but] it's definitely a very important bonus."
Becky Burchell, an independent festival producer, was clear about the potential sustainable festivals have to influence our lives on a larger scale. "Festivals are mini worlds, created fleetingly for one weekend," she said. "They have to temporarily provide for all our needs: water, food, sanitation, shelter, power, waste disposal. Organisers have a unique opportunity, as rulers of their festival kingdoms, to make bold and radical decisions about how to meet our needs in sustainable, ecologically friendly ways.
If they choose to be, organisers can be important champions of action on climate change. Festivals are also places for conversation, inspiration and debate. And there is no subject more important and urgent than the future wellbeing of the planet."
All images courtesy of Jordan Matyka via Facebook/ Brainchild