Over the past few decades, music festivals have begun to change their colour. While the hue of their logos may remain the same year after year, their attitudes toward environmental sustainability have become increasingly green.
Popular festivals nationwide have begun adopting “green initiatives” to combat climate change and minimize their impact on the earth. As the number of attendees at these events has grown year after year, the festivals have taken notice of the threat they can pose to the environment if they are not operated responsibly.
“We all see news reports after various festivals have taken place,” said Pam Carter, president of the Mariposa Folk Festival. “We can see the good news reports, and we can see the ones that aren’t that good because of the mass of garbage that’s left behind. And frankly, we’re running out of waste diversion sites, and we shouldn’t have to be creating more.”
Many of these initiatives resulted from extreme carelessness with regard to rampant littering and a lack of proper waste disposal measures. Festivals such as Mariposa implemented these initiatives directly as a result of single-use plastic water bottles. Other festivals, such as Hillside, have always included green principles in their mission statement.
“The measurement of our growth has to always be in how much carbon we’ve saved,” explained Marie Zimmerman, executive director of Hillside. “How that has affected ecosystems and thinking ahead to the lives of generations to come.”
In the last decade, many of Canada’s most popular festivals have expanded their green platforms to become more multifaceted. Many now cover everything from responsible transportation to how festivalgoers charge their phones.
For Guelph’s Hillside Festival, green initiatives have always been a part of the organization’s brand. Conceived in 1984 by a collection of environmentally conscious musicians and artists, the festival was one of the first to incorporate an environmentally friendly platform with a goal to, as the event’s website states, leave the site better than it found it.
Some of the earliest initiatives put forth by the festival were dishwashing, and a water tanker to deliver free water to festivalgoers. Despite being around for 40 years, the festival continues to build upon its platform year after year.
“In more recent years, we’ve added solar cell chargers,” Marie said. “Its more the educational impact of showing people what alternative energy can do and sort of highlighting, you know, ‘This is using the sun. this is using your own peddling energy.”
According to Marie, the festival also works with the city of Guelph to provide shuttle service and is looking to bring back peddle power stations to power stage lighting and sound.
Following in the footsteps of Hillside, the Mariposa Folk Festival implemented its green platform in 2009. On top of a ban on plastic water bottles, the festival also incorporated compostable dishes, and volunteers to direct attendees at waste stations.
Similar to Hillside, Mariposa’s initiatives have grown to include solar power stations, expansive bike lock centres, and shuttle buses for patrons.
“It’s easy to be proud of your accomplishments, but then become complacent about continuing your endeavours to become even more responsible and more sustainable,” Pam said. “We’re hoping … through the strategic plan to come up with new ideas and new ways that we can become a more green and a more responsible festival.”
Mariposa’s sustainable practices were also recognized in a study conducted by Toronto Metropolitan University professor Rachel Dodds in 2015. The study highlights the festival’s role as an environmental leader in festivals and events in the Lake Simcoe watershed.
According to Pam, the festival has consistently maintained waste diversion rates in the mid-eighties for close to a decade. Per the government of Canada, waste diversion is the practice of ethical waste disposal that seeks to minimize the amount of garbage sent to landfills.
In the spirit of cooperation
In an effort to grow their platforms, it is not uncommon for festivals to come together and bounce ideas off of one another.
“When we have ideas, you know, we share them and sort of build on each other’s ideas,” Pam said. “There is an organization called Folk Music Ontario, and we do come together once a year as festival organizers, and that also gives us the opportunity to share ideas and come up with new initiatives.”
Given Hillside’s history, the festival has also been able to share its knowledge of environmental sustainability with universities and other groups.
“I give talks a lot at universities and colleges and at conferences,” Marie said. “I’m brought in as a speaker and I go through some of the initiatives that we implemented.”
Throughout the years, the festivals’ green initiatives have also been felt by the cities that host them.
“One of the things that happened after we were so successful with our greening initiatives and we had such a high diversion rate is the city of Orillia developed their special event waste diversion program based on Mariposa’s,” Pam said.
According to Pam, the festival was also instrumental in driving Orillia to expand its waste diversion site.
As Guelph is one of Ontario’s greener cities, Marie said that there has always been a level of support from the local community.
“I think initially there was a core group of people in Guelph who were very supportive of this because they were like-minded thinkers, that being good to the land was central to everything that they did,” Marie said. “We have a really strong cohort of volunteers. It’s about 1,300.”
A shifting mindset
For some of Canada’s larger festivals, the working relationship with the city has not been so clear cut. However, festivals such as Bluesfest believe that their true impact has come in changing the environmental outlook of the local community.
“Whatever we can do to help the city as a whole and the community be better,” said Mike Rouleau, director of operations for Ottawa’s Bluesfest. “[It] makes us accountable to the patrons who attend our festival.”
Mike acknowledges that some of the green initiatives of other festivals, such as dishwashing, have not worked at an event with such a large scope. However, the festival has done away with single-use plastic water bottles, introduced water stations, and expanded bike parking and waste distribution direction efforts, he said.
Some of the biggest supporters of green platforms have been the musicians themselves.
Green at the core
According to Marie, the artists are often the first to be conscious of the environmental efforts of festivals and show their appreciation.
“Touring artists do get a sense of how much they’re contributing to the carbon footprint of the world, because they’re flying or driving,” she said.
Within the world of music, it is not uncommon for artists to play the role of environmental activists and to promote sustainable solutions. This is highly apparent within the world of folk music with some artists, like Rick Fines, even incorporating these practices into their music. To date, Rick has recorded two albums almost completely through the use of solar power.
For Pam, this is not surprising, given the storied history of folk music.
“If you do the research and look at the history, folk originated from protest and inequity and social justice and all of those sorts of things,” she said. “ It’s just a natural fit that patrons and artists would slide over into the climate advocacy role, and they’ve certainly embraced it.”
Celebration and Sustainability
Music festivals have long been centres of joy, celebration and community building. Especially now, as the world begins to move past the COVID-19 pandemic, these events have become vital for bringing people together through a love of music.
However, it is still important to recognize the importance of environmental sustainability when organizing and partaking in these events. There are countless examples of the environmental toll festivals can have when not set up responsibly.
As folk music festivals across Canada have shown, it is possible to leave these sites better than we find them.
For Marie, entertainment and collective joy shouldn’t have to be conflated with excessive waste and environmental destruction.
“Part of our joy should be in how we preserve this place for generations to come,” she said. “This way of being on this planet and this way of celebrating doesn’t have to be careless.”