The festival footprint

Words by Amelia Tait
Illustrations by SMALLTALK

How music festivals are working to minimise their environmental impact and create a more sustainable future

On a hot July day in 2022, Sarah Gaines pushed through the crowds at Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, keen to get to the stage where she was going to be a supporting artist. Well, not artist, not really – the 45-year-old mother of two wasn’t going to be harmonising or dancing with singer-songwriter Madi Diaz on stage. In actual fact, Sarah was more of a supporting cyclist. In her teal shorts and wide-brimmed sun hat, she took her place in front of the stage and pedalled furiously – the energy she generated helped to fuel Diaz’s set. 

Last year, for the first time, the Newport Folk Festival set up a stage partly powered by stationary bicycles; cyclists like Sarah rode along to the music, generating an electricity supply for the stage’s soundsystem. “It was really exciting,” says Sarah, who enjoyed it so much that she returned the next day to let her kids have a go. “It was really fun. It was clever. I thought it was a great opportunity to educate people, but to also invite people to be part of the solution.” 


Green initiatives like this one are increasingly popping up at festivals around the globe. In recent years, awareness has grown on the environmental impact of live music events: according to a 2020 report from climate action group Vision 2025, 68% of UK festivals now have a sustainability coordinator. However, that same report found that the UK festival industry alone uses seven million litres of fuel annually, and festival-goers generate 25,800 tons of waste a year. There was also a 20% growth in festival emissions between 2015 and 2020. Keen to mitigate the problem, festival fans, organisers and artists are innovating to make them more sustainable.

“As silly as it may seem, it gave me so much hope for humanity,” says Jeff Gorman, half of the indie duo Illiterate Light, who organised the bike stage at Newport Folk Festival. Jeff and the festival’s organisers partnered with Rock The Bike, a 20-year-old company that rents out energy-generating bicycles. When the musician looked out at the audience during his performance and noticed six people smiling while riding – plus a line of 30 people eager to cycle after them – he saw “that humanity actually wants to help, that we want to change, that we want to find a new path forwards for the sake of our planet, and that music will play a role in that.” 

Measuring environmental impact

For all the joy, community, music and memories that festivals offer us, they leave the planet with a hangover. Long-distance flights by artists and fans pump CO2 into the atmosphere, while trampled tents and endless rubbish turn fields into wastelands. Then there’s the plastic cups; the food miles behind the catering; the fossil fuels powering the performances; and the sewage and wastewater. 

Yet, festivals are such large-scale events that it’s not always easy to measure their environmental impact – nor figure out what should be improved first. Andrea Collins is a geography lecturer at Cardiff University, and as part of the institution’s Festivals Research Group, Andrea studies the ecological footprint of cultural events. She also develops decision-making tools for event organisers, enabling them to predict the impact of their festival. 

“We find that it’s travel and food and drink consumption that are big hitters,” says Andrea. She is encouraged by initiatives in the industry, such as the rise of reusable cups, and events providing buses for attendees. “Festivals are now moving towards doing things not just to benefit themselves, but actually using festivals as a way to engage the audiences into thinking about environmental impacts,” she says.

Sustainability initiatives

Green Festival Stories, a 2022 report funded by the European Commission, collated 21 examples of “inspirational sustainability projects” at festivals, including Boom Festival in Portugal treating its own water on-site; OpenAir St. Gallen in Switzerland subsidising train tickets for guests; and Terraforma in Italy undertaking an extensive reforestation programme. 

In 2019, 2000trees festival in the UK banned the sale of bottled water, encouraging fans to bring their own refillable bottles, and providing artists with water in aluminium cans. The festival also partnered with the charity Frank Water to encourage plastic-free drinking by offering a chilling and filtering service on-site. 


“As human beings, we have a responsibility to mitigate our effect on the environment, while still trying to flourish,” says Rob Scarlett, founder of 2000trees. “I think the most important part for us is to continue to make it a core element of our considerations, rather than an add-on.” The festival also recently partnered with decarbonisation company Ecolibrium to offset the carbon footprint of the cars festival-goers arrive in: last year, the festival balanced 927,059 audience travel miles with its investment in clean renewable energy.

Small changes, big rewards

Meanwhile, MELT Festival in Germany has run a garbage deposit scheme since 2010. Attendees pay €10 on arrival and are handed an empty rubbish bag – their money is refunded to them if they hand in a full bag of trash at the end of the festival. The scheme has been so successful that this year, MELT gave out an additional yellow bag for plastic waste. 

“We try to get better and better, and we set our own goals and try to improve ourselves every year,” says Katharina Stucken, head of sustainability at Goodlive, the entertainment group behind MELT. Stucken says the festival partly runs off renewable grid power and there are solar panels on roofs across the event. Goodlive also supports research into alternatives to diesel generators, and is collaborating with Italian academics to develop hydrogen power generators. Other initiatives include marking the most climate-friendly food for customers to help them make sustainable choices, while also donating all leftover food to charity. 

“In our industry, we have a strong intrinsic motivation to change things,” says Katharina. “Everybody’s working hard to figure out what’s the best and what has the biggest impact.”

Funding can be an issue when it comes to eco initiatives, and MELT’s sustainability coordinator is proud that this year, for the first time, €1 of every festival ticket sold was used for sustainability measures, with Goodlive matching this contribution. Half of this budget was used to develop green infrastructure on-site, and the other half was donated to an NGO or other environmental initiative. “It’s not a trend,” Katharina says of sustainability. “It’s a must-have.” 

An eco-friendly future

Future Festival Tools is an Erasmus-funded project that has been creating e-learning courses, self-assessment tools and best-practice guides for event businesses since 2021. “It’s known that festivals have a huge ecological footprint but we observed that in the festival industry there was a lack of training for organisers,” says Jessica Favarel, an international project coordinator at France-based creative funding company Le Laba, which partners with Future Festival Tools to educate both event management students and festival industry professionals. 

For example, a simple survey on the Future Festival Tools website asks event organisers about their energy management initiatives, plastic reduction schemes and sustainable transport options before providing them with a “green competency report”, featuring a score and a list of recommendations. Future Festival Tools has also created a best practice compendium where people can learn about carpooling apps used by festivals, or 100% vegan events. “This is a guide to get you inspired,” says Jessica. 


For the last two years, Future Festival Tools has been in a testing phase, with the project reaching over 500 festival professionals and 300 students already – and in June 2023, the project officially launched publicly. “In the long term, we want to change how sustainability is taught in vocational and educational training,” says Jessica.  

There is no simple way to create greener festivals overnight – 2000trees founder Rob says that “there’s no silver bullet” when it comes to sustainability; it’s all about hard work. This hard work might manifest in environmentally friendly party buses for festival-goers, reusable water bottles, or changes behind the scenes with sustainable infrastructure. Sometimes, however, sustainability can be very visible and very fun. 

A year on, Gaines looks back fondly at her time cycling at Newport Folk Festival – she is happy she was able to do her bit. “It felt like a really nice way to not only have a front row seat to the show, but also to be there supporting the musicians,” she says. “It felt like a really wonderful way to be a part of it.”

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