Greener Fields: The fight for green festival recovery

After The Big Pause in 2020, music festivals are imagining new ways they can push for sustainability when they make their comeback

Feature by Becca Inglis | 13 Jul 2021
  • Greener Festivals

Back in a land before COVID, 2019 represented a watershed moment for music festivals and the wider conversation about sustainability. That was the summer when Glastonbury banned plastic bottles, Boomtown joined the Take Your Tent Home campaign, and Shambala – already a meat-free zone – eliminated cow’s milk from their catering. It seemed like live music was finally ready for a serious conversation about its environmental impact. 

But then the pandemic came, and the entire live music ecosystem was forced to shut up shop. 

“Everything just stopped within a couple of weeks,” says Pauline Bourdon, who joined Team Love – the promoters behind Love Saves the Day and Love International – in 2019 as Head of Sustainability and Social Cohesion. What was meant to be Team Love’s Year Zero, which Bourdon would spend assessing their current environmental impact and working out potential reductions, was suddenly lost to lockdown. Festivals everywhere were going into survival mode and Bourdon, a freelancer, found herself without work for six months. 

The danger then was that the pandemic would undo the hard work that festivals had already put in to increase sustainability. Confidence in reusable cups plummeted, drive-in raves were touted as the next big thing (threatening to exacerbate the impact of audience travel, which already contributed up to 80% of a festival’s carbon footprint), and in a government consultation on music festivals, environmental charity Julie’s Bicycle asserted the need to restore confidence in public transport and “avoid a ‘rebound’ of audience travel into private vehicles”.

Bourdon did get her job back, and she’ll spend this summer grappling with COVID’s impact on sustainability as Love Saves the Day prepares for its return this September. The festival should have a good head start – it’s already switched to 100% HVO biodiesel and replaced disposables with compostable cutlery and plates – but the uncertainty of the pandemic could complicate things. 

“It really depends where we’re at with regulations at the time,” Bourdon says. “For example, with the current COVID restrictions, we wouldn’t be able to encourage car sharing.” There’s also the issue of PPE, which can contain plastics like polypropylene and is by nature single-use. “We can already see it in the streets,” says Bourdon. “You’ve got masks on the floor all the time. It’s polluting our environment.” 

In spite of these challenges, 2020’s great pause has offered festivals a unique opportunity for self-reflection. “Normally the industry is so busy, there can be the willingness and the desire to focus on sustainability, yet there's not always the time,” says Claire O’Neill, co-founder of the environmental consultancy group A Greener Festival. “One of the benefits now is the gates are open for behaviour change and audiences know that things aren't going to be quite the same.”

That might mean festivals taking advantage of COVID regulations to inspire green choices. If testing or proof of vaccination becomes a criteria for entry, for example, that could be done at coach pickups or train stations to reduce queueing on site. Or contact details collected with track and trace could be used to assign campsite pitches to attendees, giving people a greater sense of ownership and accountability over their space and the waste they produce. “People have got used to that now, rightly or wrongly. I think that could be an opportunity,” says O’Neill.

Other changes might shake up what we see programmed. Back in March, Clean Scene’s Last Night a DJ Took a Flight report analysed the 2019 tour schedule of Resident Advisor’s top 1,000 DJs. Those artists took an estimated 51,000 flights, generating 35,000,000kg of CO2 and using 3,200,000 litres of fuel – enough to power 8,000 festivals for three days. 

“I don't think it's about people not flying anymore, or not booking headliners,” says promoter and DJ Fallon MacWilliams (aka Darwin), who co-wrote the report. “There's a more conscious and responsible way we can do this.”

The practice of stacking artists on a line-up and zigzagging them from country to country without considering an efficient route is enabled by the abundance of cheap flights, according to MacWilliams. But this might not last forever. Last year the Climate Assembly UK proposed a frequent flyer levy, which would increase costs the more regularly a person flew. Perhaps, if flight prices are to increase, there’s an opportunity to book fewer acts for longer, more immersive sets, or to platform local artists instead. “We've seen that a lot with COVID where people aren't able to travel as freely. Because of quarantines and restrictions the local scenes are really thriving,” MacWilliams says.

Festivals’ response to the pandemic, paradoxically, has demonstrated what might be possible as we hunt for green solutions. And this is just the beginning. With the climate crisis still looming, festivals make a fertile testing ground for new ways of living, which we can pick up and take home with us afterwards. 

“That's why festivals are so important,” says O’Neill. “Places like festivals, where people are coming together in unusual environments, they're very celebratory and communal. That’s what's going to help us to have a stronger connection with our surroundings.”

Loves Saves the Day is planned to go ahead at Clifton Downs, Bristol, 4-5 Sep. More info can be found at