Sunshine, sound and sustainability: The greening of music festivals

By Sancroft Team

By Bhumika Pruthi, former Analyst at Sancroft.

With the onset of summer 2022, music festivals are back and in full force after two years of pandemic-related hiatus. This is a big year for festivals and one trend that has stood out is the increasing focus on the environmental and social sustainability of these events. Millions of people attend festivals every year and knowingly or unknowingly contribute to significant environmental damage through their participation. But change is in the air and festival organisers, participating businesses, talent, and festivalgoers alike are demanding improved performance.

Festivals are a crucial part of the UK and European economies. The UK festival industry alone contributes £1.76 billion in gross value added (GVA) to the economy and attracts about 5.2 million attendees every year. It also produces over 25,800 tonnes of waste, 22,876 tonnes of CO2 and uses 185 million litres of water annually. There is significant scope to improve these figures, with solutions both simple and more radical.

In recent years, several artists have taken steps towards climate action; for example, Coldplay put touring plans on hold until they could do so more sustainably, and Billie Eilish has partnered with an organisation to reduce the environmental footprint of her live events. Meanwhile festival organisers have launched a series of initiatives to reduce waste, avoid plastic use, reduce emissions and encourage environmentally responsible actions among festivalgoers.

Music festivals operate as massive pop-ups, taking over green spaces for brief, intensive periods, offering myriad activities and experiences for thousands of people in one go. Given their complexity, festivals require the highest degree of organisation, precise and proactive planning. As an industry like any other, they must be mindful of their impacts and be prepared to set targets and a strategy to manage them. There are five main areas in which festivals generate damaging effects on the environment:

  1. Transport

Transport contributes to CO2 at festivals in several ways. The first and most significant contributor is festivalgoers’ travels to and from the festival site. Others include the artists’ performance-related footprint and the CO2 generated by deliveries and services: trucks carrying water, scaffolding and toilets to and from the festival venue, along with mountains of waste generated on-site. While some festivals have started offering shuttle services in recent years, even in the best case scenario at a festival of the scale of Glastonbury, only 40 per cent of attendees travel to the venue using public transport.

  1. Waste

Perhaps the most visible environmental impact of festivals is waste generation, with plastic bottles and tents top of the list. The availability of cheap tents for camping has meant thousands of tents abandoned at festival sites every year, sparking outrage at the unbearable state in which festival campsites are left. About 44 percent of tents are left behind at festivals even though most of them are in reusable condition. While a very small proportion of these tents are collected by charities and distributed to people who really need them, most end up in landfill. The consequences are not only environmental, but also financial, thanks to significantly rising waste disposal fees that must be borne by festival organisers. Clearly the best solution is for campers to take their tents home. But how can we get them to do that? ‘Bestival’, a 4-day festival in the South of England, requires festivalgoers to pay a £10 deposit, which is returnable if they deliver their waste to designated points.

Vendors and festival retailers also contribute to waste and thus share responsibility to lower environmental impact by reducing their waste generation and switching to recyclable packaging. Sales of single-use drinks bottles were banned at this year’s Glastonbury Festival in a bid to eliminate some 1.3 million bottles from the festival’s waste stream.

  1. Energy

On-site energy consumption is a major concern, as many festivals resemble small cities, with the energy requirements to match. In the UK alone, the festival industry uses more than 12 million litres of diesel fuel annually. Altogether, the vast majority of energy consumed on site is from non-renewable sources and produces CO2 emissions, which contribute almost 70 per cent of an event’s carbon emissions (excluding festivalgoers’ travel). Many festivals are now investing in renewable sources of energy including wind and solar power as well as making the switch to LED lighting. The initiatives in place have had a relatively small per-person reduction in fuel consumption, but this is unfortunately erased by the overall growth of the festival market, with the result an increase in total consumption.

  1. Water

Water is a vital consideration for festival organisers right from planning stages. Water used at festivals can be categorised as one of four types:

  • Clean water is drinking water supplied either from standpipes or from large tanks. No other form of water is drinkable.
  • Blue water can be used for human contact activities such as showering and washing. It may come from boreholes or rivers, among others.
  • Grey water is used water from showers or other human contact activities that is free of organic contamination (carbon-based chemicals including solvents and pesticides). This may be recycled and used for toilet flushing and other non-contact activities or stored and used for irrigation.
  • Brown or Black water refers to sullage from washing up food stalls and effluents from toilets. This must either go to mains sewers or septic tanks, or retained in tanks to be removed by truck and disposed of into the sewer system.

The way water is consumed at a festival has a major impact on the local environment, often a rural area where local people and businesses heavily rely on a sustainable water supply. Water production involves pumping, delivery and management of wastewater, all of which consumes energy and produces greenhouse gas emissions. Many festivals have made the switch from water-intensive flush toilets to compost toilets. However, keeping grey water free of organic contamination is a huge challenge for festival organisers, as it would require monitoring soaps and chemicals that people bring with them on site.

  1. Toilets

Toilet facilities can affect the overall sustainability of festivals because of their water and chemical usage, the transportation required to bring them to and from the festival site as well as the treatment of sewage. Choosing low volume flushing or waterless toilets is a clear win, as is preventing people from sneaking into surrounding bushes as that can have a damaging effect on the local environment. While portable toilets have remained the popular choice due to their low price, compost toilets are becoming the eco-friendly new favourite choice as the waste is reduced by 80-90 per cent, even though they cost more.

Despite the best intentions of many festival organisers to reduce their environmental impacts, the industry is growing at a very fast pace and thus, overall, the sector is not doing nearly enough. The UK government has recommended that local government associations and the festival sector develop a framework of environmental objectives before the 2023 festival season and report back to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Festival organisers, artists and attendees, are growing ever more keenly aware of their responsibilities towards climate change, now more than ever. Survey evidence suggests that most festival goers believe organisers have a responsibility to reduce the negative environmental effects of these events; and around 43 per cent believed that the environmental initiatives they learned about at festivals had enabled them to make changes to their own behaviour. While collective effort is a must, there is an opportunity here for festival organisers to lead this effort by setting targets, creating a holistic sustainability strategy and nudging attendees to take action.

Sancroft helps organisations large and small to achieve their sustainability objectives. If you would like to find out about how we can help you develop your sustainability strategy, please get in touch with our Chief Executive Judy Kuszewski at