As concert tours heat the planet, artists try to cut carbon emissions 
July 24, 2022
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  • Thousands of fans, many holding stainless-steel pint cups, sticker-covered water bottles and aluminum cans, cheered as Jack Johnson took the stage Friday night. Before he began his set at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., the grounds were bustling as crowds formed around a stand selling tote bags, reusable utensils and “climate offset” stickers among the usual concert merchandise. 

    On the venue’s jumbotrons, one slide — interspersed with images of environmental advocacy groups — reminded people to recycle and compost at the show. 

    Johnson used to gaze out after shows at an “ocean” of single-use plastic littering the floors where the audience stood, he told The Washington Post in an interview this month. Now, he said, things like the reusable-pint-cup program and water refilling stations have dramatically reduced the waste he sees. 

    “When you look out, it’s beautiful,” Johnson said. 

    Millions of people flock to concerts and festivals during summers, when warm days and cool nights can be spent enjoying live music. But experts say these shows can harm the planet. Concertgoers and performers’ travel, along with the energy venues use to power performances, often require burning fossil fuels that generate greenhouse gas emissions. 

    Johnson is one of a growing number of artists pledging to make their tours more environmentally friendly as they take that toll into account. Singers and bands often work with nonprofit organizations and venues where they perform to make sure events can, in various ways, reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. 

    Even bands that have done the most to tackle their own environmental impact — such as Pearl Jam, which began offsetting its world tours’ estimated carbon emissions in 2003 — are not immune to the effects of climate change. On Wednesday, the legendary grunge band canceled a concert in Vienna after announcing that smoke from wildfires in France had damaged lead singer Eddie Vedder’s throat. 

    Coldplay, Billie Eilish and Harry Styles and others have now joined the ranks of artists making climate pledges. Some are surveying fans’ modes of transportation to get to concerts, eliminating single-use plastic at concessions and offering merchandise made with recycled materials in an effort to curb overall tour-related emissions. 

    The efforts have also largely gained momentum among well-funded artists — underscoring the money and time it takes to help make a tour sustainable. 

    “We are very blessed that we have the resources to be able to do it, because it’s very expensive to try these things for the first time,” said Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay, in a May interview with the Associated Press. “We’re so privileged that we’re in a position where we can change.” 

    To make concerts environmentally friendly, musicians often seek guidance from outside coordinators who can organize sustainability initiatives — a process that requires resources many artists don’t have. 

    Josh Kolenik, manager and member of the band Small Black, said the group doesn’t have much time to plan sustainability efforts between performing and working as its own crew. 

    “We all wear a lot of hats,” Kolenik said about the four band members. “You kinda need that extra person to work with the venues.” 

    Small Black used a hybrid van for travel to reduce emissions during its most recent tour this spring. Kolenik said it could be helpful if venues had amps and drum sets available for them to use at shows, so artists could further cut down their emissions, though he acknowledged smaller clubs face financial constraints as well. 

    For Johnson, growing up in Hawaii, he would see beaches “colorful” with plastic, areas where microplastics blended seamlessly with sand — experiences that helped make environmentalism a natural part of his music career. He has been incorporating sustainability into his tours since the early 2000s. As more artists pledge to do the same, he said the movement has gained traction. He pointed in particular to younger musicians, for whom “it’s just more a part of their standard vocabulary.” 

    On Johnson’s current tour, $2 from each concert ticket goes toward carbon offset projects and environmental nonprofit groups. About $35,000 was raised from Friday’s show in Maryland. 

    Tanner Watt, director of partnership and development at the nonprofit REVERB, acknowledged that at every show, no matter the artist, “there’s always some footprint of waste.” But there are ways to curb it. 

    A report released last year by the United Kingdom-based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research said music industry stakeholders can help significantly reduce tour-related emissions by monitoring things such as transportation and energy usage. Doing so can help keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, compared to preindustrial levels, the report said. 

    Carly McLachlan, one of the report’s contributors, said in an email that it’s important for artists to consider sustainability options in show design, tour routes and transportation from the early stages of creating a tour — rather than “bringing someone in to ‘green’ what you already planned.” 

    REVERB, founded by Adam Gardner, a guitarist in the band Guster, and his wife Lauren Sullivan, has 12 full-time employees working closely with touring artists. They act as “greening” techs — sourcing local farm food to serve bands and crews, working with venues on securing reusable products and putting other sustainability measures in place. 

    The organization wants fans to get involved, too. At concerts the group has worked on, attendees are greeted soon after entering by a volunteer wearing an upcycled concert T-shirt, and are encouraged to connect with environmental nonprofit groups with tables set up at the event. 

    Before his group began working with musicians and venues, Gardner said, “nobody was dedicated to handling the sustainability, and nobody knew what to do, and nobody had time to deal with it.” 

    In the past two years, Gardner has noticed a “significant spike” in interest in sustainability in the music industry. The pandemic-driven pause in live music beginning in 2020 gave musicians, venue owners and festival producers time to weave personal sustainability efforts into future tour plans, he said. 

    REVERB is working with artists such as Johnson and Eilish, as well as the Lumineers, the Dave Matthews Band and Shawn Mendes on their 2022 tours. In previous years, the group has worked with Styles, John Mayer, the 1975 and a slew of other musicians. 

    Since it was founded in 2004, Gardner said REVERB’s partnerships have helped eliminate more than 4 million single-use bottles at concerts and reduced emissions equivalent to 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide. That’s like eliminating CO2 emissions from over 3 million pounds of burned coal. 

    Typically, artists reach out to Gardner’s group because they want to change how they tour, he said. Styles, for example, voiced concern about how many single-use water bottles were left behind at his shows, so Gardner said someone from his touring crew found REVERB online. 

    With Eilish, she “wanted to do as much as possible,” Gardner said, so REVERB worked from the beginning of her “Happier Than Ever” world tour that started this year. Sustainability initiatives were incorporated into her booking contracts, requiring venues to provide a plant-based option at concessions that was priced the same as an equivalent meat-based option. For the band and crew backstage, there are exclusively vegan food options. 

    “That was nonnegotiable,” Gardner said. 

    This year, Coldplay began a world tour after announcing in 2019 they would stop touring until they could make their concerts more environmentally beneficial. Following that announcement, a business-application software company, SAP, contacted the band and offered its technology, eventually creating the “Coldplay Music of the Spheres World Tour” app. 

    The app allows fans to log their mode of transportation to concerts, said Ferose VR, SAP’s senior vice president, with a goal of pushing fans to use a “green mode of transportation,” including carpooling with at least three fans, using an electric car or taking public transportation. Fans who use those options get a discount on merchandise on Coldplay’s website. After shows, the band’s team assesses data logged for the show and then makes plans to offset fans’ carbon footprints, such as by planting a tree for each ticket purchased, VR said. 

    “Even if a small number commit, it makes a big impact,” VR said. 

    Representatives for Coldplay declined to share data from the app, including about the number of fans who have downloaded it. 

    Musicians say they hope to influence their fans’ behavior long after a concert ends. 

    At every show on Johnson’s “Meet the Moonlight” tour, fans can enter to win front-row seats in the venue by committing to sustainable actions. Refilling a reusable water bottle, using a green mode of transportation to travel to the show and donating to an environmental nonprofit organization are all efforts that increase a fan’s chance of winning. 

    Johnson and his team encourage fans to interact with local environmental groups through a “Village Green” that is set up at every show’s venue and highlights 5 to 10 of the groups. 

    When they tour in a new area, Johnson said his team gets recommendations about which nonprofit groups to feature, such as ones focusing on locally sourced food or reducing plastic waste. The band fosters relationships with organizations over time, allowing Johnson to advocate for which groups he wants featured at his shows. 

    At the Village Green on Friday, representatives from Plastic Pollution Coalition spoke to fans who stopped by for free stickers and reusable straws at their table — which also displayed large, clear jars filled with plastic waste. Jen Fela, the group’s vice president of programs and communications, and Jackie Nuñez, advocacy and engagement coordinator, said these types of events can boost recruiting. 

    Concert attendee Rachel Tierney said she doesn’t usually think about artists’ sustainability efforts before going to watch them perform, but after speaking with the organizations at Friday’s show, she hopes more artists adopt similar environmentally focused efforts. 

    Before heading to refill her reusable cup, she said, “They kinda lit a fire in me.”