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Photo by Rachneet Randhawa

Sustainable U: Music festivals

By Rachneet Randhawa, July 22 2021—

I had no idea “sustainable” music festivals, let alone eco-friendly ones, were a thing. Cut to the Flow Festival. What emerged in 2004 as a lowkey club event, spurred into the modern-day trailblazing European music and arts celebration with innovative content that is inspired by popular culture and experimental arts. It was during my student exchange a couple of summers ago that I had an epiphany — I must come back and write about this newfound phenomenon of music festivals. After having lived in Helsinki and the surrounding area, I was astonished to find that we, in Calgary, Alberta (let alone Canada!) and at the University of Calgary are living in the Stone Age. From their love of oat milk, veganism and sidewalk bike lanes and their super strictness on banning single-use plastics to their entire music festival culture integrating sustainability initiatives so well in Finland — it blew my mind. We are so behind. And as a matter of fact, entitled, too. I figured after the headliner act of Cardi B cancelled at the last minute that it was all downhill from there. But surprisingly I discovered there was some strong underlying reason why all fans alike were sticking around. Although I thought it was all hype and rather hipster to drop over $300 for a single admission for the coveted three-day event, I now realize it was well worth it.

Not only is this one of the world’s first carbon-neutral music festivals, but it is described as the Nordic countries’ “coolest music festivals” and draws nearly 80, 000 participants every year. I had the chance to check it out via the Aalto Ventures Program which is a summer course that combines art, design and entrepreneurship to teach how to create multidimensional experiences. But what makes the Flow Festival so exclusive and yet inclusive all at the same time? During the course of the program, they had given the “Fyre Festival” as an analogy and what becomes a hot mess of something so disastrous and unethical when not planned with the festival-goer in mind. This all-hype and epic failure in the Bahamas was fraudulently marked as a luxury music festival in the Spring of 2017 — with festival tickets costing thousands of dollars and most participants getting incredibly ripped off who haven’t been compensated until today. See the Netflix special FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened for the fun yet controversial deets. 

But we also have to take a good look in the mirror and be the change we wish to see in the world. That event was not only a wake-up call but also a lesson for the music and entertainment industry on how to become more proactive and results-oriented when it comes to understanding their customer’s pain points. But also how to give someone an unforgettable and enjoyable rather than traumatic experience. Once the flashing lights, smoke and mirrors, gaudy after parties and celebrity appearances die down, what festival-goers really want is a genuine and personalized experience that is accountable, transparent and ethical. We must aim to go green all-in and au naturale. That is, sustainable.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

—Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist. 

Why is the Stampede unsustainable? 

So is the Stampede sustainable? We don’t exactly score sky-high on the sustainability-o-meter —  with our chuckwagon races, barrel racing, tie-down roping and bull riding galore, is it any wonder why many people believe we’re so far gone from anything to do with being eco-friendly? But does it have the potential to be? Of course! If anything, the COVID-19 lockdown has given us a chance to truly reflect on how systematic inequalities and their socioeconomic consequences can spiral out of control. Of course, the next looming disaster is global warming caused by climate change, especially for our generation. And we don’t need another piping hot heatwave to tell us otherwise. So it’s the best time to pivot and learn how to adapt not only to the new normal but also to challenge ourselves to understand the impacts of our eco-footprint. A solid first step would be adopting some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as part of Stampede’s policy and protocols. We have a long way to go but it’s definitely doable.  

Did you know that pollution can aggravate pre-existing conditions and diseases leading to compromised health outcomes? Yet despite the air quality statements rating the recent air quality in Calgary as high risk of 7.0 on a ten-point scale we continued to Stampede forward. Much like our Stone Age politics, we’re so far off even by the way we design massive and public entertainment events. Better yet, we should use this as an opportunity to dramatically transform the Stampede into a more inclusive entity — everything from including more marginalized and underrepresented minority groups to also adopting more environmentally friendly practices. The Stampede has so much potential, but it’s a matter of how we leverage its positive aspects and incorporate more diverse viewpoints. If Stampede is to remain relevant, it must evolve with changing preferences and norms. Again I’m not here to give an optimistic or pessimistic point of view, but I see the glass as containing a magical green dragon who wants us to take a good look at ourselves and asks us to be grateful, humble and down-to-earth in our daily habits.

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. Earth Overshoot Day 2021 lands on July 29.


How is the Flow Festival sustainable?

Enter stage left the Flow Festival – one of Europe’s prestigious music and arts festivals. The Flow Festival has to be the harbinger for setting the new-age standard for the most sustainable music festival in the world. For starters, ironically the location of the Flow Festival in downtown Helsinki is eerily similar to our Stampede in Calgary’s downtown hub. Yet they have intentionally and tactfully maximized their limited space in the Suvilahti district of Helsinki catering to thousands of festival-goers. The zero-waste initiative in particular is accountable, transparent and ethical by literally including everything from tents, reusable beverage containers, reusable cutlery, sustainable food options, stage construction, limiting noise pollution, utilizing renewable energy like solar panels and yes indeed even using composting toilets.

For starters, the festival is all about zero carbon. In 2019 the Flow Festival’s carbon footprint was cut by 32 per cent with a whopping 49.5 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions avoided. Next, it’s all about renewables by using biodiesel made from renewable and sustainable feedstocks like food waste and wind-powered energy. And then of course there are the 100 per cent reused materials which I found to be Flow’s strong suit as all waste is redirected to reproducing energy or the reuse of waste materials. Each year they set a target for what type of waste they aim to get completely rid of. For instance, in 2018, the theme was all about getting rid of mixed waste and in 2019, it was to use as many biodegradable waste products as possible. Moving forward they hope to annihilate all single-use disposables completely. Their zero-waste strategy is all in the details, for instance, festival-goers can return their drink containers and donate the proceeds to a reforestation project. So for every drink container donated one tree will be planted removing up to one ton of CO2 from the atmosphere — nearly 12,000 trees will be planted in Madagascar under this cool campaign.

Moreover, all food vendors focus on serving ecological dishes by mostly using organic and locally grown ingredients with an emphasis on a vegetarian diet with up to 50 per cent of dishes being vegetarian or vegan. They literally look at the nitty-gritty of a sustainable meal. Best yet, they’re all about BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) and reusable beverage containers getting rid of that pesky overpriced bottled water. And of course for transportation, it’s not just about Uber — the public transit system in a Nordic country such as Finland is streamlined and accessible. So whether you go by bus, bike or foot it’s a relatively easy maneuver.

Why should we care? 

Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, cloud forests are dying, and wildlife is scrambling to keep pace. It has become clear that humans have caused most of the past century’s warming by releasing heat-trapping gases as we power our modern lives. Called greenhouse gases, their levels are higher now than at any time in the last 800,000 years

National Geographic 

Please note and readers beware — this isn’t meant to be a Stampede bashing and the environment is doom and gloom argument. But after globetrotting to see the role models for new-age music and arts festivals, they’re setting an extraordinary precedent. It makes me wonder why we are so far away from these goals in Alberta let alone Canada when we come from some of the most majestic natural landscapes in the world. The least we can do is lend an ear and learn how others are choosing to challenge the status quo and break the stereotypes associated with the old school idea of music festivals. It questions representation of festivals as the counterculture in the provocative sense like being loud, obnoxious and offensive and oftentimes causing a political ruckus like the Woodstock Rock Festival or Burning Man. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. When music collaborates with politics amazing outcomes emerge like benefit concerts. These game-changing festivals like Flow can also be a source of dialogue, trust building and peace. Sustainability is quite radically the song of healing. Much like Flow Festival has demonstrated, they can also be beacons of shining hope and advocate for social justice and environmental conservation. I love a good annual Stampede outing. But we can be so much more. We can go sustainable! The COVID-19 lockdown has taught us that in the quiet reflections of the quarantine, we can calibrate towards adopting more eco-friendly practices and reboot and rebuild into something authentically genuine that will last for future generations. It’s time to sing a new tune, hum a fresh melody and set the new score. And with that, we too can set the new coveted bar. This is after all what being sustainable is all about.

At the end of the day, why should we care? It’s great and all that a festival like Flow is a smorgasbord of sustainability and all about going eco-friendly. But what is the lasting impact? Earlier we defined what “sustainability” is but it’s an overarching concept and even arbitrary at times thanks to all the greenwashing done by our most loved and popular brands. Climate change is the biggest calamity of our generation. We are the first generation to truly question global warming as a reality. I believe sustainability is the solution to meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. 

Going sustainable is so much more than being eco-friendly. It’s about living mindfully, including being humble, expressing gratitude and being genuine. And most remarkable of all that begins with you and your everyday actions. 

Sustainable U is a regular column focused on sustainability. This column is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board. 

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