News & Politics

The Music Industry Creates Tons of Waste Each Year—Here's How Some Record Labels Are Going Green

Here are some more reasons to support independent record labels like Green Owl, Sub Pop and Smog Veil.

“The entertainment industry is the second dirtiest industry in the world,” according to Leslie Uppinghouse, production manager for Austin’s South by Southwest festival. (The construction industry is supposed to be the dirtiest.) A more eco-friendly approach is a tall order in the music business, where bands leave humongous carbon footprints on national and international tours. But at a grassroots level, independent record labels are becoming greener.

One prominent example is Sub Pop, the Seattle label that launched the careers of legendary bands Nirvana and Soundgarden. In 2006, it became the first label to be Green-e certified, by purchasing “green tags,” or renewable energy certificates, from the Portland, Oregon-based Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

Labels like Earthology, Smog Veil, and Green Owl take the greening of the music industry even further. These labels are owned and run by people whose passion for the environment equals their passion for music. They’ve created a different business model, showing it’s possible to be hip and sustainable at the same time.

Earthology was founded by Craig Minowa, leader of the Minneapolis indie rock band Cloud Cult, who has a B.A. in environmental science. Minowa’s interest in the environment was sparked in junior high. “I started learning about some of the environmental problems plaguing the planet, and I watched the creek in the woods gradually get worse,” he remembers. “It made me want to fight for the living beings on this planet who don't have a voice.”

The record label is an offshoot of the Earthology Institute, a nonprofit organization founded in the 1990s by Minowa and his wife, Connie. Minowa began to combine his roles as musician and activist with Cloud Cult’s 2001 album, Who Killed Puck? as he sought greener ways to manufacture CDs. “There were no eco-friendly options at the time, as this was over a decade ago, so I had to develop my own model and that ultimately became Earthology Records.”

Earthology’s recording studio was constructed from salvaged wood and plastic, including wood and metal from a chicken coop. The sound insulation is made of recycled clothing ground into fiber. The soundboard and decks were built from, respectively, boards made of recycled newspaper and plastic bottles. Today the label operates from an organic farm and is powered by geothermal energy. It uses organic and recycled materials for merchandise and advertising, and the label’s profits are donated to environmental organizations.

Smog Veil’s Frank Mauceri grew up witnessing the ravages of pollution on Lake Erie. “It always seemed to me to be a tremendous waste of natural resources to have access to this amazing lake and have it nearly wasted away by industrial runoff,” he says.

Smog Veil has released music by artists like legendary art-punk band Pere Ubu and pre-punk cult band Rocket from the Tombs. The label’s Chicago office is powered by wind and solar energy. “What we did is not unique to the music business; any business can do this,” Mauceri explains. “But, it took quite a bit of planning. Ultimately, we had to convince the city of Chicago to amend the zoning code to allow rooftop wind turbines in mixed residential and commercial areas, and we were granted the first permit under the new law.”

The label specifically works with vendors that will provide eco-friendly options. Happily, they’ve found it easy to find these vendors. Not only that, but the eco-friendly products are popular with music fans. Mauceri says, “Everyone it seems likes the paperboard package, the gatefold CD package that is plastic-free, and the 100-percent organic cotton T-shirt.” Green Owl has a mission, clearly stated on its Web site, “to build a sustainable company that reflects the progressive interests of society.” The label released a compilation album, “Green Owl Comp,” with proceeds going to benefit the Energy Action Coalition. Contributing artists on the album include Feist, Muse and Pete Yorn.

Based in New York, the label is home to artists like political punks the So So Glos and African electro-pop auteurs the Very Best. It’s also one of the rare labels that still releases music on vinyl records…but these records are recycled from old vinyl.

Green Owl’s output isn’t limited to music. It's also created organic clothing merchandise for its artists. Currently, it sells colorful cardigans and flip-flops on its Web site. Now, it's planning a clothing line for men and women. Green Owl’s Deeva Green says the clothing will be manufactured in New York City from organic fabrics, including tencel, cotton and linen.

Green adds: “We also plan to gain knowledge of—and manage—the entire supply chain of each garment in order to account for the entire lifecycle of each piece. From there, we will be able to calculate each garment's carbon footprint….We then plan on offsetting all the carbon emitted through the entire manufacturing process by supporting reforestation programs in North America and potentially abroad as well.”

What about touring? How do artists reduce their carbon footprints when they’re on the road? For Minowa, it involves using biodiesel fuel on tour. Smog Veil works with a van rental company that does carbon offsets. However, Frank Mauceri adds, “Touring green is really the toughest nut to crack. I've advocated, and I really believe this, that when it comes to touring green, the venues really need to step up. Many have, and I think that's the best solution.”

Adam Gardner, guitarist for the band Guster, and his wife, environmental educator Lauren Sullivan, share these concerns. In 2004, they founded Reverb, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Maine. Most of Reverb’s work involves making concert tours greener, and they’ve worked with diverse artists, including Sheryl Crow, Maroon 5, Bonnie Raitt, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They create custom tour riders, offset the tours’ carbon footprints, provide recycling centers at shows, and link caterers with local farmers, among other programs. Not only that, but Reverb sets up “Eco-Villages” at shows to educate fans.

In 2010, Reverb founded the Green Music Group, a coalition of artists, venues, and record labels. Reverb’s community outreach coordinator Amy Makowiecki describes GMG as “a way for musicians, venues, labels, etc. in the industry to provide support, resources, and hold each other to certain ‘greening’ standards.”

Like Mauceri, Makowiecki finds that music fans are receptive to going green. “In general, fans have become increasingly aware of environmental issues and are excited to see that their favorite artists are doing what they can to make responsible decisions, environmentally speaking.”

These are the first steps toward making a “dirty” industry cleaner and greener. But Minowa says, “We've learned a lot from other equally passionate eco-buffs out there, and we've been happy to share what we have learned.”

Robin E. Cook is a music writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Audubon Magazine, Popmatters, Metro New York, and Perfect Sound Forever.