Live Concerts Are Environmental Disasters, but Singer Jack Johnson's Shows Are Anything But
The profits generated by live concerts are not insignificant. Globally last year, gross box-office revenue exceeded $5.5 billion and attendances reached nearly 74 million. The environmental impacts from live concerts are equally as pronounced, but far less understood and appreciated.
From the top 100 worldwide tours of 2015, some 130 million paper goods—the equivalent of 160,000 trees—were used, while about 60 million plastic bottles—the equivalent of 48,000 barrels of oil—were sold, according to a sustainability panel convened by industry magazine Pollstar last year.
The 2015 Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee produced more than 679 tons of waste in just four days.
With these sorts of stats in mind, Grammy Award-nominated singer/songwriter Jack Johnson has worked since 2008 with venues and local eco-friendly organizations to minimize the environmental footprint of his live tours. Johnson, a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Program who has become a familiar face in the sustainability movement, tackled things like the amount of plastic waste left behind by concert-goers, helping to minimize the overall energy glut associated with putting on a show.
"If I'm going to keep doing music, I have to help keep the industry I'm a part of be more responsible," Johnson told the Huffington Post. "I didn't know if I needed to keep touring, especially when I considered the environmental impact of what I was doing," he added.
At the heart of these endeavors is All At Once, his non-profit social action network charged with bringing together fans and a community of groups promoting sustainable practices.
With the hauling of heavy equipment, airline flights and the fans' travel plans, the logistics of putting on any live concert created a pretty hefty carbon dent. Of the top 100 shows of 2015, nearly 60 million tickets were sold. In all, fans traveled an estimated 240 million miles—activity would have released some 58,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
To offset CO2 emissions, Johnson's fans are encouraged to use mass transit, ride bikes or take advantage of ridesharing programs to travel to shows, while his tour uses trucks, buses and generators fueled by biodiesels. Instead of airplanes, he uses ground and sea freight to ship gear. He also works with venues to guarantee as much waste as possible is recycled.
Johnson even teams with local farmers and vendors to ensure the backstage catering contains locally sourced organic produce. What's left over is donated to local food banks.
The issue of plastic waste is tackled from multiple angles. Concert-goers find backstage water stations for reusable bottles, mugs and pint cups, which can be bought at the venue. Fans can also purchase a reusable pint mug for beverage refills.
Additionally, within the past year, Johnson partnered with the OneLessStraw pledge campaign—an initiative designed to encourage individuals to use less plastic straws, and for businesses and organizations like school systems to provide straws only upon request. "Americans use 500 million plastic straws every single day," writes Robin Scher on AlterNet. "Making all these straws puts an undue strain on the climate (the production of 1,000 kilograms of polypropylene releases 3,530 kilograms of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas)."
"A low hanging fruit is plastic bags and straws," said Jim Ries, president of One More Generation, about the impetus behind the OneLessStraw campaign. One More Generation is the non-profit from which the OneLessStraw campaign spawned, and was founded in 2009 by Ries’ two children, Carter and Olivia, when they were only eight and seven respectively.
According to Ries, Johnson walks the walk about his commitment to sustainable practices. And the work appears to be paying off. During Johnson's 2014 tour, over 2,000 reusable canteen bottles were purchased, which, if used, could save as many as 340,000 plastic bottles ending up in the waste stream every year. Over 7,000 participating fans offset nearly a million and a half pounds of CO2 emissions—the equivalent of 172 less cars on the road for one year.
Johnson and his wife Kim have also spearheaded the Sustainable Concerts Working Group, a "collaboration of music industry leaders who believe in an environmentally responsible music industry," said Jessica Scheeter, Johnson's non-profit coordinator, in an email to AlterNet.
To make it easier for artists and managers to go green on their tours, Johnson and his wife produced the Envirorider and EnviroTour guides, with ideas ranging from how to reduce the prevalence of environmental toxins to engaging fans with sustainable practices. And the overall response from fans to Johnson's green initiatives? "We have gotten great feedback," Scheeter wrote.
Other touring artists should take note.
Watch a video of Jack Johnson at the UNEP World Environmental Day Beach Cleanup: