Music Festivals: Think Outside the (Green) Box


When you’re at a music festival, ears attuned to pulsating drum beats and hypnotic vocals, the last thing on your mind is saving Mother Earth. Yet, a growing number of music festivals across the country – and world – are going to great lengths to go green. From investing in carbon offsets to promoting waste diversion and offering attendees locally sourced food, beer and wine, large-scale music events from Tennessee to California are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact. All this is good and well, but the most sustainable step that music festivals can take has nothing to do with going green.

I recently had the opportunity to think through how the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival, a festival that takes place in San Francisco’s historic Golden Gate Park every year, could take their commitment to sustainability to the next level.

Earlier this month, Saatchi & Saatchi S hosted Lovemarks Academy, a two-day immersive session where the Saatchi & Saatchi S team and a small group of senior sustainability and marketing leaders applied creative and strategic thinking to real world business challenges faced by a select group of organizations, including Airbnb, Army National Guard, San Francisco Goodwill and Outside Lands. During the two days, teams explored how these brands could evolve into true “Lovemarks.” (Coined by Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts, Lovemarks are products, services, and brands that earn ‘loyalty beyond reason’ from the people who play with them, work with them and love them – and at Saatchi & Saatchi S we believe that without sustainability, a product can never be a true Lovemark. Or as we say, “No sustainability, no Lovemark.”)

Outside Lands’ original Lovemarks challenge focused on what more the festival could do to up their eco cred. The festival is already considered one of the greenest festivals around and boasts a robust sustainability platform: the festival’s Eco Lands space serves as an educational sustainability forum, showcasing an alternatively powered stage, urban gardening workshops, a farmer’s market, locally sourced food vendors, refillable water stations and a recycling store. The festival also promotes education of waste diversion, use of public transportation and ridesharing, and partners with a wide range of national and local NGOs, including Friends of the Urban Forest, Urban Sprouts, and Save the Waves.

Other music festivals around the country, such as Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and SXSW Music, are singing a similar sustainability tune. Bonnaroo, for example, is the first major music fest to install a solar array that will help it generate enough energy to offset what’s used during the four-day festival next year and beyond. Lollapalooza encourages festival goers to recycle through its Rock & Recycle program, in which folks can earn free stuff for recycling.  And SXSW Music does things like run all of its generators on 20 percent biodiesel fuel to mitigate its environmental impact.

With this in mind, Outside Lands saw its challenge as continuing to differentiate itself among the growing list of musical green giants. However, the more we dug into the core of the festival’s sustainability mission, the more it became clear that to become truly sustainable (and differentiate itself in the long-term) the music festival needs to think outside the green box.

At Saatchi S, we recognize that sustainability is not only about the g-word and view sustainability through four equally important lenses: social, cultural, environmental and economic. Because Outside Lands has already established its eco path, we’ve recommended that they (and any music festival trying to up its sustainability ante) take the following more socially oriented steps:

  • Deepen Local Roots Year-Round: Each year, Outside Lands organizes an Ocean Beach Cleanup during the festival weekend that brings together music fans, surfers, environmentalists and ocean lovers. While the event is valuable (and fun!), an even more powerful approach would be to host similar events around the year to demonstrate the festival’s support of environmental efforts in San Francisco 365 days a year.
  • Leave No Trace, Yet Leave a Trace: The music festival has a strict ‘Leave No Trace’ policy that’s bolstered by its waste diversion program. The great thing about this is that a San Francisco resident can visit Golden Gate Park the weekend after the festival and not even know that Paul McCartney and tens of thousands of concert-goers were there seven days earlier. The bad thing is that the festival has no lasting impact on its surrounding community. So we say, ‘Leave a Trace’! Integrate into your beloved city and partner with a wide range of local nonprofits to create lasting impact that extends beyond the three-day festival.
  • Inspire Attendees to Act Now: Encouraging concert-goers to put their compostable beer cups in the green bin is a great start, but the next step Outside Lands can take is to creatively inspire people to become music-loving change makers. Imagine what a load of empowered citizens could do for their communities if they attended a music festival that informed them how to ‘do good’ while having fun.
  • Share Value: Even more, what will truly boost Outside Lands’ (and any music festival’s) overall impact is to do what Michael Porter and Mark Kramer call creating shared value; that is, “tackling social problems as core business objectives to drive positive economic and social impact for businesses and society at large.” Here’s one idea: what if Outside Lands joined forces with local public schools to support music and arts education, which has been shown to help children develop academic and life skills?

Of course, we believe this can all be done without losing the contagious vibrant energy that bands like Phoenix and Vampire Weekend bring to their event.  For many, evolving into a truly sustainable music festival – a Lovemark – will make the hums of guitar riffs reverberating in the hot summer air sound ever more sweet.

[Image courtesy of Another Planet Entertainment]

Nayelli Gonzalez is a senior strategist at Saatchi & Saatchi S, a global sustainability consulting firm that partners with global brands of all sizes, helping them realize long-term business and organizational value from the inside out. At Saatchi S, we use a combination of smart strategy and creative storytelling to propel innovation, create organizational change, inspire and engage employees, and enhance customer loyalty. 

Nayelli Gonzalez

Nayelli Gonzalez is Managing Director of Marketing & Strategic Partnerships at, a capacity building organization that supports the growing ecosystem of impact-focused conveners, accelerators, and mappers. A sustainability innovation strategist and storyteller dedicated to purpose-driven work, Nayelli has advised startups, nonprofits, small businesses and Fortune 500 companies to drive engagement and amplify positive impact in the world. She's a trained journalist with an MBA who writes on sustainable business and social impact trends for a variety of publications.

5 responses

  1. How about leaving a trace that acts directly on climate change and can be added to every year. Something like a highly vusible solar array that feeds into the energy grid. It is after all only carbon emission abatement that will ensure an environment that still allows us to cultivate philanthropy

  2. The Best thing Outside Lands could do would be to ban anyone using a car to get there. I have come to despise this event because of the hordes of Southern Californians who arrive with no conception that driving 1000s of cars into my neighborhood is somehow normal and acceptable. As with last year, I will be getting out of town to avoid this event like a plague.

  3. “When you’re at a music festival, ears attuned to pulsating drum beats
    and hypnotic vocals, the last thing on your mind is saving Mother Earth”. Do Saatchi & S think they can read people’s minds?

    In my experience, people interested in promoting sustainability are usually more or less permanently tuned to “saving mother earth” unless they have consumed too many drugs or alcohol. I like the general aims of the group, but I think you could be a tad more direct, to the point & active about it and a lot less airhead. If you’d like my professional advice, I have 30 years experience with greening up festival events.

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