Sustainability at festivals: DGTL and Rave Scout Cookies on how events can lead to change

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Festivals are back in full swing this summer, and after a two-year hiatus the landscape certainly is different.

For many, lockdowns became a time for reflection and pause. During this turbulent period, the pandemic emphasised already existing issues within the music industry, catalysing a shift in both structure and thought. Some parts of the world have opened up since the first lockdowns, and some are under restrictions. But what is increasingly being brought to attention now, as the world is in flux, is the escalating climate crisis.

Amsterdam-based festival DGTL has consistently questioned how events can do better. Since its inception in 2013, the Dutch festival has championed a socially-conscious ethos and has continued to innovate on ways to reduce the carbon footprint of thousands of people – even as it’s expanded to cities around the world, such as São Paulo, Barcelona, New Delhi, Mumbai and Tel Aviv.

In 2020 DGTL announced its intentions to become the world’s first circular festival. Two years later, the festival has put these plans into action, teaming up with Rave Scout Cookies – an organisation dedicated to cultivating socio-conscious dancefloors – to help DGTL bring their vision to life.

We spoke with DGTL’s Sustainability Manager, Mitchell van Dooijeweerd, and Rave Scout Cookies’ founder and Creative Director, Salman Jaberi, about taking dance music back to its roots, safer spaces and how they implemented a circular system.

Courtesy of DGTL Festival

How did you both get into working within the fields of social awareness and sustainability at festivals?

Mitchell Dooijeweerd: At DGTL we started with a concept that was based on a broader vision than only creating an experience with music. We wanted to be involved in art and a sustainability programme as well, that was basically what we started with. We wanted to do something more than only organising dance events. Since the beginning, we are highly aware of our impact on the environment and also the local impact that we have. So we wanted to do something different than usual and in that way we started with our revolution programme, which was starting with really easy recycling systems, like recycling the cups into bins and then having a smart power plant where we reduced the energy needs and the diesel consumption. We gained a lot of knowledge in that way and we created a framework for it. In the coming years, sustainability was really important to us. In the last few years, since Covid, we are also highly aware of the social impact and social influence that we have, so then we started to work with Rave Scout Cookies to create safe spaces at DGTL and to create a safe dancefloor for everyone.

Salman Jaberi: From my end, it was very important to take all the issues that most music festivals have – like sexual harassment, drug mishaps – and really finding a way to put it into a course and make it digestible for everyone. So really focused on building a harassment-free space, moving on to harm reduction, and making sure everyone recognises that it’s a collective accountability and responsibility to come together and focus on the issues that most dancefloors have in this day. What was important, more than anything else, especially with music festivals, was creating a harassment-free space. We focused on that first, especially with sexual harassment. We had about 500 awareness crew members that trained for it.

DGTL Festival © Jordy Brada

In the time that you’ve both been working within creating more socially-conscious spaces in dance music, what changes have you seen to the landscape of it?

SJ: The pandemic  changed a lot. With a lot of social issues coming to the surface around the world, it was important to take dance music back to its roots. It’s headed in the right direction, from what I can see. For music festivals, because DGTL wanted to take such an initiative it was great to see a festival do this for the first time.

MD: Yeah, for me, it’s the same. It was so clear that our events are like an escape from a daily routine, some place where everybody could feel free and find new ways of finding a new lifestyle, or opening up a bit, or trying to really be who you are and what you want to express. That changed in the last few years: everybody is getting more aware of the ways they want to express themselves. Therefore we wanted to facilitate it in a good way. We wanted to create the free space that we have there. We started internally, so we had a lot of time for diversity and inclusion training and based on that we wanted to have that in our events as well. So we worked together with Rave Scout Cookies and different NGOs who wanted to help us out, and worked together towards the goals that we have and the ethics that we created together.

Left: Anz
Right: I. Jordan
Courtesy of DGTL Festival

What does creating this look like in terms of practical measures?

SJ: For safer dancefloors, if anyone witnesses harassment they should immediately intervene. Most people don’t do it, because they don’t want to get into anyone’s business, or they’re just doing their own thing. And also, making sure that the intentions are made obvious. So making sure that there are signs everywhere, reminding everyone subconsciously that they are in a safe space. They’re little things but they make a huge difference.

MD: Yeah, and what also helped was that we had the awareness team on the event site, which reduces the barrier to talk to somebody instead of going to a security guard. It’s a much higher effort to do that and you need a lot of courage. If you go to someone who you are familiar with or can kind of relate to that makes it much easier, and it feels more comfortable to share your story with somebody like that.

Based on sustainability, it’s changed a lot, especially during the pandemic. Everybody was more aware that everybody was working from home remotely. The climate change situation is getting more obvious and everybody knows that we emit too much right now. Therefore, everybody wants to see change and festivals are the perfect ground to see a living lab for cities. It’s like a small town where you can change everything because you are making it from scratch. You can create a new way of how a city can also operate in coming years. So we made five different systems, like food, energy, water, sanitation, mobility and the resources. Based on that we tried to find the leverage points and the impact points that we had. We want to do that a bit differently. We want to change the narrative and we want to lower the impact and make the festival circular. Visitors were demanding for it as well, so they were really happy that we did that. There was also a lot of media attention.

Courtesy of DGTL Festival

Do you think that dance music has a responsibility and the capacity to power systemic change?

SJ: I think the future of dance music is definitely vibrant, because it was always about politics. It’s going back to politics and its original roots. It’s important to take collective responsibility for sustaining this political discourse, incorporating it onto the dancefloor and rebuilding meaningful links between music and making a positive impact. It was great to see with DGTL, every corner you looked at had a greater meaning behind it. It was always linked to social impact.

MD: We really focused on that. We even had, on one of the main stages, the ethics on LED screens, really big stage designs. We wanted to make everybody aware and let them be heard, so everybody felt comfortable to share a story or something and we could help them. It was like we opened up and we tried to get into the conversation. We are really happy that we worked together with Rave Scout Cookies, who helped us in this journey to become better. It’s still not perfect, but we’re making the first step right now. We’re happy to do it and it gives us a lot of energy.

How did DGTL and Rave Scout Cookies start working together?

SJ: It’s funny, because I actually had messaged Bram long ago about the handbook – he’s the marketing manager of DGTL. I wanted to have my book in his store, but then a year later, he contacted me about the partnership. It was really random, but it was so great to work with DGTL for the year and expand on the structure of managing a safe space and how to actually build it. It was a co-creative effort. That’s what makes it so good because you’re getting input from every kind of person, every kind of personality, so you want to make sure that everyone is represented. That was also one of the key important things with building the course – to make sure that everyone is represented and that they have their issues challenged.

MD: It was kind of the same with the sustainability programme. If we want to do something in a good way, then we put a lot of effort into it with the whole team. It was Sophie and Bram who were working on the programme with Salman for most of the time, so I was focusing on the sustainability programmes. Next to the whole sustainability programme we have a bold goal to become circular. We also sent every crew member that was involved in DGTL, we wanted to have everybody do training for one hour. Some people were like, “Oh, man, why do we have to do this?” but we wanted to inform them and get them trained. So everybody could have a sticker with “Hello, this is Mitchell, I’m a part of the awareness group,” and so we had a lot of people that are approachable for our guests.

SJ: That linked to making the intentions obvious, and making sure that it’s apparent and who and where they can find the awareness crew members.

Courtesy of DGTL Festival

In terms of building on this work, what are your hopes for the future of music events and continuing to improve these spaces?

SJ: It was important to build a structure or a guideline or programme that was simple to self manage. It’s things we know but we need reminders of or we need to expand our knowledge on. It’s really important to make it digestible for everyone, whether they’re interested or not. And I think any kind of promoter, event space, or music festival can take a course and you get reminded of all the things; you learn new things that you need to know on how to manage a safe space. It goes back to collective accountability because it’s a team effort. It’s everyone coming together and putting in the effort otherwise it doesn’t work.

MD: For me, that’s the same – that we wanted to focus on organising events and creating places where everybody can have the time of their life and nobody shouldn’t feel welcome. Everybody should feel like they can be themselves.

Sustainability is one of the things that we still are working on with our whole industry. It’s great that we have the collective effort as well, the whole accountability for everyone. We created a whole framework and we do everything based on data, so we can be transparent in that way as well. That’s something that we want to push every year; to see what challenges we still face and how we can look to lower the impact; how we can inspire people and how we can let them know that we are doing it in the right way. And hopefully, inspire suppliers and inspire the government.

But we also share the whole framework with the Green Deal circular festivals. There is a group of 25 festivals that are working together with the government on creating circular events. In the coming five years, or by 2025, they need to be circular and all have signed the Green Deal. In terms of sustainability, it is a framework already that is applicable to all the events. Hopefully, it will be the same with social responsibility as well, that’s something that some events are creating. Hopefully everybody will follow.

MD: Based on the whole sustainability plan, we have five systems: for energy, we reduced the energy needs from 16,000 litres of diesel fuel to zero, which is also good for the whole environment. For food we only had plant-based food on the menu, which is something that is for the environment but also for animals and for a much broader positive impact to choose that. That’s something that we want to do for the visitors too; we want to inspire them to create a healthier and better lifestyle in terms of sustainability and social awareness, but also for what your lifestyle is.

We had some cool things where we tried to break taboos. One of them was the whole sanitation plan where we recycled and reused all the pee and poo that was on the event site. We made tea out of the pee that visitors were bringing to us or donating to us, and we made fertiliser from it so we can make 90 percent clean drinking water and ten percent fertiliser out of it. Everything that we’ve learned at DGTL, we can also apply to other countries. That’s something that we want to focus on, as well as to boost circular innovation and to help reduce the impact of the problems that we face in the world. Not only on the social part but also sustainability-wise and on resource scarcity.

We also wanted to prove that circularity is possible. Bram and I always say it’s more sustainable to come to DGTL than to stay at home and we did some calculations and actually, it was right!

Read our review of DGTL Amsterdam 2022 here.

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