Words by:
As told to: Annie Parker

Inspired by FORWARDS Festival we’re hearing from thinkers and doers pushing music festivals forward. Here, event management lecturer and Megan Best presents a vision for sustainable campsites.

FORWARDS is a new international music festival taking place in Bristol 3-4 September 2022. It aims to kickstart a new breed of inner city festival by committing to positive change with social initiatives at its core and forward-thinking conversations, side by side with an epic music line up. Find out more here.

As we continue a busy summer festival season, those of us in the industry are preparing for another year of media spotlights on mountains of campsite waste, diesel-gobbling generators, local water pollution, and the fuel consumed in the festival travel of over three million people in the UK each year. It can be difficult to reconcile these environmental impacts against a passion for sustainability, and the importance of internationally-coordinated efforts such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). So is the answer to just quit doing music festivals?

For a growing environmentally-aware and socially conscious audience, the same questions apply. Can the impacts created by attending a music festival, especially when its virtue is purely hedonistic, really be justified?

Feelings of helplessness have made me want to leave the industry many times, but when I discovered the importance of culture, of collective energy, it gave hope for the future and for the specific role that festivals must play.

Courtesy of Megan Best

A reconsideration of purpose can position festivals on the right side of sustainable development. Lasting change requires the collective energy of individuals as its impetus, so the spaces that home these interactions will be indispensable in our fight against climate change. Can the true purpose of a festival be to create community – a collective space to foster new connections, to learn and to share? If so, this is a purpose that we, as festival industry practitioners can believe in.

Building a festival is essentially creating a small township, requiring the input of a vast, interconnected network of crew, suppliers, landowners, local communities, volunteers, performers and audiences. As such, festivals represent an opportunity to construct a microcosm for society, to experiment with ideas of social cohesion, and offer a chance to learn different ways of interaction: with our surroundings and with other people.

Consider the implementation of cashless systems, or alternative recycling practices like exchanging plastic cups for money. At Ireland’s leading sustainable event solutions company, Native Events, we’re currently developing a new campsite management system called Revolve, based on design thinking and community building, to tackle campsite waste and anti-social behaviour issues. Putting this focus and energy into the creation of social cohesion as a response to environmental impact is a great example of how festivals can test and innovate solutions for wider society.

So we land on two facets of sustainability. One side is very easily measurable against the SDG’s – waste disposal, carbon emissions etc. – whilst the other side speaks to social significance. But a festival doesn’t end at its boundaries! It’s vital to also recognise that our colourful, temporary townships are placed within an existing community, a living ecosystem.

Courtesy of Megan Best

For the last 12 years I’ve worked with the Body & Soul Festival, an explosion of music, art and wellbeing held in Westmeath every summer solstice. Over the years we grew from humble beginnings to a 15,000 capacity affair. This year we’re going back to a smaller and more intimate gathering – to be kind to the land, the locality and each other.

A key learning from our early days was realising the festival’s local impact. When one year a dairy farmer couldn’t do his morning rounds as the roads were blocked with festival-goer traffic, we decided to dedicate greater resources into community outreach. This relationship-building has borne more fruit than we had ever anticipated.

A lovely engagement with the local communities has been the donation of festival tickets to local committees who raffle them off to fundraise for local charities. But even more interesting has been getting access to the knowledge of the land. Having drank countless cuppas with local farmers and landowners, I started to understand the intricacies of grass-cutting and dairy production seasons, soil structure, drainage and bogs. I now know who the local people are, and they also know me. The value of these relationships cannot be overstated.

Courtesy of Megan Best

All these factors: creating employment in the local area; developing relationships with local people; and making an effort to understand regional heritage, are the next steps for sustainability in the festival sector. If our future lies in hyper-localisation, short supply chains, and community-building, then integrating with local culture and local ecosystems is a sustainable pathway.

So for festival-goers making decisions this summer to travel to festivals – especially those abroad – but feeling guilty about the environmental impacts, it might be worth considering your choices and purpose a little differently.

You’re going to make a journey that will have an impact on the world around you. So what is the true reason you’re making that journey? If important and valuable to you, go to that festival with the intention of building communities, and with an awareness of your place within a community that had been established long before you got there. Instead of just hopping on a cheap flight somewhere, see if you can turn the journey into an adventure to a place you wouldn’t have otherwise visited; mix with local cultures and learn from them; and go with an openness to returning home with a slightly different outlook on your place in the world.

Much like sustainable campsites, FORWARDS is future focused, looking to challenge what an inner city festival can be today with its debut in September exploring how they can be a positive force for change.