Dance

Can Asia's Music Festivals Bring Eco-Conscious Partying to Techno Tourists?

Wonderfruit Festival 2019
Courtesy of Wonderfruit

Wonderfruit Festival 2019

When a typhoon hit Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island in August last year, Epizode festival’s organizers braced for the worst. Typhoons are turning more treacherous in Southeast Asia, and the worst flooding in the island’s history, which local officials attributed to climate change, left the beach site a muddy, debris-strewn mess.

“We thought it was going to be another Fyre Festival,” Epizode producer Roy Fridman recently told a dinner table of journalists, flashing photos on his phone of collapsed stages and uprooted trees.

The Russia-based team rushed to Vietnam, rebuilding everything just in time for the 11-day minimal techno marathon’s fourth edition (December 27th, 2019-January 7, 2020). With climate catastrophe battering down their shores, it couldn’t have been a more opportune occasion for the festival to kick off their eco-policy for the first time.

Music festivals going green in Asia face a tricky task: shedding their long-simmering stigmas as carnivals of trashy tourism and bringing mainstream awareness of sustainability to a region that needs it the most. From full-moon parties in Thailand to Fuji Rock in Japan, festivals in this region -- like many others worldwide -- have been criticized for leaving mountains of waste in their wake. Southeast Asian countries, often treated as the West’s dumping grounds, are also among the world’s worst polluters, and are widely seen as lagging behind on environmental protections. By 2050, islands like Phu Quoc, as well as coastal cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh, will likely be submerged by rising seas. But as it becomes increasingly impossible to cast a blind eye towards climate catastrophe, a growing crop of eco-friendly music events have started to see sustainability as a selling point.

Courtesy of Wonderfruit
Wonderfruit Festival 2019

It might seem counterintuitive for music festivals -- where hedonism and wastefulness usually go hand-in-hand -- to be effective platforms for pushing climate action. But a green wave is already sweeping festivals around the world; major players like Glastonbury and Live Nation launched eco-initiatives last year, and festival-goers in a recent survey ranked sustainability as their top priority. Artists around the world have also joined the eco-movement: Blond:ish launched a campaign called Bye Bye Plastic, which includes an eco-hotline that venues and promoters can call to find greener alternatives to their current practices. Finnish DJ Matoma also recently announced that his upcoming US tour will be climate-positive, removing twice as much carbon emissions as its initial footprint.

Eco-consciousness is the next great social awakening -- if the conversation in recent years has been focused on gender and racial equality on music lineups, the buzz is turning towards how festivals can stop trashing the planet every time we throw a massive party, with plastic waste and carbon footprints among the biggest climate-destroying issues. There is little doubt that sustainability will continue gaining traction in coming years, and with their highly-engaged and globe-trotting crowds, the opportunities for destination music festivals to inspire the next generation to harness their privileges and drive sustainable development are rife.

Of course, concerted, systems-level actions are still needed from larger players like governments, businesses, and academia. But music festivals -- as immersive gatherings for like-minded people where social norms are suspended -- are prime testing grounds for new ways of thinking, especially around environmentally-responsible pleasure. So what if we stopped thinking of music festivals as reality escape hatches and more as highly-networked, experimental incubators for behavioral change?

The most creative -- and arguably the most successful -- festival pushing eco-consciousness to the mainstream in Southeast Asia is Wonderfruit in Pattaya, Thailand, which drew 21,000 attendees from over 50 countries in December last year. [Disclosure: I moderated a panel on cannabis legalization in Thailand at the festival this year.] Sustainability is encoded into the carbon-neutral event’s programming and aesthetic design; at the most recent edition, a village of corn fields, staffed by a collective of local farmers, stood in the center of the festival grounds, in between stages of raucous Thai karaoke and traditional molam bands. Modular stages are built from carbon-sequestering bamboo and decorated with recycled silks, and celebrity chefs served farm-to-table feasts. Like transformational festivals in the United States that also attempt to educate, daytime talks from guest speakers at Wonderfruit debated topics like the ecological merits of eating bugs. Even the free drinking water flows from a circular filtration system using an on-site lake. 

Courtesy of Wonderfruit
Wonderfruit Festival 2019

Wonderfruit has a reputation as the Burning Man of Asia, but its position as the annual party pilgrimage for the region’s young, cute, rich, and Instagram-famous could also warrant a comparison to Coachella -- this is a festival-as-buzzy-scene. Wonderfruit has thus been successful at positioning eco-consciousness as an aspirational lifestyle, with influencers posting selfies next to the festival’s plastic recycling machines, or sipping cocktails from cups made from rice husks.

“You want to convert people who aren’t interested,” says festival founder Pete Phornprapha, who describes Wonderfruit’s musical programming as a “trap” to lure people into rewriting their relationships with the environment. “I grew up with the underground rave scene in the '90s, and I saw how music and culture can be quite powerful if it’s used with a sense of purpose.”

Declaring a war on plastic is another highly visible way that many music festivals have reduced their climate impact, and both Wonderfruit and Epizode had guards at their entrances confiscating plastic water bottles from people’s bags like contraband. Epizode’s cup-sharing system required attendees to return reusable bio-fiber cups to the bar to get their refundable deposits back. Wonderfruit went one step further, banning single-use cups completely: If you wanted a drink, you had to either bring your own cup, or purchase one from the merch stands. Over 50% of attendees brought their own cups from home -- a number that pleasantly surprised Wonderfruit’s organizers -- with expectations of this type of attendee behavior baked into the festival as it continues to grow. “This proves the community is on board, and it’s not a one-way conversation,” says Wonderfruit managing director Jon Lor.

Now that their eco-conscious ethos has started to seep into their audience’s collective consciousness, Lor continues, the next step is to push sustainability practices outside festival borders. Last year, for example, festival-goers could purchase carbon credits to offset their flights and ground transportation, and a stage was decorated with recycled plastic bottles from collection points placed across Bangkok.

The challenge here is to push sustainability creatively, in a way that doesn’t make it feel like an inconvenient option or guilty morning-after act. On the second day of Epizode, attendees were invited to participate in a beach clean-up with a local environmental organization called Phu Quoc Clean and Green. Less than two dozen people showed up, many of whom seemed to be journalists or festival staff, underscoring the difficulty of motivating distracted festival-goers on multi-day benders to take actions like picking up trash on a searingly hot afternoon.

Still, the assembled group of volunteers enthusiastically sorted through the mountains of plastic straws, glass bottles, rubber sandals, and other scraps that had piled up on the paradisiacal beach -- an unsightly mess that Epizode CEO Natasha Rogal attributed to the rapid tourist development of Phu Quoc in recent years.

Courtesy of Epizode Festival 
Beach cleanup at Epizode Festival 2019

“The first time I saw the island, it was a shock,” says Vogel. “Four years ago there were no roads, now the island is filled with mountains of plastic floating everywhere in the ocean.” Phu Quoc Clean and Green founder Lê Thi Kim Ngoc also commended Epizode for grappling with the area’s environmental problems. “It makes me happy to see the festival not have single-use plastic -- it’s a good example for Phu Quoc.” Then she stuffed a tangled web of plastic trash into a bag of recyclables.

At the end of the afternoon, volunteers dragged heavy bags of trash and recyclables across several rocky boulders, only to be confronted with more mountains of endless trash on another stretch of the beach -- a grim reminder of how futile our efforts to combat climate change can feel compared to the enormity of the problem. On the bus back to the festival, where thousands of ravers were still raging on at full-tilt, I ask festival producer Evgeny Lobanov if it felt like we were doing enough. 

“No,” he says with a chuckle. “But a little something is better than a lot of nothing.”