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Record Industry Makes Strides Toward Greener Future With Music Climate Pact

Under the agreement, signed by all three majors and several indies, music companies pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030.

LONDON – When Will Hutton was appointed Beggars Group’s inaugural head of sustainability in September of last year, his first task was tackling “low hanging fruit” at the indie powerhouse, which includes labels 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade, XL Recordings and Young labels.

That included calculating the businesses’ carbon footprint and identifying areas where action could be taken quickly, such as reducing business travel, installing solar panels at Beggars Group’s London offices and improving the sustainability of products.

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“Now the conversation moves onto what we need to do as an industry,” says Hutton.

Will Hutton
Will Hutton Hannah Williamson

This month, the global music business took a significant step towards a greener, more sustainable future when all three major record companies — Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group – plus independent labels BMG, Beggars, Partisan, Warp, Ninja Tune and the Secretly Group — signed up to the Music Climate Pact, a new wide-ranging commitment to “decarbonize” the global record business.

Under the terms of the agreement, the companies will sign up to one of two existing schemes: the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) or the UN-backed Race to Zero program, both of which set signatories on a path towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030.

The pact, which is primarily aimed at record companies and was initiated by the U.K. Association of Independent Music (AIM), also requires businesses to work in partnership with streaming platforms to measure carbon emissions across the digital music industry. Signatories agree to communicate openly with fans about the environmental impact of the music industry. Supporters include IFPI, the Worldwide Independent Network (WIN) and U.K. labels trade body BPI.

Organizers hope that hundreds more labels and music companies will sign up in the coming months and help tackle the climate crisis.

“No single business can solve this global threat on their own and it has been inspirational to see so much of the global music sector come together to take action,” says AIM CEO Paul Pacifico.

Compared to other industries, the music business has been slow to react to the climate emergency but is now investing large amounts of resources into tackling environmental pollution. Regulatory changes in the U.K. requiring companies to annually report on their global energy use have introduced a more pressing need for reform.

Global touring is the industry’s biggest contributor of carbon emissions, leading many artists, festivals and live-event companies to modify touring practices.

In October, Coldplay announced that its upcoming Music of the Spheres world tour, scheduled to begin in Costa Rica on Mar. 18, would cut emissions by 50% compared to its previous world trek and will be partly powered by fans jumping on a kinetic dance floor. The group, which played to 5.4 million people on its 2016-17 world tour, according to Live Nation, has pledged to plant a tree for every ticket sold. (Lead singer Chris Martin acknowledged to the BBC in October that the band expects a “backlash” over some of their activities, like continuing to fly on private planes.)

Other high-profile touring artists taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint include Billie Eilish, The 1975, Massive Attack, U2, Pink, the Dave Matthews Band, Jack Johnson and Radiohead. Live Nation launched its Green Nation Touring Program in April, helping artists take up sustainable touring practices, including sourcing environmentally responsible merch, catering and vendor supplies.

Festivals have similarly implemented a wide range of green initiatives over the past decade, including eliminating plastic waste, banning plastic confetti, providing water refill stations, encouraging the use of carpools and public transportation for ticket holders and encouraging artists to request “green riders.”

Recognizing the importance of green issues to millennial and Gen Z music fans, record labels are adapting how they do business. This year saw Universal Music and Warner Music establish dedicated Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) departments, which focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and supply-chain footprints.

Sony Music’s parent company, Sony Corp., has committed to expanding renewable energy use and reducing carbon emissions across its supply chain as part of its Green Management 2025 targets. (Sony Corp. topped The Wall Street Journal’s 2020 list of the most sustainably managed companies in the world.)

“The scale of the global climate crisis demands that we work together to make real impact,” says Lou Dickler, Warner Music Group’s acting chief financial officer. Warner is due to publish its first annual ESG report next year and is developing a platform and roadmap that Dickler says will move the company “into a more environmentally sustainable future.”

BMG plans to become the first carbon-neutral major music company. The label says it offset the 3,000-plus tons of carbon dioxide it produced in 2019 — in large part through the reforestation of degraded land in Brazil — and is working with suppliers to further reduce emissions.

At the same time, Beggars Group says it is transitioning to becoming carbon negative (removing more carbon dioxide from the environment than it emits) and plans for U.K.-managed operations to hit that target by the end of next year, and global operations by the end of 2024.

“The music industry has a great opportunity to learn from other sectors that have been doing these things a lot longer,” says Hutton, who held sustainability jobs in the fashion, sports and finance industries prior to joining Beggars.

Empowering artists to speak about environmental issues, he says, is the biggest opportunity music companies have to help achieve systemic change.

Hutton worked closely with AIM, which already runs a sustainability group, to produce the Music Climate Pact, which he hopes will help address long-standing structural issues around the distribution and manufacturing of physical products, particularly the pressing of vinyl records, which are largely sent by sea, but also by air.

“As supporting industries, it’s essential that we get our own houses in order,” Hutton says, “and the Pact sets us all up on a path towards doing this.”