The Greening of Rothbury: Can it Live up to the Hype? / by Jason

It seems like all of the major U.S. festivals this year are making noise about their greening efforts. Foremost among them is Rothbury, one of a handful of new festivals to hit the scene this year. Rothbury is billing itself as the summer's greenest festival and is touting its lineup of "music, art, and action" with green themes including keynote speakers talking about energy independence.

But what does it mean when a festival claims to be "green?" Does it mean that the festival uses offsets? If so, are the offsets credible? And who decides what "credible" really is? But wait--what about biofuel? It's good, right, or why else would Willie Nelson be so, um, high on it? But if it's so good, why did Time magazine come out swinging against it a couple of weeks ago? And recycling is good, right, but what about composting? Is it better to use a compostable corn cup shipped from China or a petroleum-based disposable plastic cup made in Ohio? Does it make a difference if that compostable cup ends up in the landfill anyway because tipsy fans aren't necessarily the most socially responsible folks around? And can a festival that people have to drive to really be considered sustainable, or do events well-served by public transit like Lollapalooza and All Points West automatically win out?

It's all enough to make your head spin. At the end of the day, most concert-goers, no matter how much we love the planet, really want to be able to relax and enjoy the music. We don't want to leave feeling guilty, and we definitely don't want to be nagged to death by overzealous treehuggers. So what's a festival organizer to do? It's a difficult line--don't do enough, and you risk alienating some fans. Try too hard, and you find yourself bogged down in details like which type of toilet paper is most environmentally friendly instead of doing the fun stuff, like negotiating with Jack Johnson.

Enter Sarah Haynes of the Spitfire Agency. It's her job to help festival organizers ensure that they put on only the greenest of events. It's not an easy task, since the definition of a "green event" is written in sand. But she's had plenty of practice since she put on her first green event, the zero-waste We the Planet in 2003. Besides We the Planet, she's also worked on last year's Virgin Mobile Festival, helped green the National Biodiesel Conference, and guided the Red Hot Chili Peppers through the intricacies of producing a tree-free CD. For her latest trick, she's helping Rothbury's organizers make sure that they live up to their hype.

Sarah and I had a long discussion last week about what Rothbury means when it says it's going to be the greenest festival of the summer. "We're questioning everything," she told me. "We're making every effort to reduce waste in everything that we're doing, and we're looking to make decisions that benefit the local community." When I pressed her for examples, she offered up the festival's offsetting program. Pretty much every festival offsets, since it can be as easy as just writing a check and it's a relatively painless way to wrap yourself in green cred. But at Rothbury, Sarah says that "we're looking very hard to [structure our offsets] in a way that benefits the Michigan community. There are windmills and solar panels in the midwest, but we wanted to focus in on Michigan." She's putting so much time into finding the perfect offsetter that she still hasn't selected a firm to handle the process yet.

Encouraged to find someone else who spoke my language, I dug deeper. She'd mentioned that Rothbury would be running on biofuels. As a scientist with a mixed background in water, soil, and clean energy, I'm naturally skeptical whenever anyone in charge of greening an event starts spouting off about biodiesel or ethanol. Like everything else green, this is a nuanced area. Biofuels can be very green, but as Time points out, they can be worse--much worse--than just burning plain old Saudi Arabian sweet crude. So when I asked her whether biofuels were really such a good thing, considering the tremendous environmental damage caused by traditional corn and soy based biofuels, her response was right on. "This could be an article in itself," she started out, then she went on to explain that Rothbury had solicited only Michigan-based vendors of biodiesel and had spec'd that the biodiesel be made from waste oil. She'd found suitable sources, so the only remaining question was whether or not they could find enough of the good biodiesel to run all the generators needed to keep eight stages going for four days.

Reusing fryolater grease from McDonald's to run your giant, eight-stage stereo system is great, but what about cutting down on fan travel in personal cars, the real source of festival emissions, not to mention traffic and security headaches? To answer this question, Sarah referred me to Carrie Lombardi at Madison House Publicity. Carrie told me that Rothbury had contracted with Mr. Busdriver to get fans to the festival without their cars. And since the festival is only about 30 miles from two different public ferry terminals, organizers are, well, organizing buses from the docks to encourage fans coming from Milwaukee and Manitowac, WI, to leave their cars on the other side of the lake. Shuttle buses are good in principle, but as I found on my recent trip to Langerado, the devil is in the details.

So I did what I do best--I pushed for more details. Will patrons choosing the bus have to sit in the same traffic as people who drive in? Carrie assures me that public transit advocates will get to use a VIP entrance, so they won't get stuck in traffic. Score a point for the bus. What about food? If you don't drive in, you can't bring much food with you. Not only is festival food expensive, but by the end of a 4 day festival most people never want to see another overcooked, overpriced, over-hormoned chicken kebob again. Not to worry, Carrie assured me that the general store will not only be affordable, but it will be stocked with a variety of specials from local farmers every day. Having experienced $5 cans of Miller Lite at the "affordable" general store at Langerado, I asked for a definition. "People can go and do their daily shopping at the general store," Carrie explained. "You'll pay more than you would at Wal-Mart, but you won't pay more than Whole Foods. And we will be selling beer and water by the case." Score another point for the bus.

And what of the fans who do decide to drive? Will they have their emissions offset by the yet-to-be determined local offsetting program? According to Sarah, yes, but only through a voluntary offset program, which quickly led us to a side conversation about whether or not it would have been better to build the fan offsets into the ticket price. "We decided to offset ourselves and to put this on the side of individual responsibility," she told me. "It's the 'give a man to fish' vs. 'teach a man to fish' mentality." The festival's offering one-stop shopping for fans to offset their emissions when they purchase their checkouts, even offering a premium offset which includes donations for the local solar schools project that the festival is sponsoring. And have the offsets been popular? "The first few days [of ticket sales], [fan participation] was 20%," and although it has since dropped off somewhat, the offsets sold so far number "in the thousands."

As Sarah and I kept talking, and talking, and talking, I began to get the feeling that if Rothbury really does everything Sarah's talking about, it just might live up to its hype. There will be a low-cost, (though not necessarily free, a big disappointment) non-bottled source of water for folks inside the festival. There will be fresh local produce. There'll be 500 volunteers manning all of the festival area waste/composting/recycling stations around the clock, and to keep it simple, every single plastic cup, plate, and fork coming from a food vendor will be compostable. And most importantly, there will be a real focus on doing it right, not just as window dressing or marketing.

The danger with any greening effort, as we discussed, is compassion fatigue. It's so much easier to do the wrong thing. Even worse, once people start trying to do the right thing, they discover that there isn't any right thing. There are only hundreds of options, each with their own repercussions, and sometimes the side-effects of doing what seems right are worse than doing things the old-fashioned way. That's why people like Sarah stay in business--to handle the details, prevent green burnout, and let the festival organizers get on with their job. But without full support from the top, even the best consultants won't get anything done.

Rothbury's organizers have done two things right that give them a shot at living up to their hype. They seem to have given Sarah both the leeway and support she needs to make sure that this event leaves the smallest possible footprint on the planet. They've also set realistic but ambitious goals for themselves, so they have something to shoot for. If they can pull it off, this might end up being the summer's greenest festival, after all. But they'll still have some tough competition from some of the other big festivals. And that should be music to everyone's ears.