Bonnaroo to undergo environmental sustainability audit

Gowdy Consulting will evaluate festival’s impact

The annual Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival is great for music lovers and the Coffee County economy.

Given its scale and scope — visualize hundreds of tons of bottles, cans, cardboard, paper, scrap metal, cooking oil and the like — Bonnaroo (which started today and will run through Sunday, June 16) would seemingly have a contrasting negative impact on the natural environment.

Impressivley, it has not. 

True, the event, which last year attracted a massive audience of more than 80,000 and packed a positive economic wallop estimated at $51.1 million, generates a colossal amount of garbage and waste. But Bonnaroo organizers have worked hard to minimize the potential harm to the enviroment. They have been committed to eco-friendly practices since the event’s inception in 2002 and are using for the second time this year Nashville-based sustainability expert Jeff Gowdy to minimize that impact.

Clearly, progress is being made.

Bonnaroo fans pay for the festival’s massive sustainability and recycling efforts. Organizers add $1 to each ticket sold and allow fans to opt-in and donate any amount towards the cause.

Gowdy’s J. Gowdy Consulting will evaluate the festival’s environmental impact by conducting what’s known as a sustainability audit. He will be on site during the festival scrutinizing, for example, recycling, noise pollution, CO2 emissions and Bonnaroo’s ride-sharing program, a two-year-old initiative that encourages carpooling to the event.

According to Gowdy, the concept of sustainability centers on balancing the needs of society, economy and environment for current and future health. In recent years, sustainability has transitioned from an issue primarily embraced by dedicated environmentalists to a guiding principle for many corporations and small businesses, he said.

“Where there are environmental impacts, there are business problems,” Gowdy said.

A Greener Festival, a United Kingdom-based non-profit company that helps music/arts events and festivals worldwide adopt environmentally efficient practices, has contracted with Gowdy for the Bonnaroo audit.

A solar-powered stage, the first installation of its kind at a major U.S. music festival, should factor very favorably in Bonnaroo’s sustainability audit, Gowdy said.

Bonnaroo organizers also conduct a self-audit, which they eventually compare with Gowdy’s. An outside audit is desirable because Bonnaroo competes for high-profile environmental awards, and its organizers are hyper-focused on making the festival more sustainable every year.

“We don't see it as ‘Jeff's audit versus ours,’” said Laura Sohn, sustainability coordinator for Bonnaroo. “The audit is a useful tool in making us consider all aspects of what we do on site. It's a good tool to self-assess everything we do.”

Although the sustainability consultant profession might not be commonly recognized, Gowdy is far from working on the fringes of the business world. He teaches at the Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management and has worked on environmentally related projects with high-profile corporate clients, including Bridgestone Americas, Ingram Barge and Gaylord Entertainment, and with well-known nonprofits such as the World Wildlife Fund.

“I arrived at the idea of focusing my career on sustainability because I feel it’s the biggest challenge that mankind has ever faced,” Gowdy said. “I feel business is the most powerful entity and force on the planet and that’s where the most impact could be made. So I went back to grad school to get an MBA focused on sustainability. I’m going into my eighth year of business.”

Helen Innes, co-director of A Greener Festival, said attendees of festivals are showing increasing interest in sustainable practices. She cited a recent study by U.K.-based Buckinghamshire New University that showed 79.7 percent of festival and concert attendees surveyed said they should take personal responsibility for minimizing their environmental impact. That number was up from 56 percent in 2008.

Innes offered high praise for Bonnaroo’s eco-friendly ambitions.

“They are leaders in their environmental efforts,” Innes said “This year’s installation of the first permanent solar array [for the stage] for a festival in the United States demonstrates an enormous commitment and giant leap forward to further reduce their impact.”

2012 Bonnaroo recycling stats

• 98.87 tons of single-stream (commingled) recyclable materials

• 15.76 tons of scrap metal

• 41.84 tons of cardboard, office paper and electronics

• 1.6 tons of PVC

• 5.7 tons of used cooking oil

• approximately 70 tons of compost