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The Green Life: Trendsetter

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September 19, 2007


Lauren Sullivan, age 33
Cofounder and codirector, Reverb

A former campaigner with Rainforest Action Network, Lauren Sullivan is out to prove that loving nature and being "a bit of a pop culture queen" can be complementary. With husband Adam Gardner, a guitarist for campus faves Guster, she founded a nonprofit to help musicians and venues go green. reverbrock.org

Q: What does rock 'n' roll have to do with the environment?

A: Music has been a place of activism and action. That took a hiatus after the 1960s and '70s, but now it's back. Folks listen to celebrities. And energy use in this industry is very significant.

Q: You've worked with artists from Bonnie Raitt to the Beastie Boys. How do you green a concert or tour?

A: Convert the band's bus and truck fleet to biodiesel, arrange carbon offsets for their emissions, coordinate backstage recycling programs--we even do little things like provide rechargeable batteries for monitor packs and recycle broken guitar strings.

Q: How do you get fans involved?

A: We create an eco-village of nonprofits and green businesses to reflect each band's interests. For singer-surfer Jack Johnson, we invited Surfrider, which we knew would resonate with his fans. It adds a way for folks to engage that isn't a buzz killer.

(Photograph by Kevin Brusie)

* * *

How did Reverb got started?

It grew out of Bonnie Raitt's "Green Highway" idea--that was the name she used for the environmental efforts she started on her 2002 tour. Adam and I were college sweethearts and we wanted to connect our two worlds, not just so we could work together, but to give all these great nonprofits a way to connect with 20,000 people at the same time.

When I was at RAN, I worked with Bonnie and Dave Matthews on the old-growth issue and it was just incredible to have their voices added to the mix. All of a sudden the campaign became higher profile.

Tell me more about how you work with bands that want to go green.

We help bands decrease their use of plastic water bottles by requesting large jugs of water and refillable aluminum bottles. Other ways they can green their contract rider are by requesting compostable or potato-starch utensils--or, best case, cloth napkins and china--and local and organic food in the catering area backstage. As promoters and caterers see that artists are requesting these things, they'll see it's something that needs to shift. Reverb coordinators will even go in ahead of the band and replace Styrofoam coffee cups with our own biodegradable or compostable stuff--that's a great way to educate the venues too.

On Guster's Campus Consciousness tour, they used ecofriendly cleaning products on their bus. They're completely obsessed with Ecover pine-scented toilet-bowl cleaner. With 12 people sharing a toilet for a week, it can get a little ugly in there, so they love having something that works even better than the ones with the toxic ingredients.

We also have a fan carbon-offset program at the gate--we'll tell people that, say, John Mayer is offsetting his tour and you can offset your drive to and from the show too. We accept donations and give away some recycled item or sticker that represents their offset.

What part of a show or tour is most difficult to make green?

Right now, recycling is the biggest hurdle. We're in conversation with lots of promoters about implementing it on a nationwide level. It takes so much education on the part of each and every fan--they have to really buy into it--and setting up the infrastructure is significant for venues. They have to pay for some sort of service to pick up the recycling, they have to figure out how to deal with contamination issues and whether they’re going to ask fans to sort [their discards]. And lots of things that concessionaires use aren't even recyclable. It really varies from venue to venue and city to city.

What changes have the biggest impact?

Overall, carbon offsets and biodiesel for fleets have the biggest impact. We're educating fans about public transportation or carpooling options to shows and getting venues to prioritize parking for hybrid and carpools. For offsets, we work with Native Energy to do all the calculations, based on the size of the venue, whether it's indoor or outdoor, the time of year, what state it's in and what the state's energy profile is, etc.

Is there anything that's been particularly difficult to get bands on board with?

Bus and truck companies and production folks have been a little bit nervous to go to biodiesel--the vehicles are what allows the tour to happen, so there's reason for some anxiety, but it's fun to see that once you make that conversion, there's always great feedback. Drivers are often the most skeptical, but afterwards they say they feel like the engine is running better and doesn't stink when you walk by.

What's the next frontier for Reverb?

We focus on greening from the artists' end, but we are also working with the venue folks as well, so that when these artists arrive, the venues are already doing some of these things in-house. Tours are a moving target; at a stationary target, it can be easier to get things done. A venue is seeing the same community again and again, so it's a way they can build a better relationship with their patrons. It’s exciting to see this coming along.

The San Francisco folks with Live Nation are doing a spectacular job--they're really leading the pack. The Chastain Amphitheater in Atlanta has a good recycling program in place. There’s also some very grassroots things going on--at the Tweeter Center in Massachusetts, for example, there's a group of veterans who collect and recycle the cans and bottles from tailgating.

Things like this can happen even more quickly at venues that are on a smaller scale and more locally run. Some recycling organizations in certain towns get free passes to staff venue recycling bins. It's great that a lot of the venue promoters and owners are so interested in it--everyone's heart is definitely in the right place.

What can individual fans do to green their entire music experience if they're not at a Reverb event?

Downloading is great if you've already got your iPod, even though I recognize that's a different experience from going to a record store and having the photos and liner notes to look at. If folks want to get more involved, they can think about carpooling and public transportation first and then calculate and buy offsets for driving to any venue at nativeenergy.com/reverb. Also, just let your local venues know about all this--ask about compostable cups, for example, just nudge the conversation along.

What's the best way to reach or appeal to music fans?

By making things engaging and pertinent to their own lives. One thing we're always aware of that we're not experts and we're not purists. We're all taking up space and consuming, just by virtue of being here, so we’re all in this together and we're all learning. Engaging people where they're at is very important. It sounds trite, but doing one thing is better than doing nothing. I think it's a grave mistake on the part of the environmental movement to not include people who are willing to make small steps. Even deciding to buy a natural lip balm instead of a petroleum-based one is a small step.

--interview by Jennifer Hattam


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