Is K-pop bad for the planet? Fans, artists push sustainability, but there is long way to go

Tamar Herman, South China Morning Post

Posted at Mar 12 2021 01:51 PM

BTS and Blackpink. Instagram: @bts.bighitofficial/@blackpinkofficial

Nurul Sarifah loves K-pop. But she also loves growing up with a planet she can live on. So the Gen Z Indonesian college student recently launched Kpop4Planet, a platform intent on building a community focused on climate action and raising awareness of the various ways K-pop fans can use their strength to better the world.

“I enjoy being a fangirl so much but, imagining I cannot be a fangirl in a world that is getting worse day by day, I feel I have to act on climate action,” said Nurul, an Exo fan who is writing her undergraduate thesis on climate change.

While other industries contribute far more to the global climate crisis than the music business, the activities of the K-pop industry, and fans’ behaviour, do have costs for the environment. In 2021, conversations are taking place not just among fans but also industry insiders and celebrities about how K-pop can reduce those costs.

Kpop4Planet’s launch on March 3, which coincided with World Wildlife Day, came days after superstar girl group Blackpink

launched a campaign to raise awareness of climate change and urged their loyal Blink fandom around the world to take action.

It was followed by the release of the latest album from singer Chung Ha, Querencia, in eco-friendly packaging, an acknowledgement of the heavy toll K-pop albums and merchandise take on the environment, from their manufacture – largely using non-renewable resources – to the impact of shipping them globally.

According to Areum Jeong, an assistant professor of humanities and writing at the Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute where she researches Korean entertainment, fans’ album-buying practices have become even less sustainable during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Typically, fans buy albums or concert tickets to win a chance at spending some one-on-one time with their idols at autograph sessions, or “fan signs”. According to Jeong, there is “practically no chance of being selected for fan signs by purchasing one or two albums”.

“This is a problematic issue in the K-pop industry and a discussion on reducing environmental waste from bulk-buying is long overdue.”

Before the pandemic these fan signs were held in person and the audience was limited in size. When coronavirus halted live events, the autograph sessions moved online, meaning fans anywhere in the world could take part. Shipping their autographed albums to them incurred additional environmental costs.

Jeong, who as a K-pop fan has participated in several fan signs, says she and other fans often try to sell, give away, or donate albums they buy in hopes of gaining access to such fan engagement events, but the environmental impact of their purchase cannot be offset. (In addition, charities and orphanages in South Korea with more pressing needs sometimes reject gifts of albums.)

“I learned that some retailers will not ship the purchases if the buyers request them not to do so. While this is one way to reduce environmental waste, there should be a better way to get into a fan sign.

“The industry should find an alternative, for example selling an entry for a set amount without having to purchase albums or merchandise,” she says. 

Album sales, however, are important in getting them to chart, and fan signs help boost artists’ sales. 

Many items of K-pop merchandise are collectibles made from single-use plastics, and the highly profitable market for such merchandise has expanded thanks to social media; conspicuous consumption has become dominant, with fan communities valuing members who show their support for artists through performative consumerism.

One product unique to K-pop is the plastic light stick. Each artist has their own. Fans love them, and brandish them at concerts and live events, but their usage is limited. They have no redeeming qualities from an environmental point of view, as they’re often replaced with new versions whenever an artist launches a tour. 

Moreover, K-pop companies such as SM Entertainment and Big Hit Entertainment offer global shipping on purchases and hold merch drops to launch new products at random; their collaborations with fashion houses and other consumer brands are also increasing. All of this, like consumerism in general, has an environmental cost.

As both diehard collectors and casual fans have access to more official K-pop merchandise than ever before, the industry and consumers alike need to consider the ramifications for the environment of making and shipping the products as the climate crisis worsens. 

“I love buying CDs,” said Nurul. “But I think as individuals we know what we need and don’t need, so buying some less is better.” 

As well as their merchandise buying, the way fans stream K-pop has a negative environmental impact. Fandoms promote mass streaming to members, and people play new music on multiple devices on mute, often for hours, if not days, at a time, to help their favorite artists climb the music charts and gain more recognition – which requires using a lot of electricity. Sometimes “streaming farms” pay fans to do this – a practice called sajaegi. 

Kyle Devine, an associate professor in the department of musicology at the University of Oslo, published a book, Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music, in 2019. One of his major themes is how music is often seen as a non-material form of art but exacts a toll in the form of energy usage. 

For several reasons it’s hard to gauge the toll energy inefficient streaming services take on the environment, but according to Devine, never before in history has so much energy been used for music.

To him, Korean music fans streaming so much is a positive. “It’s kinda punk,” he says with a laugh, and points out that it’s a way for artists and fans to go up against capitalist media organisations and industry monopolies.

Devine wants people to be more aware of the energy fans listening to music consumes, and to understand that the actions of individuals won’t change habits. Fandoms may have the power to force change, though. 

“Imagine if K-pop fans refused to use certain platforms until they’re more energy efficient,” he mused. 

Nurul’s Kpop4Planet and similar fan campaigns are trying to do things along those lines by using the size of K-pop’s global audience to make changes before it’s too late for the environment.

“As an individual K-pop fan, we [each] are strong,” she says. “But as a movement, we are way stronger and scarier and better. K-pop fans are amazing.” 

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