Bonnaroo 2012: FSU & The Sustain U T-Shirt Drive

Jason Leahey

Bonnaroo is at the fore of sustainability in music festivals.

Every spring, students at Florida State University dump all of their unwanted collegiate paraphernalia -- the clothes that were a good idea in September, the clothes that seemed a good idea in September, the free T-shirts proclaiming campus causes, the toys and crazy costumes and plastic storage bins and doodads, tchotckes, flotsam, etc. -- into massive cardboard boxes in their dorm halls. Ariana Cano, a rising senior studying Political Science and Media, and a steadily shifting band of volunteers go from building to building dragging the boxes down to the street and sorting the usable from the truly dump'able. Last year, they made a mountain of bagged clothing so thick that they could sprint across the warehouse floor and fling themselves into it for fun. This year, they built an even bigger pile that weighed-out at 6,000 pounds. It was enough to get them into Bonnaroo for free.

The deal:

  • Bonnaroo partnered this year with Sustain U, a West Virginia-based company that manufactures new shirts entirely from recycled materials.
  • This partnership included the festival buying 8,500 Sustain U shirts for staff and volunteers and donating 24 festival tickets and group camping passes, a $6.900 value, to the college whose students collected the most used clothing for Sustain U’s National Collegiate Clothing Drive.
  • The average American, according to Sustain U, trashes 70 pounds of usable clothing each year.
  • Bonnaroo and Sustain U think that’s stupid.

Ariana, a co-worker, and a roommate set out from FSU in the Florida Panhandle at 3:00 on the festival’s first day. When they crossed into Tennessee at sundown, Ariana noticed how much the land changed, how even in the dark the mountains and the green were beautiful. When they arrived at the festival, they drove right up to the security checkpoint. Security waved them right through and they set up camp right quickly. This was highly unusual.

The deal:

  • Most caravanning to Bonnaroo involves inching along the highway for hours, typically under a scorching sun, occasionally through bludgeoning rain. There are radios blaring and Exxon signs towering over the trees on the horizon and folks walking back and forth along the yellow lines marking the shoulder of the road. Through the right pair of sunglasses, it can be very Dazed and Confused. It’s a lovely Americana.
  • Either the festival gods intervened for Ariana and the other FSU students or else the festival promoters hooked them up with the super-secret, back-roads directions that they are known to keep in their back pockets. No inching along the highway for Ariana.
  • Sustain U’s products -- its very existence, actually -- is highly unusual, and has proven an ace in the back pocket of some hurting textile factories in the Southeast.
  • After NAFTA became law in 1994, textile manufacturing fled the U.S. for cheaper climes. In 2012, the only significant domestic clothing manufacturing is for the prison system and the military. By law, clothes for those institutions must be made at home. Only 2% of textiles for the consumer marker are currently made domestically.
  • Bonnaroo and Sustain U think that’s a waste.

Ariana had never been to Bonnaroo before. What was she anticipating? “Awesomeness.” Who was she psyched to see? The Kooks, Santigold, Bon Iver, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Aziz Ansari.

How did she handle the infamous Bonnaroo burn out, that dwindling strength that afflicts you over four days of extreme music overload and dozens of massive, bouncing, yelling, screaming, dancing crowds? Could she give us the play-by-play?

She could actually.

  • “I had sooo much energy, but I slept like crap the first night and got like the worst cold ever."
  • “And I was like, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to keep going, I’m not going to miss Bonnaroo because I’m sick.'"
  • “I loved the Avett Brothers, and at Radiohead I sat down halfway through, and zonked out in the middle of the field."
  • “So we paced ourselves the next day. We saw Santigold; she was just crazy. Blind Pilot, it was my first time listening to them and I fell in love. They’re such a small, cute little band. And before we went to the Chili Peppers we took like a 30-minute power nap and they were great and I was like ‘Damn, you guys are really good!’ and they’re so old, but they still rock."
  • “And then after, we came back to camp because there was a little gap between Red Hot Chili Peppers and Skillex, and I’m not a fan but my friend is, and she was like, ‘We have to go; we have to go,’ and we went and, you know, I was like ‘Damn, this is crazy cool,’ and we were dancing till like four in the morning and I’m, ‘I don’t even know how I’m awake right now, like, my legs, I can’t feel them anymore,’ and I was just like ‘No, you have to keep going!!’”

The Sustain U folks were excited, too. Trey Dunham, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, is a big bluegrass fan and was looking forward to Devil Makes Three, The Avett Brothers, and The Civil Wars. And, “of course,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The Sustain U folks aren’t 22-year-olds, though, and they had to miss The Civil Wars in order to get back to work in Morgantown on Monday. They also spent a good portion of the weekend working at their outreach booth, and so Bonnaroo rewarded them with guest camping, a much more subdued base camp that goes a long way toward cushioning that Bonnaroo burn out. When most Bonnaroo’ers turned away from the stages to head out into general admission camping at the end of their night, Sustain U turned toward those stages.

The deal:

  • General admission camping means Tent City, 700 hundred acres of bumpy farmland where tens of thousands of cars are directed into ordered rows separated by wide fire lanes. Tent City is a mass of trucks and tents and port-a-johns, Confederate and Rainbow and Peace flags, the occasional rambling lunatic, the proffering of pot in various forms, the general hubbub you could expect from 80-odd-thousand predominantly goodhearted folks thrown together into an insta-city. Depending on your luck, you can end up a fifteen-minute walk from the music stages or a 45-minute walk from those stages. The only shade you’ll find is what you make for yourself. After the sun goes down, it’s Magic Town.
  • Guest camping, on the other hand, is in a KOA campground of spindly but shade-providing trees a ten-minute walk from the main stage. It makes for a shorter bullet point, but it’s a deviation from the norm that makes a big difference.
  • Sustain U, of course,…
  • See where I’m going with this?
  • …is founded on a deviation from the norm. “We essentially make our clothing out of trash,” VP Trey told me, “and you never notice a change in quality.”
  • It’s not yet possible to take an old cotton shirt and turn it into a new cotton shirt. The cotton fibers are too short. So Sustain U takes cutting room scraps from textile operations, shreds them up, combines them with ground pieces of recycled soda and water bottles for strength, mixes in a bit of recycled polyester, and, presto!—creates a new ball of fibrous fluff that is then put through the standard processes to become new shirts.
  • Bonnaroo thinks this makes good, common sense.

Sustain U founder Chris Yura got the idea while working as a fashion model in New York. He saw the toll the apparel industry takes on the worlds’ environment and its workers, and so deduced a solution. He spent a year in the regions of the Carolinas that had once had thriving textile industries. He studied and learned. And in 2009, he set up shop, giving a number of those former textile factory towns jobs again. The company works mostly with universities (Sustain U) and, increasingly, rock bands and music festivals.

And Bonnaroo is at the fore of sustainability in music festivals. That doesn’t necessarily mean its insta-city residents are, however. A lot of Roo’ers, for some reason beyond my comprehension (Were their parents asleep on the job? Do they need a good smack across the face??), cannot bring themselves to pick up after themselves. For years, Bonnaroo has tweaked their trash-compost-recycle centers to maximize, userability. Every car gets a clear bag for trash and a blue bag for recyclables. But in spite of that -- and in spite of the fact that this is significantly a crowd of dancing hippies who may enjoy sets by Radiohead but only come into their own when Phish caps the weekend with a four-hour jam -- they leave their garbage everywhere. It’s a challenge that’s grown year after year, and I was coming to think there was no solution to be deduced.

But something switched, clicked, whatever, between last year and this year. The seas of crap on the grass were shallower. And when I asked Ariana what she liked most about her festival weekend, she said:

  • “It’s kinda nerdy, but…there’re just so many people, and so many different types of people, and the sustainable initiatives are so effective. Like, it didn’t seem necessary to bring bottled water. The water availability was sooo everywhere, like, if you bring bottled water, you’re an idiot . It’s easier to have your own container and reuse it."
  • “The fact that all the vendors had compostable dishes and, oh, I just kept looking at recycle bins and trash and everything, and the trash cans were barely full. Instead, the recycle and compost bins were full."
  • “And just… everything worked cohesively. I you think about Bonnaroo on paper, I mean, I talked to my dad about it, and he was like ‘Oh my God, I bet that’s chaos,’ like there’re so many people there camping or partying. And it wasn’t chaotic at all. It wasn’t like, ‘Holy crap, we’re in the same place as 85-other-thousand people, you know?"
  • “Everyone was there but they were still calm.”

By Sunday afternoon, all of the shirts Ariana wanted to buy at the merch tents were sold-out. So she bought a bandana even though she doesn’t really wear bandannas. And then she headed back to Florida to make a noon class on Monday. She reached her dorm room at four a.m., optimistic.

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