3 Aug 2014

Way Out West: Scandinavia’s most ‘PC’ festival ever?

It is vegetarian, has a low carbon footprint, and even the beer is locally sourced: Sweden’s Way Out West festival brings original hippy principles to the digital age. But is it fun?

On the eve of its 2012 festival, Way Out West announced that all the food served to staff, artists and festival-goers would be vegetarian.

It was an easy decision to make, says Fredrik Holmstedt from Luger, the company behind the festival: providing meat for so many people was the single biggest contribution to the festivals’ carbon footprint, so it had to go.

But it is an unusually principled take for a major music festival, especially one which this year boasts big names like OutKast, The National, Janelle Monae and the Scandi-power-couple Royksopp and Robyn. Let’s hope none of the major acts are hooked on their morning fry-up.

Gothenberg’s Way Out West festival, which was launched in 2007, has grown to become Sweden’s biggest, and arguably most respected. It also attracts its fair share of British visitors, who last year made up the biggest number from foreign shores, even ahead of Norway and Denmark.

Basically, it’s about everyday humanism, caring for our earth, the animals and our fellow humans Way Out West

This year’s festival from 7 to 9 August has a specially designed app with playlists for the bands involved, and in a move that puts UK festivals to shame, has free wifi sponsored by Spotify.

But just as much effort is put into the festival’s green credentials, which are earnestly described on the website: “Basically, it’s about everyday humanism, caring for our earth, the animals and our fellow humans and treating them with respect. It is just common sense and it feels good.” And plenty of festival-goers seem to agree.

After being awarded the gold EU standard of sustainability – the ISO 20121 – Mr Holmstedt told Channel 4 News that the team are aiming to become carbon neutral. “There’s a lot of improvement to be made… It’s actually bringing people travelling with a lot of gear from all over the world.”

They have tried to make the line-up as gender equal as possible and convinced the local brewery, Spendrups, to ensure the beer was locally sourced.

“It makes it even more fun,” he insists. “We try to make sure that planet earth exists in future generations. Caring for the environment doesn’t mean fun can’t exist.

“Visitors, artists, staff, the city, society – we want to make every part of society happy.”

Photo: Litter pickers get the enviable job of cleaning up

British festivals have been getting considerably greener, even though the sheer scale make it difficult: Way Out West has 30,000 visitors, compared to Glastonbury’s 120,000.

There’s the “love your tent” campaign, aimed at encouraging festival-goers not to discard all their muddy camping gear with the empty cans. Glastonbury’s slogan “love the farm – leave no trace”, is also an attempt to change habits, while Shambola festival has proudly trumpeted the fact that it has reduced its carbon footprint by 81 per cent over five years.

But there is still a long way to go. The Greener Festival Award, which recognises green achievements and aspirations, has only been awarded to two major UK festivals – Shambola and Glastonbury – and a handful of smaller ones.

‘Big festivals aren’t keeping up with what’s new’

Far from being put off by WOW’s green credentials, Swedish star Zhala, who is signed to Robyn’s Konichiwa label, says it’s the place everyone wants to play at.

“It’s the biggest festival in Sweden, and to think about gender equality, environment, food – I like it for that,” she told Channel 4 News.

“Big festivals, they want to have this hippy mentality, but I think a lot of those old festivals like Glastonbury, it’s not keeping up with what’s new, and what needs to change. WOW is very fresh, it’s very 2014. That’s the difference.”

WOW festival is also hailed as a rare chance for Swedes to let their hair down. Zhala, who describes her music as “religious rave”, has been opening for Robyn during her recent international tour, says there’s a big contrast between crowds abroad and at home.

“In Sweden, people are really stiff here – people want to be entertained. It’s not like in America, where they’re part of the whole experience,” she said.

“So in Sweden (with WOW) you finally have the opportunity – the audience is more curious and open to have more fun, and be loud, which I like, and which I think is a little bit more similar to the UK and US.”

And her tips for WOW first timers? “Be aware of the club venues (Stay Out West) – watch out for that. When things are in clubs, it just has another vibe. You see your favourite artist headlining, I think it helps a lot… it’s more intimate.”

One more tip for free: when you roll out of the club, the 3am kebab call might not go down so well in this most “right on” of musical festivals.