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[Part 1] Exploring Eco-friendly Initiatives in the K-Pop Industry

Hayley Tolley

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As environmental awareness continues to grow among consumers and companies alike, sustainability has become an increasingly important topic across many industries. This has proven especially true within the music industry as it works to shift towards improved sustainability and more eco-friendly practices. One genre where the need for greater sustainability has become particularly apparent is the K-Pop industry. 

Originating in South Korea, K-Pop has quickly become a global phenomenon, captivating audiences worldwide with its catchy tunes, impressive choreography and visually stunning performances. With a massive global fanbase, K-Pop stars hold significant influence over their dedicated fans, allowing them to leverage their platform to make a positive impact on various social and environmental issues. However, having such a large and dedicated fanbase has come with some negative consequences as well, especially regarding the environment.

Since its inception, the success of K-Pop artists and their agencies has been closely tied to several actions that are inherently detrimental to the environment. Financial and industry success are often directly correlated to the mass production of physical albums, high volume sales of consumer goods and large scale live events. As awareness grows among fans, artists and agencies regarding the harmful impact the K-Pop industry currently has on the environment, a push for greater sustainability seems to be taking hold. From reducing carbon footprints to promoting ethical merchandising and sustainable fashion, the K-Pop industry is searching for ways to make more meaningful, positive contributions to the environment.

In this blog, we will explore eco-friendly initiatives within the K-Pop industry while highlighting areas for continued growth. We will examine how artists and agencies are incorporating sustainability into their practices and using their influence to promote environmental awareness. From sustainable fashion choices and eco-conscious concerts to ethical merchandising and environmental advocacy through music and lyrics, we will uncover different ways the K-Pop industry is going green.

The Rise of Eco-consciousness in K-Pop

Over the last few years, there has been a noticeable surge in eco-consciousness among K-Pop artists and agencies. As public figures with significant influence, they are increasingly recognizing their responsibility to address environmental issues and act as role models for their fans. This heightened awareness has been fueled by a growing global concern for the environment and the dedication of socially conscious fans who actively push for sustainable practices within the industry.

The shift towards more eco-friendly initiatives within the K-Pop industry can be attributed to several factors. As they grow increasingly aware of the urgency and importance of sustainability, artists and agencies are experiencing a greater sense of responsibility to contribute positively to society and the environment. They understand that their actions have a ripple effect and can inspire positive change among their millions of fans. The rise of social media and increased transparency have also allowed fans to demand greater sustainability efforts from their favorite artists and agencies. This fan-driven demand has encouraged the industry to embrace eco-friendly initiatives, recognizing the importance of catering to the values and concerns of their dedicated fanbase.

Sustainable Fashion in K-Pop

The fashion industry is notorious for its detrimental impact on the environment, contributing to issues like resource depletion, pollution and unethical labor practices. Over time, K-Pop has become closely intertwined with the fashion industry, playing its own role in this environmental struggle. Whether they’re buying branded merchandise, mimicking their favorite artist’s outfit or just looking to add more K-fashion pieces to their wardrobe, consumer demand from K-Pop fans has resulted in a significant increase in fast fashion production. In an effort to combat the negative impacts of fast fashion, some K-Pop idols are starting to take a more active role within the sustainable fashion movement. 

Sustainable fashion emphasizes the use of eco-friendly materials, ethical manufacturing processes and designs that prioritize longevity and recyclability. On a larger scale, sustainable fashion is working to completely revolutionize how the market approaches the creation, consumption and disposal of clothing goods. The trickle down effect of this movement can be felt throughout the music industry, including K-Pop. By more actively embracing sustainable fashion, many K-Pop artists and agencies are working to reduce their environmental footprint and promote responsible consumption among their fans. 

Over the last few years, sustainable fashion has gained increased visibility and popularity among some of the world’s most famous K-Pop groups. On an international scale, the Grammy-nominated K-Pop group BTS helped place a major spotlight on sustainable fashion during the 76th United Nations General Assembly, where they wore upcycled suits designed by the Korean eco-friendly fashion brand RE;CODE. It is also becoming increasingly common for K-Pop artists to partner with eco-friendly fashion brands on a smaller scale, with many artists serving as models at runway shows for a variety of sustainable brands, including HOLY NUMBER 7 and UL:KIN.

One example of this was HOLY NUMBER 7, who partnered with K-Pop boy group A.C.E during the SS22 Seoul Fashion Week, featuring two of the group’s members (Kim Byeongkwan and Kang Yuchan) as models for the label’s newest collection. More recently, HOLY NUMBER 7 has also collaborated with boy group DKZ to create a line of eco-friendly apparel. Sustainable K-Pop collabs have even made their way to New York Fashion Week. One of NYFW’s most notable runway collabs was UL:KIN’s partnership with K-Pop artist DK (member of iKON), who served as a model for the brand’s SS 2023 collection. 

More and more K-Pop idols are also working to promote eco-friendly fashion choices on an industry-level by increasingly incorporating sustainable clothing into their music videos and performances. This trend can be seen across some of the industry’s biggest agencies, including SM Entertainment, HYBE and JYP Entertainment. NCT, SM’s largest boy group, has become well-known for their innovative music and fashion, with sustainable fashion playing a large role in the group’s “culture technology” concept. The group frequently partners with KANGHYUK, a Korean fashion brand that specializes in upcycling defective airbags into futuristic clothing, and has been spotted wearing the brand’s apparel for various video and live performances. KANGHYUK has also partnered with HYBE on several occasions through collaborations with BTS, including member SUGA’s “Shadow” music video as well as outfits for the entire group during one of their Permission to Dance Tour performances. 

Within women’s fashion, Popsiz has been making a big splash in the world of sustainable clothing and K-Pop. Another Korean-based sustainable clothing brand, Popsiz has gained significant recognition through collaborations with some of the industry’s biggest female K-Pop groups. Red Velvet, one of SM’s female groups, partnered with Popsiz for the title track music video from their album Queendom. Almost every outfit seen in that music video is a Popsiz design that utilizes upcycled materials. Popsiz has also partnered with many other popular female groups including TWICE, Weeekly, IVE and ITZY. 

From wearing outfits made of recycled or upcycled materials to collaborating with sustainable fashion brands, K-Pop artists are using their visual presentations as a platform to promote eco-conscious fashion. These fashion choices are not only raising awareness among fans but also setting a positive trend within the industry, inspiring others to follow suit.

Green Concerts and Events

Another way the K-Pop industry is working to minimize its carbon footprint is by utilizing more eco-friendly initiatives at concerts and events to reduce the environmental impact of large-scale performances. K-Pop concert organizers are increasingly implementing eco-friendly practices such as waste reduction, recycling programs and energy-efficient technologies. By actively considering the environmental consequences of their events, they are working to create memorable experiences for fans while minimizing harm to the planet. 

One of the most notable executions of an eco-conscious K-Pop event was the 11th Gaon Chart Music Awards. Hosted in 2022 at the Jamsil Arena in Seoul, this event was organized by the Korea Music Content Association (KMCA) with a special focus on sustainability. To bring attention to the event’s environmental campaign, the KMCA handed out eco-friendly paper water bottles to the audience and all of the performers in an effort to reduce the amount of single-use plastics used. The event’s three celebrity MC’s also formally introduced the environmental concept of the campaign to the audience. Following the event, the KMCA’s Secretary General Choi Kwang-ho, shared that this event marked the beginning of the company’s ongoing sustainability movement. During an interview with The Korea Times, Choi said that:

"From this year onward, we will spare no effort to tackle environmental issues in cooperation with record labels, fans and the government…The K-pop industry is ruminating on different ways to reach environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) goals and promote sustainability for the future generation. In the case of the KMCA, we are planning to embed environmental messages in all of our events."

As a major player in the world of K-Pop, KMCA’s dedication to increasing eco-friendly efforts is an encouraging step towards improved industry-wide sustainability. Nevertheless, industry and environmental experts agree that sustainable practices need to extend beyond waste management at concerts. Event organizers can adopt eco-friendly stage designs and utilize materials that are reusable, recyclable or made from sustainable sources. Lighting systems can be upgraded to energy-efficient LED technology in order to reduce energy consumption while maintaining the dazzling visual spectacle K-Pop is known for. There is also ample opportunity to revamp overall production practices to better prioritize sustainability, including responsible sourcing of equipment and materials, efficient logistical planning to minimize transportation-related carbon emissions as well as the creation of sustainable merchandise.

While some may have concerns that implementing such initiatives will negatively impact future K-Pop performances, musical artists from other genres have proven that sustainability and quality can coexist within live event execution. British rock band Coldplay has set a particularly impressive precedent by going climate-positive during their 2022 Music Of The Spheres tour. To reduce the tour’s carbon footprint, the band implemented numerous sustainable initiatives, including planting a tree for every ticket sold and even partially powering each show by setting up electricity-generating bikes for the audience to ride. With innovative examples to follow and a large sphere of influence, the K-Pop industry is well-positioned to significantly reshape their approach to events and performances to better serve the environment. 

Ethical Merchandising and Packaging

Merchandise plays a particularly crucial role in K-Pop for agencies, artists and fans. Unfortunately, it is also currently one of the industry’s leading sources of pollution. The genre’s business model has become heavily tied to merchandise sales, developing a particularly strong dependence on physical album sales. The sale of albums serves as a key source of revenue for K-Pop agencies, which has led many companies to publish multiple versions of each album in an effort to encourage fans to bulk buy to collect each version in the set. These albums also often contain collectible items like photo cards and posters. Sometimes album purchases will even be counted as raffle entries to various fan events, directly tying a fan’s odds of winning to the number of albums they buy. The importance of album sales is further reinforced by the industry’s evaluation system, which currently uses physical albums sales as a contributing metric to music chart rankings and even certain industry awards. 

All of these factors encourage K-Pop fans to mass purchase physical albums, which in turn creates a large amount of waste. In addition to most albums being made from nonrecyclable packaging, many albums often end up in the trash or even littered along the streets after fans have removed their desired collectibles from the albums or received their raffle entries. This cycle is particularly concerning considering how rapidly global K-Pop albums sales are growing, with total sales from the top 400 albums reaching almost 60 million in 2021 alone. With the popularity of K-Pop on a seemingly exponential rise, these environmentally destructive purchasing behaviors should be cause for serious concern among sustainability experts, fans and the K-Pop industry as a whole.

Sustainable packaging solutions for K-Pop albums and merchandise

While the sale of physical K-Pop albums is unlikely to fade away anytime soon, sustainable packaging solutions are gaining greater traction in the K-Pop industry as agencies seek to reduce waste and environmental harm. Some solutions already being implemented include using biodegradable or recyclable materials, minimizing excess packaging and employing innovative designs that maximize utility while minimizing environmental impact. CHUNG HA (formerly of I.O.I) has been a particularly outspoken supporter of the sustainability movement in South Korea, frequently speaking out about the country’s plastic crisis and K-Pop’s role in contributing to this waste. In 2021, she took her advocacy to the next level and created one of the genre’s first eco-friendly albums with the release of her first full-length album, Querencia. To reduce each album’s carbon footprint, she used recycled paper for the album case and booklets, packed the albums using paper envelopes and limited plastic use primarily to the lamination of the photo cards. 

Since the release of Querencia, many other artists and agencies have taken their own steps towards improved sustainability when it comes to album production. Some of the industry’s top agencies, including SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, HYBE and JYP Entertainment are helping to lead the way. For example, SM focused on the after-life of the album when manufacturing NCT DREAM’s Glitch Mode and Beatbox albums, utilizing biodegradable materials that don’t release volatile organic compounds. YG has also been upping their album sustainability game with multiple of their artists, including Mino’s (member of WINNER) 2021 album TO INFINITY. This album was made using eco-friendly, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper, low-carbon paper and bean oil for printing while working to minimize harmful chemicals like isopropyl alcohol and benzol. More recently, YG also utilized materials like biodegradable plastic and soybean-oil ink to create more eco-friendly packaging for BLACKPINK’s 2022 Born Pink album. 

HYBE took their eco-friendly initiatives to the next level by creating digital album packages. In 2022, the initial release of j-hope’s (member of BTS) album, Jack in the Box, was released exclusively online, with each purchaser only physically receiving a cardholder, photo card and QR card to access the digital album. HYBE has taken a similar approach with some of their other artists, including SEVENTEEN and NewJeans, creating a new category of digital-only albums (dubbed the “Weverse album” version) that are sold as an alternate option to the traditional physical versions for each album. This approach provides fans with the opportunity to reduce their plastic consumption while still receiving their beloved photo card collectibles. JYP Entertainment has taken note from HYBE’s approach, announcing in August 2022 that they are working to revamp their album production plan to significantly improve their environmental stewardship. They plan to do so by reducing physical album waste, utilizing more eco-friendly production materials and providing fans with more digitally-focused album content.

Smaller companies like IST Entertainment are also setting an important example for the future of sustainable K-Pop album culture. VICTON’s 2022 Chronograph album marked the beginning of IST Entertainment’s journey towards greater album sustainability. In addition to the traditional version of the album, an eco-friendly, digital-only album package was created, granting fans access to music videos, video messages and the digital version of the album through an online code while substantially reducing production waste. Regarding this shift, an IST Entertainment official shared that:

“It was a huge consideration for us (to come up with the eco-friendly album) amid fans’ demand to tackle environmental issues. We were also aware of the issue and have also had in-depth discussions on environment-related problems including albums being thrown away…In line with the recent trend of a reduced number of people listening to music through physical CDs, we tried to come up with the best idea to provide listeners easy access while owning the album…Since we have received a lot of positive feedback among fans, we’ll continuously consider eco-friendly albums in a positive light.”

Since the release of Chronograph, IST Entertainment has held true to this mission and now releases multiple album types for all their artists (THE BOYZ, Weeekly, etc.), including a “platform” album package, which provides an online code for the digital version of the album while still including physical photocards.

K-Pop merchandise holds a special place in the hearts of fans, making ethical merchandising practices a crucial aspect of the industry’s eco-friendly initiatives. Fans' love for their favorite artists is often expressed through the purchase of branded merchandise and by promoting ethical merchandising the industry can channel this enthusiasm into positive action. Ethical merchandising encompasses fair labor practices, sustainable sourcing and transparent supply chains, ensuring that the production of merchandise aligns with environmental and social responsibility. By putting a greater focus on adopting sustainable packaging and reducing waste production, K-Pop agencies of all sizes are working to better implement eco-friendly initiatives and set an example for the broader entertainment merchandise market.

Future Opportunities for Sustainable K-Pop Merchandise

While album waste production is currently one of the industry’s most pressing issues, K-Pop agencies also have the opportunity to make the rest of their physical merchandise more eco-friendly. Sustainable materials, such as organic cotton, bamboo, recycled polyester and even plant leather, can be utilized for clothing items and accessories. Eco-friendly manufacturing processes that prioritize water and energy conservation can also be utilized during the production process. By offering eco-conscious merchandise options, K-Pop agencies empower fans to express their support in a manner that aligns with their values.

The transition to increasingly sustainable merchandise will take a significant amount of time, effort and monetary investment on the behalf of K-Pop agencies, but their target market is primed for this shift. Many K-Pop fans are already actively advocating for greater sustainability and many more are positioned to become future green consumers. It is up to the industry to set the precedent for what it means to be a sustainability-minded K-Pop fan through the creation of eco-friendly merchandise alongside active, genuine advocacy from artists about the importance of living more sustainably…

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!

[Part 2] Exploring Eco-friendly Initiatives in the K-Pop Industry

Hayley Tolley

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