Environmental Advocacy through Music and Lyrics
Artists across all genres have realized music’s unique ability to inspire change and often use their music to advocate for a variety of social causes, including environmental awareness. In the last few years, several K-Pop artists and agencies have contributed to the sustainability movement by means of the music they produce. Girl group Dreamcatcher addressed environmental concerns with the release of their song “MAISON”, with powerful lyrics that urge listeners to break their environmentally detrimental habits and show the earth the love it deserves before it’s too late. Weeekly also promoted living more sustainably through their song “My Earth”, which tells listeners to not lose hope and encourages them to do what they can, no matter how small, to protect the planet.
Music videos have also served as a growing platform for K-Pop artists to promote sustainability, with girl group MAMAMOO leading the way. The music video for their 2019 song “HIP” was the first K-Pop music video to visually address climate change, depicting member WheeIn at an climate rally as part of a crowd calling for action be taken to save the earth. The lyrics of the song focus on embracing your true self and the video encourages viewers to stand up for what matters to them, including sustainability. As part of their 2022 Winter SMTOWN online event, SM Entertainment also harnessed the power of visual advocacy with the debut of the music video for “The Cure”, a song featuring various SM artists with lyrics centered around environmental sustainability.
These K-Pop songs have set the precedent for other artists on how to lyrically and visually address environmental issues and the need for sustainable actions. Through thought-provoking lyrics, symbolic imagery and powerful music videos, they bring attention to pressing environmental issues and encourage their audience to reflect on their impact on the planet. By spreading awareness through their music, K-Pop artists help foster a sense of responsibility among their fans to contribute positively to the environment.
The K-Pop industry as a whole is also starting to take greater responsibility for its power to enact positive environmental change. One major player working towards improved industry sustainability is South Korea’s representative music chart, Circle Chart (formerly Gaon Chart). As part of their rebranding, Circle Chart will adjust their rankings to put greater emphasis on digital downloads and streams, with digital indexes serving as the main chart instead of physical album sales. Since it has become common for K-Pop fans to engage in bulk buying for the purpose of bolstering their favorite artist’s chart rank, this shift will hopefully result in at least a partial reduction in bulk buying since physical album sales will play a lesser role in chart ranking.
The Korea Music Content Association (KMCA) is also planning on creating a new music chart, tentatively called the “Clean Chart”, that will rank K-Pop albums based on their environmental sustainability. This will be the first music chart in the world to factor in a music release’s eco-friendliness. Speaking about the goal for the chart, KMCA’s Secretary General Choi Kwang-ho shared:
“Until now, only a few agencies individually made efforts to make their albums more environmentally friendly…Now, we hope to lead the entire K-pop industry to start using eco-friendly ingredients for albums or switch to digital albums.”
He also discussed CIRCLE CHART’s plans to begin organizing various events and concerts with K-Pop artists, centered around environmental sustainability advocacy. The first of these events, Moving the World with Music (MWM), is designed to bring companies, organizations and fans from all over the world to discuss the current state of the K-Pop industry and set actionable goals to improve environmental sustainability. MWM had its inaugural conference in early 2023 and aims to become a large-scale, annually held event.
Engagement in Eco-friendly Campaigns & Initiatives
Beyond their music, many K-Pop agencies and artists are also actively engaging in eco-friendly campaigns and initiatives. Some participate in environmental projects, such as beach cleanups or tree planting events, to directly contribute to conservation efforts. Others collaborate with environmental organizations or support eco-friendly causes, using their influence to mobilize fans and generate positive change.
SM Entertainment continues to lead the way, becoming the first Korean entertainment company to join the UN Global Compact (UNGC) in June 2022 as part of the company’s initiative to strengthen its environmental, social and governance (ESG) management. BTS has also been actively involved in a variety of eco-friendly campaigns and initiatives. Serving as South Korea’s “special presidential envoy for future generations and culture”, the group attended the UN General Assembly for the 3rd time in 2021, where they discussed the importance of actively addressing various global issues, including climate change. On a more commercial level, BTS has partnered with several major companies, including Samsung, Hyundai and Formula E to promote different environmental campaigns and eco-friendly products. BLACKPINK has also engaged in the climate change discussion on a global scale, serving as the designated goodwill ambassador for the UN Climate Change project. As official UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) advocates, the group spoke about the importance of combating climate change during the NY UN General Assembly as well as the 26th and 27th United Nations Climate Change Conferences.
Many other K-Pop artists have also engaged in sustainability initiatives. Solo artist Jay Park participated in “24 Hours of Reality”, part of Al Gore’s (former US VP) Climate Reality Project, in 2016 and 2017. The annual event spends 24 hours highlighting the importance of combating global warming and features a mix of discussions, presentations and performances from sustainability experts and eco conscious celebrities. MINZY (formerly of 2NE1) also performed at the 2017 event and joined another K-Pop artist, Eric Nam, in a discussion about the negative impact of climate change and ways to reduce this impact. On a more local level, singer and actor Park Jihoon (formerly of Wanna One) was appointed by Korea’s Ministry of Environment as a climate change ambassador in 2019. As an ambassador, he actively promoted Korean governmental climate change policies while participating in public advertisements and campaigns that encouraged living more sustainably.
The Kstars 4 Climate campaign, sponsored by the British Embassy Seoul, was launched in conjunction with Earth Day 2021. The campaign featured 31 K-Pop artists, including DAY6’s Wonpil, BTOB’s Eunkwang, OH MY GIRL’s Hyojung in addition to AB6IX, THE BOYZ, Weeekly and ATEEZ. During the campaign, the artists shared their thoughts on climate change through various interviews and even created sustainability-themed T-shirts with thought-provoking taglines for fan giveaways. Each artist spoke to the importance of addressing climate change in the present and urged fans to take action in their daily lives to live more sustainably.
Some idols have also worked to promote eco-friendly living on a more personal level. In a recent vlog, Nayeon of TWICE spoke about her recent revelation on the negative impact plastic can have on the environment and on our bodies. She went on to tell fans about her new goal to reduce her plastic consumption in her daily life. Chuu (formerly of LOONA), started a YouTube channel at the end of 2020 called “지켜츄 Chuu Can Do It” in collaboration with creator management agency DIA TV. The channel has more than 1.3 million subscribers and highlights Chuu’s daily activities, with a lot of the content specifically dedicated to encouraging viewers to engage in eco-friendly initiatives.
Whether it's on a global or personal scale, more and more K-Pop artists are doing what they can to express the gravity of climate change and the need for fans to take immediate action to counteract it. Some advocate for sustainability initiatives while others support eco-friendly production and consumerism. Regardless of their approach, these artists have set a precedent for other artists on how to use their platforms to promote ecoconsciousness to their fans. Many fans have a deep adoration for their favorite artists and are greatly influenced by those artists’ words and actions. With this tremendous influence comes a great level of responsibility, making K-Pop artists well positioned to use their voices to inspire fans to make meaningful environmental change.
K-Pop Fans Push for Change
Dedicated fans are at the heart of K-Pop’s commercial success and rise to global prominence. In addition to financially supporting their favorite artists, these fandoms have repeatedly showcased their collective strength when it comes to social change, including environmental issues. When it comes to climate change, many fans have become very outspoken, calling on artists and agencies to acknowledge the industry’s negative environmental impact and to more actively embrace eco-friendly initiatives.
Simple but impactful, a sustainable initiative many K-Pop fans have actively participated in is tree planting. One of the earliest social ventures utilized by eco-conscious K-Pop fans was Tree Planet. Based in Korea, the organization launched a project called ‘Star Forest’ which established forests and named them after the donator’s favorite celebrity. Roughly 40 forests were planted through this project all around the globe, honoring a wide variety of celebrities including many K-Pop artists like SHINee, BIGBANG and Girls’ Generation. More recently, fans have started partnering directly with the Seoul Metropolitan Government for celebrity forest projects. A new 10,000 square meters reserve is planned for Nanji Hangang Park in the Mapo District of Seoul and will be specifically dedicated to planting trees donated by fans in support of their favorite 'hallyu' stars. Seoul’s celebrity forest initiative began as part of the city’s urban development project in 2013 with the goal of beautifying the city’s landscape while also improving overall air quality. Currently 588 different forests have already been approved, equaling almost 180,000 trees. The city hopes these forests will serve as a reminder to citizens about the importance of sustainability while honoring some of South Korea’s most loved celebrities.
Another K-Pop fan collective that has proven particularly powerful is Kpop4Planet. Founded in March 2021 by a small group of Indonesian K-Pop fans, the organization has grown tremendously, gaining global support and successfully executing 7 different climate campaigns focused on a variety of environmental issues. One of their most well known campaigns was their “No K-Pop on a Dead Planet” campaign. The campaign, bluntly but aptly named, centered around informing K-Pop agencies of the environmental crisis the industry was causing with a specific focus on the detrimental impact of plastic use in album production. This campaign received national recognition in December 2021 during the “Sustainable K-Entertainment Conference'' at Seoul’s National Assembly. At this event, 10,000+ K-Pop fans from 83 countries called on South Korea’s major entertainment companies to use their global influence for good and do their part to combat climate change. The organization’s efforts have proven impactful and Kpop4Planet was even given a spot within the Korean pavilion at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), where they urged the international K-Pop fan community to actively join the fight against climate change. The organization has since drawn the direct attention of the South Korean government and has been formally invited to engage in discussions with the music industry to discuss eco-friendly alternatives.
In this exploration of eco-friendly initiatives within the dynamic world of K-Pop, we've uncovered a growing narrative of sustainability, environmental awareness and ethical responsibility. While there is still ample opportunity for improved sustainability and greater environmental advocacy within K-Pop, the industry is experiencing a tangible shift, driven by artists, agencies and an increasingly environmentally aware fanbase. To maintain this momentum, it is imperative that artists, agencies and other major industry players push beyond promises for future sustainability and actively work to implement genuine, impactful environmental change in the present. By promoting sustainability, the K-Pop industry can set an example for other entertainment sectors by demonstrating the positive influence music can have on shaping a more eco-conscious world.