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Glastonbury: Activism or Virtue Signalling?

Virtue Signalling:

The popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressions favour or disgust at certain political ideas or cultural happenings

Or –

Public, empty gestures intended to convey socially approved attitudes without any associated risk or sacrifice

OED / James Bartholomew (The Guardian)

Sometimes I get the feeling that I might be a bit of an eco hypocrite.

One recent example of this was just a few days ago. I was travelling to London with a keep cup full of sustainably sourced coffee (with plant based milk) whose packaging I had already donated to a charity that collects coffee pods and uses them to generate income for local good causes. I had a steel Tupperware box full of in season fruits that I’d picked up from a local farm shop. I was wearing my fave vintage shorts and a hoody advertising a local independent vegan coffee shop.

But I was also driving my diesel car at full speed down the M5 on a journey I could probably have done by train (albeit with some difficulty as I had 3 suitcases and a tent with me).

This, for many people, could be considered to be Virtue Signalling. The concept of virtue signalling has been around for a while, often coming into the spotlight after disasters when people change their profile pictures in solidarity, or when huge corporations change their logos for events like Pride without taking any true action to fight the discrimination against LGBTQ+ people face in or due to corporate organisations. In the eco world virtue signalling is mostly used to describe people are publicly vocal about certain issues (like posting about how they are giving up straws to save fish), whilst taking little to no real action (e.g. still eating fish).

Glastonbury festival has been under a lot of fire these last few days for being a haven for ‘virtue signallers’. The festival made this year it’s most eco friendly yet; banning single use plastics, working with Co-op to introduce biodegradable sandwich packaging that is going to be rolled out UK wide, and even a surprise appearance from David Attenborough on the main stage that drew one of the biggest crowds ever seen. There was also an extinction rebellion protest and 4 fields of Greenpeace related activities, so it seemed that attendees should be pretty engaged with the eco cause.

With this in mind, on the Monday when people began to leave the festival photos began to circulate of piles of rubbish and tents being left in the fields, people began to express concern that the festival goers were all talk when it came to eco activisim. That the online excitement about how eco friendly the festival was was simply virtue signalling . Glastonbury has a really big push every year on it’s ‘love the farm, leave no trace’ campaign encouraging people to take their tents home with them and even provides separated recycling and rubbish bags for people to dispose of any rubbish at their tents. I have to admit I was super disappointed to unzip my tent and see that even the girls I was camping with had left a pile of unsorted rubbish next to where their tent was.

I got progressively more angry as I walked around the site and saw more and more tents, chairs, airbeds and rubbish left in the fields; as someone who loves the eco aspects of Glastonbury I couldn’t understand why people had so little respect for the site. It wasn’t until slightly later in the day when I saw pictures from the previous years that I actually realised what a huge shift there had been. Yes, there was still rubbish left but some of the photos social media (often old previous years being passed off as 2019 photos) were so SO much worse. And the reduction in plastic bottles amongst the rubbish was noticeable.

I stayed at the site later than usual on Monday, and by the afternoon the difference between previous years was obvious. Where as usually the clean up operation takes days and thousands of volunteers, wandering around the site at 2pm this year the majority of the main areas were entirely free of rubbish. I started to feel less annoyed and more optimistic – yes this year still wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly a huge improvement on previous years, and Glastonbury looks set to continue pushing itself to reduce waste wherever possible.

So maybe I am too impatient, and maybe change is coming. OK so not everyone who shared how excited they were for David Attenborough on Instagram took their rubbish home, but even if just a few more people did after hearing him talk doesn’t that all contribute to a different outcome?

Whilst virtue signalling is absolutely a thing, and we should be calling out people and corporations who seek to profit off of issues and discrimination without taking any meaningful action to support the affected communities, in an ECO context we also need to be careful that by calling out people we aren’t actually discouraging them from making any effort at all as they feel that it’s ‘perfection’ or bust. Just like Glastonbury’s journey with waste we are all learning how to be more eco friendly, and not everyone is moving at the same pace. We need to take stock of our own actions first to make sure that our words aren’t empty and we are following up with efforts if we want to really change outcomes.

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