A Holiday from Hygiene: lessons for sustainable living and tourism from the British festival field

A Holiday from Hygiene: lessons for sustainable living and tourism from the British festival field

Alison Browne, Russell Hitchings and Tullia Jack

Camping music festivals hold a strong place in the British public imaginary –  hundreds of thousands descend upon rural UK every summer to camp in fields and dance amongst the stars, mud (most years) or dust (if you’re lucky and it’s a dry year). Anyone who has attended a music festival knows that many conversations take place between friends and strangers about the smelliness of the port-a-loos and how to keep clean in the absence of our customary creature comforts. It is these experiences of disruption to cleanliness routines that we were interested in exploring in our study. We wanted to find out about the lived experience of less water consumptive living as people suspend their usual cleanliness routines for 4-5 days while attending the camping festival.

This is significant from a health and environmental perspective as amongst the younger generations of Brits we have seen the surge of showering and cleanliness habits that are increasingly water and energy intensive. Many younger people shower at least once if not twice or even more frequently every day – whether at home, out and about in gyms or at work. This is not only about individual habits but how patterns and social norms around hygiene are changing across our modern societies.  These changing cleanliness cultures have significant effects from reportedly reducing the effectiveness of immune systems, to increasing the environmental impacts of our everyday lives.

Reflecting Changing Cleanliness Conventions: Wet wipe showers and other stories
For a generation of people who are used to being ‘hyperclean’ we might presume that suspending cleanliness routines and habits for 4-5 days at a festival might provoke a sense of unease and anxiety. Connecting to this presumed anxiety many businesses are developing products specifically for festivals (festival wet wipes, dry shampoo, disposable toothpicks etc). In the months before summer magazines and newspapers run editorials on ways to keep clean at festivals. Recognising this anxiety as an emergent opportunity for market diversification many festivals have also begun to create retail spaces within the festival where attendees can pay for luxury toilets, Jacuzzis, showers. The past decade has also seen the rise of fenced off ‘glamping’ areas and other luxury festival facilities cordoned off from the great unwashed who tend to get by on dry shampoo, wet wipes and port-a-loos!

Our research revealed that while there might be some initial reservations about the suspension of cleaning routines one of the most enjoyable parts of the festival experience was escaping everyday expectations – a ‘holiday from hygiene’ as one attendee put it. By listening to and capturing the stories about cleanliness already circulating at the festival we gleaned some important insights with implications for how we understand processes of social change related to cleanliness conventions and resource use.

When interviewing 6o people across two festivals people talked about the enjoyment of casting off ‘urban civility’ at festivals. People talked of the enjoyment of dispensing with strict social standards that unconsciously and consciously drive our routines and habits back home in ‘real life’. ‘Going back to basics’ in terms of personal cleanliness was enjoyable according to most of the people we talked to.

The sense of camaraderie that was created in standing with others brushing teeth next to a standpipe in a field; the social levelling as people disappeared for their morning poo; or into the tent to give themselves their morning wet wipe wash and change undies; or even deciding not to do anything at all; the sense of communion – knowing everyone else was probably as mucky as you – was an integral part of the festival experience. While most of the people we spoke to never set out to be ‘dirty’ they subsequently came to enjoy the temporary suspension of their usual cleanliness standards, and the new collective cleanliness culture that emerged across the course of the festival.

Lessons for Sustainability from the Festival Field
This enables important considerations on the ways in which festivals are provisioned. Festival organisers are increasingly interested in demonstrating their green credentials by minimising their environmental impact, a feature too of the increased commoditization of festival experiences. However, while we recognise that in an increasingly complex and volatile festival market catering to festival goers’ needs might be seen as increasingly important, the definition of these ‘needs’ requires deeper interrogation. People want spaces of escape and experimentation.

‘Visitor’ or ‘customer’ needs are dynamic and complex. From a business perspective, it may make sense to increasingly diversify the luxury experiences on offer to festival revellers. And sufficiently hygienic toilet facilities are a must to maintain public health and prevent the spread of infectious diseases. But providing too many commercial opportunities to replicate the non-festival bathing facilities – including luxury showering and flushing water toilets – may actually undo some of the escape felt through attending the festival. Such luxury infrastructures also increase the environmental impacts (water, energy, waste) of these festivals.

Reflecting on the title of our newly published paper, “Should there be more showers at the summer music festival”, we argue that if festival organisers understand their purpose to be one of meeting the assumed washing needs built into the physical infrastructures and cultural expectations of broader everyday life, this should logically improve the festival experience. It also makes sense in terms of catering to an imagined diversity of market segments in the context of an increasing commodified festival experience. Our data partly support a move towards increased provision since we found that, if more showers were provided, festival-goers would use them. Our respondents emerged as creatures of context, if familiar facilities were there, why wouldn’t they use them?

However, on closer inspection, our data also suggests something important could be lost in the process of provisioning more showers at festivals. Our analysis revealed respondents who were largely unfazed by the comparative lack of showers and, on reflection, considered that more cleanliness facilities might even discourage enjoyment of a shared suspension of cleanliness standards. ‘Sufficient cleanliness’ is a dynamic cultural benchmark that is collectively set, thus enjoyment may be lessened if additional showering facilities were provided to only a select group of festival goers. This is because the emergent sense of enjoyable escape that we saw in our study partly rested upon those involved feeling secure in the knowledge that everyone around them was likely doing something similar in terms of personal washing.

Festival organisers should take care to not cater too much for the ‘assumed customer’ with a fixed set of preferences for hygiene and cleanliness. Our paper shows rather that unexpected pleasures are gained from the festival as a site of genuine experimentation and everyday escape. These mundane ways of defining and promoting sustainability at the summer music festival have largely been outshone by attempts to share explicit sustainability messages through science engagement and environmental education at the festival, or improving the sustainability efficiency of the festival itself. However, we shouldn’t underestimate that these events can often serve as experiments in less resource intensive living, and the suspension of ‘normal’ cleanliness routines is actually a fundamental part of such escape.


Alison Browne is a Lecturer in Human Geography and the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) at The University of Manchester, @dralibrowne Russell Hitchings is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at University College London, @Russellgeograp. Tullia Jack is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Lund, @tulliajack. This article is based on the recently published paper Hitchings, R., Browne, A.L., & Jack, T. (in press). Should there be more showers at the summer music festival? Studying the contextual dependence of resource consuming conventions and lessons for sustainable tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2017.1360316 For enquiries or an author copy please email alison.browne@manchester.ac.uk or r.hitchings@ucl.ac.uk

Image Credit: authors’ own photo