K-pop fans are the voice of a generation and they’re very active in their support for their favourite idols. It’s no secret that the success of K-pop artists is almost entirely dependent on fandom, whose obsessions are translated into purchasing merchandise, concert tickets, albums, and more. And boy, do the fans spend.
Being a committed stan can get expensive, and a new study in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong found that BTS’s ARMY would spend around S$1,422 a year, based on purchasing merchandise (ie. light stick, shirt, etc), albums/EPs, and concert tickets. Meanwhile, BLACKPINK’s Blinks will spend around S$665. All of this spending means more mass production, more waste, and more strain on the planet.
Granted, the K-pop industry doesn’t contribute to as much to the global climate crisis as other industries, but fan behaviour does contribute to it. For example:
In an age of music streaming, buying a physical album may seem counterintuitive, but the K-pop industry sees thriving album sales. Why? Because fans buy their idols’ albums not just for the songs – each album package may come with a photocard or limited Polaroids of individual members of the group, so the fans may want to collect a whole set.
Another reason for purchasing the albums is that they get a chance to meet their idols during a fansign (fanmeet); usually the rule of thumb is “one album, one chance” to see your idol. However, many fans know that buying just one or a few albums isn’t enough – they tend to bulk buy. In the hundreds.
The issue: What do they do with so many albums? They either try to resell or simply dump them. Sometimes, they think they’re being generous by donating them to a charity or orphanage. Album donation is a big issue especially in South Korea – sometimes charities or orphanages would get so many albums donated to them that they would need to pay to get rid of them.
Another issue is the insane amount of single-use plastics that come along with it, not to mention the shipping costs (to the environment). Also, prior to COVID-19, fans would meet their idols in person to get their signatures, but with social distancing and closed borders, signed items have to be shipped, incurring more shipping costs.
K-pop is a very visual industry, and whatever products their idols put out, fans would want. Other than items like stickers, t-shirts, keychains and clear files, a product unique to K-pop is the light stick which devoted fans would wave around at concerts. The design of these plastic lights are unique to each band, so whenever they’re updated for the group’s new tour, they old ones are often discarded.
This ‘idol culture’ has also led to a sharp spike in fast fashion brands that produce Korean-inspired designs, which are often produced for unbelievably low prices, at very high environmental costs.
In addition, according to EcoWaste Coalition, some plastic merchandise may contain lead and other toxic metals. Since fan merch don’t normally come with product labeling information, there’s no way to tell their composition.
The issue: The light sticks are made from non-recyclable plastic, and all of the merchandise will come wrapped with tons of single-use plastic. All of these – including merchandise that are no longer desirable – will only contribute to the landfill, not to mention the environmental toll of creating fast fashion.
Streaming songs on loop on multiple devices
Whenever a new song drops, K-pop fandoms would encourage fellow fans to stream it on multiple devices – sometimes on mute – for hours or days at a time. The reason? To ensure that their favourite idol’s song climbs the music charts, which track popularity by the number of plays. In fact, K-pop’s dirty open secret is the practice of sajaegi – illegal streaming farms paid to boost songs up the charts.
The issue: Streaming music may seem like an environmentally-friendly way to listen to music, but it’s not without its carbon footprint. According to data compiled in 2016, streaming and downloading music generated around 194 million kg of greenhouse gas emissions! That’s way more than at any time during the history of recorded music.
All of this streaming requires a ton of energy; imagine not just the power needed to listen to your devices, but the power needed for the servers of the streaming companies. Fans would also do the same thing when a new music video from their favourite band drops on YouTube – but the cost of streaming is even higher here, because of the sheer amount of data needed to play these (usually HD or 4K) videos.
This issue needs more scrutiny
Climate emergency has been declared in 33 countries since 2016, and action needs to be taken to counter this. From using single-use plastics, mass-producing clothes, and allowing a toxic fan culture to fester, the K-pop industry isn’t doing nearly enough to combat wastefulness.
However, the K-pop fandom can take action to help reduce the environmental burden by halting bulk-buying, collecting less merch, and streaming music for their own listening pleasure instead of getting them to chart. The average lifespan of a fan is long – at 9 years. Imagine the amount of change one fan can make during their lifetime of worshipping their favourite idols.