Picture of Nicole Martín Medina

Nicole Martín Medina

Gestora Cultural – Abogada/MBA

What do symphony orchestras have to do with sustainability?

What do symphony orchestras have to do with sustainability?


I stumbled upon the Spanish term sustainability for the first time during the studies for my Master’s degree in Sustainable Environmental Quality Tourism and Peace Promotion. Yes, as strange as it may sound, I have a Master’s degree with this curious title from the United Nations University for Peace. When I took it (more as an advanced course in Spanish than anything else) and even when they sent me the degree, I had not exactly understood the word sustainability. The German translation didn’t help me either because I didn’t really know what Nachhaltigkeit was. That was around 2002.

Nowadays, everybody knows what we mean by the term sustainability. Most people also understand that sustainability has various expressions, for example environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, social sustainability, etc. But as much as we have learned about sustainability over the last twenty years, it is still a term that can be controversial. It is amorphous, especially if we put it in the context of sustainable development as the latter has become, both in the political and business world, a slogan for marketing campaigns[1].

To make matters worse, we now put sustainability in the context of symphony orchestras which, at first glance, have little to do with it.   At the latest, since the formulation of Baumol’s cost disease theory[2], we learned that a symphony orchestra will never be sustainable in itself, economically speaking. The reason is that they are a type of service that, for structural and unique reasons, is characterized by a stagnation of productivity. In other words, while wages are regularly increasing, labor productivity is at best stagnating or even declining. In this way, it is impossible to achieve a profitability that guarantees economic sustainability. Symphony orchestras will always need public or private contributions in order to survive. 

Nowadays, the new trend in European and American orchestras is not economic sustainability, but environmental sustainability. This raises the question whether we are adding yet a puzzle to another unsolvable puzzle: is an organization that is not even capable of sustaining itself financially by its own means over time going to make an extra effort, which intrinsically conveys an extra financial effort, to achieve environmental sustainability? This will not be easy, I would say.

The definition of sustainability[3], as a general term, could be expressed as; “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs, ensuring a balance between economic growth, care for the environment and social well-being”. Environmental sustainability is the assumption that nature and the environment are not an inexhaustible source of resources, so that their protection and rational use is necessary even for symphony orchestras.

International orchestras have been implementing a sustainability policy for some years now, which includes (1) objectives and targets to be reached to reduce environmental impact, as well as strategies to achieve these objectives; (2) recycled materials are increasingly used for orchestra rehearsals and digital music stands are fashionable; (3) renewable energies are used for lighting, sound, audio equipment and other elements during concerts and rehearsals, too, as well as recycling strategies for rehearsal equipment and materials. Finally, (4) the use of sustainable transport options to reach rehearsal and concert venues is assessed. This may include carpooling, using public transport, cycling, etc. or applying the concept of carbon foot printing[4] to an organization.

Carbon footprint is a term that aims to describe the total impact an organization or orchestra has on the environment through the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. And the four previous points intervene as factors in this calculation in order to, depending on the result obtained, take measures to reduce the emissions of this chemical compound.

A year ago, in May 2022, at the Deutscher Orchestertag 2022, I attended a lecture by Detlef Grooß, viola and founding member of the Orchester des Wandels[5].  He  is one of the people who have been leading the way in this area recently. The title was Das grüne Orchester: Nachhaltigkeit ist Teamsport or The Green Orchestra: Sustainability is a Team Sport. During the conversation that followed I met, to my great surprise, many of the people in charge of environmental sustainability in their respective orchestras. Almost all of them were staff musicians who, on a part-time basis, were engaged in defining the carbon footprint and taking actions to reduce CO2 emissions. They were musicians who were personally fiercely committed to the environment. Until then, I, a Canary Islander, had not been aware of how advanced the issue is in some places, while here we are completely unaware of it.

The German Orchestra Federation (Deutsche Orchestervereinigung Unisono) published a guide or handbook on sustainability in professional orchestras in 2021[6].

For British orchestras, another guidebook has been published by Julies Bicycle[7], a non-profit organization that focuses its work on the challenges created by climate change and collaborates with the British Arts Council and UK orchestras. It also makes a number of “Green Tools[8]” available to its customers.

Furthermore, the League of American Symphony Orchestras, through Brian Wise’s article (2020) for Symphony magazine, talks about the phenomenon[9].

In turn, the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO)[10] has approved ISO 14064, part 11, on carbon foot printing, and there are now more and more CO2 calculators[11] available on the internet to help organizations take this criterion into consideration.

Something is happening with the concept of sustainability in orchestras as well, that much is clear.

As Christina Koop in her article on the Kulturmanagement website[12], I wonder to what extent sustainability and its implementation in symphony orchestras is a reality with a future or rather an illusion, at least as far as I can tell.Or should precisely we be pioneers in the field right here?

Given that the public is increasingly demanding environmentally friendly initiatives, and that the orchestras have the necessary information to make corresponding decisions, it is surprising that there is still generally a lot of resistance among employees, both managers and subordinates. However, the world of orchestras is itself extremely complex, so this resistance is not at all surprising.

Nevertheless, here on the Canary Islands, I have read for the first time about an action of an orchestra aimed at offsetting CO2 emissions during the 39th International Music Festival of the Canary Islands. Mind you, it was an action of a German orchestra, the Bamberger Symphoniker[13]. They have been committed to the environment for years. It was a symbolic reforestation action with local species, both in Tenerife and Gran Canaria, as compensation for the impact that their Spain tour would have on the environment. (I add a copy of an article from the local newspaper La Provincia about the reforestation action promoted by the German orchestra).

Due to the particularities of the ultraperiphery and insularity of the Canary Islands, companies – as well as orchestras – face greater complications here than on the mainland. And sustainability is no exception. One only has to look at the islands’ recycling system to see how difficult it is for islands to manage environmental issues. If we add the complexities and difficulties of event management and, in particular, orchestra concerts, things become three times more complicated.

I do not aim to say that we should not be making an effort in the right direction and that we should not be committed to the protection of our ecosystem. Nor does the question posed above mean that I consider the issue a lost cause. That is not my intention. As always, I just want to generate reflection and debate.

You have to start somehow, yes, but you can’t ask for absurdities. For a long time, the first steps will have more of an allegorical effect than a real one. Still, these steps must be taken. They must be taken wholeheartedly, implemented in the day-to-day work of the orchestras, lived, so that we do not get entangled in what is defined by another term of the new times: greenwashing, i.e., eco-whitening[14]. I have indirectly referred to this concept above when mentioning marketing campaign slogans because nothing is more disappointing to me than the fact that sustainable development is used as a tool for attracting audiences. When you attend these events, you realize that they were nothing more than nice statements in a brochure.

One of my favorite phrases is – especially when faced with a seemingly huge challenge: “If we never start anywhere, we will never achieve anything, we will never change anything”. This is why the action of the 39th FIMC, together with the Bamberger Symphoniker, has been delighful. I know that it was a real and authentic action because I could see that in Germany myself, symphony orchestras today do actually live these actions with a great deal of effort, however symbolic they may be.

So, what do symphony orchestras have to do with sustainability? For now, fairly little. But precisely because of this, in the future their doing could be the paradox that proves that nothing is impossible in this world.


Nicole Martín Medina

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

March 2023

(Originally Spanish/ Translation DeepL/ Revision NMM)




This article is availabe in Spanish, too:



[1] Please, see

2 Please, see

3 Source:

4 Sources by way of example of actions carried out by international orchestras:

5 From German: Orchestra of Change, Please, see for more information:

6 The guide is available in German, only, but the website is working in English:

7 Please, see

8 Please, see for the Green Tools:

9 Please, see:

10 For ISO, please, see:

11 Several calculator options:

12 Christina Koop (2021) on Please, see:,4305

13 Please, see, among others:

14 Analogy to money laundering. Please, see: y


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