By Laura Ferreiro
Jack Johnson has long been known for his laid-back, beachy vibes and his feel-good music. But beneath his calm surface and easy-going demeanor lies a very thoughtful, calculating artist and environmental activist who knows exactly what percentage of carbon emissions comes from fans traveling to his shows and has devised creative ways to make his tours more environmentally friendly while supporting great causes.
The 40-year-old singer was well on his way to a successful career as a professional surfer when he had a bad surfing accident at the age of 17, running into a coral reef and severely cutting up his face. As a result, he quit pro surfing and decided to pursue music. It ended up being a fantastic career move, as his 2001 debut album, Brushfire Fairytales, went platinum and paved the way for even greater success headlining major festivals, amassing a huge and loyal fanbase and releasing numerous hit albums.
All the while, Johnson has effectively used his platform as an artist to gather people together and champion the causes he deeply cares about. “Growing up [in Hawaii] I had a profound love for the natural world and the environment and the ocean,” Johnson tells Music for Good. “As I got older, I found myself in this position [as a musician] where I suddenly had the ability to gather lots of people at once.”
Johnson’s wife, Kim – who was his college sweetheart – left her job as an educator to manage his tours in the early stages of his career. Working together they saw how they could use their unique position to affect positive change. “I took her out on the road with me, and we started to see that the potential to gather all these people and how to use that to affect these communities in a positive way,” Johnson recalls.
This desire to give back became even greater after Johnson was asked to perform at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit, an annual star-studded concert to support the School, which is dedicated to educating children with special needs. “Being invited to Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit and seeing their strong community of musicians and whole team coming together to do something so positive for the community was really inspiring,” Johnson says. “Coming back to Hawaii we did the first Kokua Festival, inspired by the Bridge School Benefit. I had conversations with Pearl Jam, Neil Young and Willie Nelson, and found out what they were doing.”
Meanwhile, Johnson had gone from playing small clubs and restaurants to headlining amphitheaters and major festivals. While most musicians would be thrilled about this, Johnson had a bit of an existential crisis when he realized the negative impact his tours were having on the environment.
“When you’re traveling in a van, your tour is low impact by nature,” he says. “[In the early days] all of our gear fit into one minivan and our impact was pretty low.” But then, as his tours and fanbase grew, so did the negative impact his tours were having on the environment. “A majority of emissions is from the fans coming to the shows,” he explains, admitting there was a time when he wasn’t sure he wanted to keep doing it because of this. Then he realized there was a way to reduce the harm and increase the good, and it made sense to him again.
“We started getting the message out of ways that people can be creative to get to the shows,” he explains. “Take mass transit, ride their bikes, or carpooling. Any way you can cut down on the amount of vehicles…because 80-90% of emissions come from people traveling to the shows.” Johnson set up bike valets at his concerts and fun incentives for fans to carpool to his gigs. “We try to make things fun too,” he says. “We have a bike valet at all of our shows. Every time we come around it gets more popular and it gets attention in the local news!”
Johnson also requests that energy-efficient light bulbs be installed in the venues where he plays, and that filtered water dispensing stations are available so people can fill up their reusable water bottles to eliminate the use of plastic bottles and save his fans a few dollars. “My teenage fans shouldn’t have to pay a lot of money for water!” he says.
In addition to working with his fans to make his tours greener, Johnson also connects them with notable non-profits in the cities where he plays shows. “Now knowing that when we come through town, connections are made through non-profit groups and the younger generation who have the energy to get involved,” he says. “And now it feels that when we leave, we leave the towns in better shape.”
Johnson also donated a whopping 100% of the profits from his tours to non-profit organizations from 2008-2013. Through the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation (ohana means family in Hawaiian), he works with a board to give this money out in grants to worthwhile charitable organizations. He also founded the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, which supports environmental education for children in Hawaiian schools and teaches them about good health & nutrition in addition to environmental stewardship. Johnson has been known to show up in classrooms to perform for the kids and teach them lessons in gardening, composting and nutrition.
The singer points out that music fans have more power than they realize when it comes to making sure the venues they visit, the musicians they love and the brands they support follow environmentally friendly practices.
“I’m inspired that a lot of people do want to make change,” Johnson says. “It’s easier to say, ‘This is how things are,’ than to change the industry in a way that closely represents the way you see the world. But now I see that fans are expecting it more and more. They’re a little more hip to the way things should be. They want to do the right thing. Fans have a lot more power than they realize. When fans demand these things, people listen!”
Meanwhile, Johnson has been named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for its Environment Programme, and has taken part in events such as embarking on a boating expedition with the non-profit 5 Gyres to draw attention to the dangers of single-use plastics and the threat it poses to our oceans while educating people about sustainable alternatives.
In addition to his activism, Johnson has started working on songs for the follow-up to his 2013 album, From Here to Now to You, and will headline the Kaaboo Festival in San Diego, California in September. Although it’s the only show on the books for this year so far, Johnson says it’s likely that others will pop up. “I do tend to do shows I don’t know about until a week ahead of time,” he says with a laugh.
Johnson also points out that no matter how many fans a musician has, he or she can still make a real difference. “No matter what the size of the show, you have a platform,” Johnson says emphatically. “Even if it’s just a show at a restaurant for an organization like the Surfrider Foundation, you can use music to bring people together and discuss ideas. You can get a non-profit to have a table [at your shows]. Even if only one table will fit, you can always find a way to shine a spotlight!”