It all started in December 2020, when a two-minute long video was uploaded online.
In it, Jisoo, Lisa, Jennie and Rosé—the four members of global K-pop sensation Blackpink—spoke about the growing threat of climate change and urged fans to take action ahead of the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and the Paris Agreement’s fifth anniversary. Titled “Climate Action In Your Area,” a revision of the girl group’s tagline, the clip unsurprisingly went viral.
At the time, long-time K-pop fan Nurul Sarifah was studying international relations at university in Indonesia. Her interest in environmentalism had deepened after completing a course in climate change and taking on internships with local NGOs; she saw Blackpink’s campaign (and the enthusiasm with which fans reacted to it) as an opportunity.
Sarifah put out feelers for a fellow activist who shared her passions and met Dayeon Lee, a South Korean history student taking part in the UN’s Youth for Climate Action program. The two launched K-pop4Planet, a platform and community dedicated to mobilizing global K–pop fans to fight the climate crisis, in March 2021.
Before the launch, K-pop fans had already shown the world that they were a force to be reckoned with. In 2018, 16 K-pop fandoms in Indonesia came together to raise almost $100,000 for earthquake and tsunami victims in 10 days. And it’s hard to forget the headlines in June 2020, when K-pop fans and TikTok users claimed tickets to a rally held by Donald Trump with no intention of attending it, leaving hundreds of seats empty.
“K-pop’s influence doesn’t stop at music, or even merchandise,” says Sarifah, noting K-pop fans’ support for other movements like Black Lives Matter and the immense power idols like Blackpink hold for their global communities. “These were all turning points and why we started K-pop4Planet.”
But dedicated fans of Korean pop culture—a cohort that according to the Korea Foundation exceeded 156 million as of 2021, a 17-fold increase over the last decade—lacked a go-to network where they could kickstart campaigns and network for support. K-pop4Planet has created that space by not only empowering fans who feel clueless or powerless in the face of worsening conditions but also by collaborating with global fandoms to ensure projects—such as gifts for idols’ birthdays—are done with the Earth in mind.
“K-pop’s influence doesn’t stop at music, or even merchandise. These were all turning points and why we started K-pop4Planet.”
The platform works on a grassroots level as opposed to imposing hierarchies; as such, Sarifah and Lee call themselves campaigners rather than founders. Including them, the community is operated by seven people in Indonesia, five in South Korea, and over 20 global ambassadors—fans who help to spread the word and conduct reach-outs. It’s currently funded by Actions Speak Louder, an Australia-based nonprofit global campaigning organization, which allows the likes of Lee to be paid for her work full-time while taking a gap year from her studies.
A mere month after its launch, K-pop4Planet targeted Indonesian e-commerce giant Tokopedia, whose marketing efforts have long relied on major K-pop acts like BTS, TXT, and Blackpink. In its Tokopedia4Bumi campaign (meaning Tokopedia for the Earth in Indonesian), the community urged the company to pivot to using renewable energy in its data centers, delivery services, and offices by 2030.
After one Twitter storm, a sustainability survey, and a campaign to save the beach where BTS filmed their “Butter” music video, the activists are targeting plastic album waste. In spite of the global decline of CD sales, they remain a crucial barometer for K-pop charts and awards—and a popular method of supporting favorite artists in the K-pop world. According to Gaon Music Chart, over 57 million K-pop albums were sold in 2021, a 37% increase from the year before.
On Earth day in April, fans staged a peaceful protest outside HYBE’s Seoul headquarters: dressed as bees, they performed dances to K-pop hits next to a statue made of unused albums and delivered a petition with over 10,000 signatures to company representatives. The next day, they returned over 8,000 albums to the entertainment giants to demand greener album options. This was part of the ongoing campaign No K-pop on a Dead Planet, lead by Lee, which calls on South Korean entertainment companies like HYBE, YG, SM, and JYP to take steps such as adopting low-emission concerts and limiting plastic use in albums.
“We really showed ourselves as fans, and not just individuals but consumers demanding change from the industry,” says Sarifah. Both her and Lee list it as the campaign they’re the proudest of so far.
Granted, the likes of HYBE, YG, SM, and JYP haven’t formally responded to K-pop4Planet’s requests; discussions are ongoing with Tokopedia, but a resolution has yet to materialize. And it can be daunting to call out major corporations as a small, albeit growing grassroots organization. When K-pop4Planet launched, “some fans said they doubted the companies would change, because they have a reputation for not listening to fans and chasing profits,” says Lee.
But Lee and Sarifah remain intrepid. “After the campaign launched, we saw a lot of fans showing their support, saying This is what we’ve been asking for but we didn’t have a platform or power on our own,” says Sarifah. “This was the moment of realization, that though we’re small, fans’ voices really helped us knock on the door.”
“We really showed ourselves as fans, and not just individuals but consumers demanding change from the industry.”
Moreover, it’s no surprise that the buying power of K-pop fans is, well, powerful. In 2020, e-commerce aggregator iPrice used data from merchants across Asia to determine how much fans of major groups spend. It found that “dedicated” BTS fans that collect and purchased 15 albums and EPs, tickets to five shows as well as merch have spent around $1,422, and that’s excluding products purchased on the back of idol endorsements and paying for gifts for their favorite artists.
As environmentalists and K-pop fans, Lee, Sarifah, and their fellow activists face a dilemma: they want to champion their idols and fight for greener practices at the same time, but the companies behind the industry’s top acts make it hard for them to do both. “It’s really sad, because we want to support their hard work, their art. It’s saddening for us fans to see our idols being used for merchandise that [isn’t] environmentally friendly,” Sarifah says.
K-pop4Planet is in the thick of planning out their next campaign, which will confront music streaming platforms about their data centers, which emit a large volume of carbon emissions. Like CD sales, streaming data is integral to K-pop charts and awards, so fans listen to their idols’ songs as much as they can. The goal is to get streaming companies to switch to data centers that run on renewable energy.
There have been small wins: digital albums and sustainably-made albums are trickling in, and Korea’s top entertainment firms have received K-pop4Planet’s proposals and suggestions. Now, the ball’s in their court. “A lot of companies have shown that they listen to our voice, it’s possible,” says Sarifah. “We’re hoping more and more will [follow]. The fans have been asking for this for years.”