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Dislike mall music? When you consider the environmental impact, it’s even worse

By Nik Sawe | 17 Jan 2011

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QUESTION: What is the carbon footprint of all the wretched, canned pop music played incessantly in the retail stores and malls of the world? Asked by Gregory Wright, Sherman Oaks, Calif.

ANSWER: I’m glad you asked. With the holiday season (and lots of shopping) just behind us, there’s no better time to ask whether it would really be a fate so terrible if we were met with silence while we shopped, instead of played-out, early-decade billboard hits. How much would we lighten the energy load at retail centers if they just eased up on the clichéd chord progressions?

The psychic relief would be a given. But audio energy demands are a little trickier to pin down. In contrast to a 100-Watt (W) light bulb, which draws 100 W of energy at a consistent rate, a 100-W amplifier would rarely deliver the full output to the loudspeakers, unless you’ve got the canned Christmas carols cranked to full volume. Then, too, the consumer audio industry uses specialized but inaccurate terms such as RMS power to characterize many of their systems. This complicates our ability to approximate the energy demands of bad music, but as you can see in The Nitty Gritty answer, we hashed out the numbers and came back with something rather astonishing. In the malls of America alone, horrendous vocals and ’80s synths account for roughly 1.18 Gigawatt hours of energy usage a month. That adds up to more than 7 million pounds of CO2 lofted into the atmosphere annually upon the dulcet tones of Bryan Adams and Britney Spears.

The American mall obsession requires a lot of energy to keep afloat, and not just on the music front. (Photo: uberculture's Flickr photostream)

Just how much is 7 million pounds of CO2? According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Americans are each responsible for about 19 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. Seven million pounds translates to more than 3,000 metric tons of CO2—thus, turning mall music off would eliminate the equivalent annual emissions of around 158 Americans. Although 158 people may not seem like a lot, this is more of a tragic comment on the huge carbon footprint of the average American than a trivialization of the environmental impact of mall music.

Jan Zhan, a music composition and technology student at the University of Hertfordshire, U.K., was shocked by the numbers, but commented, “Music in malls still contributes a great deal of ambience to the shopping experience. But do you remember lounge pianists in department stores? I do, though they’ve long since died out, and it’s really quite a shame. They were both energy-efficient and pleasing to the ears.”

Jan has a good point; there are ways to provide a warm musical experience “unplugged” in department stores, to the benefit of the environment, aural and otherwise.

Looking worldwide, mall music may not be as large an issue as it is in the United States. The huge multiplexes and shopping centers that are such a hallmark of Americana are arguably not as prevalent in the rest of the world, nor are they necessarily likely to be as successful in emerging markets. Even in India, which boasts a fast-blossoming middle class, organized supermarkets and malls face steep competition from local retailers in both prices and customer service. My father’s side of the family still lives in Mumbai; as the country has grown, they have seen the emergence of malls to rival those in the United States, but also an even faster growth of small, high-end specialty shops. And although piped-in music is all but ubiquitous in larger malls, it’s less evident in smaller mom-and-pop shops, and may not require as much power. Of course, there are exceptions—boombox-blasting shopkeepers come to mind—but in general, the system energy requirements for small stores would be less per square foot due to the lower average ceiling height and (often) lower ambient noise decibel (dB) level.

In the overall energy scheme, canned music doesn't crack the top four. But that doesn't make it any less annoying. Source: Energy Conversion and Management 44, #9, 1391-1398

We have to keep in mind that although canned, play-by-numbers music may wreak havoc on our sanity while we’re shoe shopping—especially if the resident DJ decides to loop the playlist every 30 minutes—it still plays a very minor role in the carbon footprint of retailers and shopping malls. Leave aside for the moment that malls stand as the definitive monuments to our hyper-consumptive ways: they also happen to be pretty inefficient spaces to light, heat and cool. A paper in Energy Conversion and Management tracked the energy consumption of four Hong Kong shopping centers in 2003, and found that air conditioning and electric lighting accounted for about 85 percent of building electricity use.

And unlike the tunes, which are turned off nightly so as not to fall upon deaf ears, lighting is often kept on in grocery stores and other retailers to discourage theft. Making these monuments to materialism more eco-friendly will take more than waiting for the day the music dies.

READ MORE: Check our mall math, and discover why bluegrass may be more eco-friendly than heavy metal. It’s not just the light shows!


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