Pop culture can be defined as a collection of thoughts, ideas, attitudes, perspectives, etc. preferred by the mainstream population. This definition can be traced back to the 1950’s and the appearance of disposable income in the baby boomer generation. Essentially, pop culture can be determined by consumer choices for buying power. In the age of smart phones and internet, buying power is not as direct as it once was, but it still drives pop culture through choice of television shows, songs, ads (I swear Facebook’s ad algorithm includes some sort of mind-reading sorcery), and of course everyday purchases. One great example of pop culture influencing sustainable behaviour is seen in the “Attenborough Effect”, which has shifted consumer habits and ultimately led to the European Parliament’s approval of a single-use plastics ban.
Our Planet, the latest David Attenborough narrated TV series, was released on Netflix on April 5th and is shaping up to be just as popular as Blue Planet II, the UK’s most-watched program of 2017—with 14 million viewers tuning in for the first episode. Conservation charities, such as the Marine Conservation Society, reported a spike in web traffic, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) experienced a significant increase in new members during and after each episode.
A new study of the Attenborough Effect by GlobalWebIndex found that 42% of consumers in the UK and US claim that sustainable materials are important drivers of their day-to-day purchases, and 53% say they have reduced their use of disposable plastic in the last year. Age also plays a factor, with younger consumers 20% more likely to choose sustainability over affordability. This is possibly because the data shows that younger consumers are also 26% more likely to be swayed by other people’s opinion than the average internet user, and possibly just because they are growing up in the height of the sustainability crisis and know that change is necessary.
Regardless of the reason, it is undeniable that young people are taking action to reduce their impact on Our Planet (see what I did there?), and pop culture is shifting to represent sustainable values and lifestyles. I vividly remember a university party where Planet Earth was playing on loop on the tv the entire night. And sustainable behaviours are not just championed on television, or by celebrities (thank you, Leonardo DiCaprio); they can be seen in viral social media movements, such as the recent Trashtag Challenge, and in the rise of environmentally friendly stores, brands, and products.
Thrift and consignment shops have seen a surge in popularity, some of which can surely be attributed to the Grammy award winning song “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. And when the thrift shop fails to provide, fashionistas now have a plethora of “slow fashion” brands to ease their sustainability woes. One such example is Jeska Grue, a Canadian designer based in small-town New Brunswick working with hand-loomed, natural fibers and an impeccable eye for detail. For music aficionados there is B.C. native Baba Brinkman and his 2016 album Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, which has been peer-reviewed for accuracy by climate scientists and includes tracks such as “Mo Carbon Mo Problems”. And I can’t deny the impact of Bliss n Eso’s song “The Sea is Rising” in the formative days of my own environmentally conscious values.
The value of social media as a tool for unifying people around common goals (think climate strikes and rallies) and breaking down scientific knowledge into easily understandable and actionable content cannot be understated, especially in this age of shortening attention spans. Most people wouldn’t take it upon themselves to read further than headlines concerning scientific reports, which tend to contain negative connotations and alarmist language. Further, most scientific literature never reaches the masses in the first place, getting stuck in the echo chamber of the scientific community. Social media, therefore, plays a huge role in accessibility to information and as a platform for average Joe’s and Jill’s to share their science-based values in bite-sized pieces. For example, Kathryn Kellogg is a zero-waste advocate with 92,000 followers on Instagram, a new book (101 Ways to Go Zero Waste), and a refreshingly sunny outlook on attainable sustainable lifestyles. The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” comes to mind, especially when that picture is accompanied by a short, positive affirmation.
The shift of pop culture to a more sustainable ethos only seems to be gathering momentum and is achieving what the science community has been grappling with for decades—getting people to care. Using film, music, fashion, art, literature, etc. as mediums for awareness and stewardship makes climate issues and solutions accessible to a wider audience (especially when narrated by the dulcet tones of everyone’s favourite television naturalist) and appeals to our emotional sides. Not everyone sees the world through the frank lens of science, and the arts are proving to be an essential ally in effecting positive change regarding the future of Our Planet.
I have only just skimmed the surface. What pop culture examples have you seen that represent a shift to more sustainable values?