The Attenborough effect
The last episode of the BBC nature documentary Blue Planet II revealed the damage plastic is causing to marine life using heart-breaking footage, triggering a passionate reaction from viewers. The documentary sparked an international anti-plastic movement through public engagement pledges from manufacturers and retailers, and the rise of blue finance. This large scale phenomenon is now referred to as the Attenborough effect. This example demonstrates the power of consumers’ voice when it comes to pushing for change.
A change in consumer behaviour. The Blue Planet II series reached over 37 million viewers in the UK in December 2017, and millions more in other parts of the world in early 2018. Following the final episode, a significant change in consumer behaviour was recorded by supermarket studies. The 2018 annual food and drink report by Waitrose supermarket identified combatting plastic as the main trend in British consumerism. A survey of 2,000 adults who shop across a range of retailers identified: 88% of viewers had changed their behaviour; a 60% increase in the use of reusable bottles since 2017; and an 800% increase in queries about plastic.
A quantifiable, long-term impact. In response to a shift in consumer behaviour, 2018 saw the rise of (i) new pledges by Governments, NGOs, and private organisations; (ii) tools created to tackle the war on plastic; and (iii) clear signs that the manufacturing and retail sectors are rapidly changing the way they use plastic in their products. Manufacturers and retailers are pledging to eliminate plastic from their packaging and products in favour of more sustainable products. For example, in January 2018, Iceland responded to public pressure by committing to becoming the first major retailer globally to eliminate plastic packaging from all of its own label products by the end of 2023. This resulted in removing 1,500 tonnes of plastic from the 13,000 tonnes used annually in packaging (Iceland Plastic Annual report, 2018). Following the announcement, Greenpeace launched a petition calling on the top four supermarkets to follow Iceland’s lead.
An international impact. In October 2018, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched its New Plastics Economy Global Commitment in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). As of 2019, more than 350 signatories, including 16 Governments, financial institutions, and 150 businesses representing over 20% of the global plastic packaging market, pledged to eliminate single-use and unnecessary plastic, and to innovate so that all packaging could be recycled with the ambitious aim to creating a global circular economy for plastic. The pledge includes targets to be reviewed every 24 months and progress to be published to drive momentum. The UK Plastics Pact, and France’s Pacte National sur les Emballages Plastiques are the first national initiatives to emerge from this momentum, Chile is working on a national Plastic Pact, and other countries are set to follow. Encouraged by the response to their Blue Planet II episode, the BBC launched Plastics Watch: a new online hub, digital content, social media campaign and major TV productions across the BBC. The multi-platform initiative aims to positively enable the British public to help reduce plastic pollution.
story by Cécile Girardin