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Vegan food, recycled tuxedos – and billions of tonnes of CO2: can Hollywood ever go green?

10 min read

Meat was off the menu at the Golden Globes and the stars expressed good intentions, but with the big studios’ eco initiatives piecemeal and figures hard to come by, it’s hard not to see this as greenwashing

Two schools of thought regarding Hollywood environmentalism were on display at last weekend’s Golden Globes ceremony. In the blue corner were those determined not to stand idly by in the face of the mounting climate crisis, such as Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe drawing attention to the Australian bushfires. Or Joaquin Phoenix, “not always a virtuous man”, who urged his fellow stars to look at themselves, too, and ditch the private jets.

In the red corner was the lone, but unfailingly hectoring voice of host Ricky Gervais, railing against Hollywood hypocrisy. Should any of the winners find their minds drifting to politics while on the podium, they should “accept your little award, thank your agent and your God, and fuck off”.

It could be that the now near-regulation Gervais Golden Globes roast, playing to the court, is in fact an added layer of hypocrisy in the great Hollywood pageant. But it did at least draw attention again to the gap between good intentions and daily practice in the entertainment industry. Film and TV production has a hefty ecological footprint: a landmark 2006 University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) study estimated that the industry produced 15m tonnes of CO2 a year. That might seem piddling next to the several billion tonnes emitted by the US economy that year, but in its principal sites of operation, such as Los Angeles, Hollywood was a big polluter – more so than the aerospace, clothing, hotel and semiconductor industries.

The average film is estimated to produce 500 tonnes of CO2 emissions – as much as running 108 cars for a year

With the cast and crew of top-end studio projects now running into thousands of people – from set-builders to sparks, masseurs and makeup artists, to high-end caterers and server-hungry special effects farms – there is no reason to think Hollywood is any less resource-hungry these days. The average film is estimated to produce 500 tonnes of CO2 emissions (equivalent to running 108 cars for a year), but this scales up with its budget; a $50m film can produce 4,000 tonnes. Who knows what something like Avengers: Infinity War racks up in production and beyond? If everyone’s favourite mauve Malthusian, Thanos, had really wanted to do his part for the environment, then finger-snapping half the people on the film’s jet-setting international press tour would have been a good start.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been hailed for its recycling on set, but product placement for Sony was less eco-friendly.
 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been hailed for its recycling on set, but product placement for Sony was less eco-friendly

Of course, Hollywood, a left-leaning eco-friendly constituency by nature, wants to do its part. From Phoenix to Leonardo DiCaprio, long a spokesman for environmental causes, it is not hard to find film stars and studio personnel who talk the talk and at least partially walk the walk, all the way down to their Prius. The Disney co-chair Alan Horn is the chair of the trustees of the environmental lobbying group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and in 1989 helped found the Environmental Media Association (EMA), which doles out Green Seal certification for movies that make efforts towards sustainable production.

Most major film studios now have sustainability drives to encourage the use of clean energy on set and the recycling of production materials. Independent consultancies exist, such as Earth Angel and the Green Spark Group, to make this happen; the Green Production Guide – developed by all the major studios in the wake of the US pulling out of the Paris climate agreement – helps with finding such companies and calculating carbon footprints. Carbon-neutral productions, achieved through emissions offsetting, are now relatively common. Certain films make a point of pride, or at least of marketing, of their green credentials: Jason Bateman’s 2013 directorial debut Bad Words was the first fully solar-powered production.

Unfortunately, it remains virtually impossible to meaningfully audit Hollywood’s eco-credentials because of a lack of overarching information. Only two of the big six traditional studios made their emissions totals freely available online in 2018: Disney (1.93m tonnes) and Sony-Columbia (1.34m). Along with those two, the others make varying corporation-wide pledges, but they remain as airily aspirational as a J Lo romcom: Universal, for example, touts its fuel-efficient transportation fleet as leading its zero-emissions drive, but will not put a date on zero-hour. Before its buyout by Disney, 21st Century Fox announced it was carbon-neutral in 2011, but the term then disappeared from later reports on the subject.

The UCLA study, 14 years old and predating the recent sustainability boom, is still the only major overview available. But its authors admit that it is an approximate, anecdotal work, drawn from 43, mostly anonymised, interviews with people working in the industry. When it comes to understanding ecological footprints on a film-by-film basis, Hollywood’s famously gnomic accounting practices get in the way. Few productions release specific emissions information. The benchmark remains Roland Emmerich’s 2004 super-storm thriller The Day After Tomorrow, which because of its environmental theme, came clean about its carbon footprint: 10,000 tonnes, as estimated by Future Forests ($200,000 of a $125m budget was paid to offset this). So establishing general metrics for the ecological imprint of film productions that might help the industry as a whole whittle down emissions and wastage faster is still a far-off hope.

 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was touted for its sustainable shoot.

The lack of both a clear roadmap and rigorous application leaves Hollywood open to the charge that its eco efforts, despite the growing momentum, are mere greenwashing. Disney’s emissions reductions (aiming at a 50% cut from 2012 levels by 2020) look good on paper until you realise that a high percentage are from its cruise-ship line – and it has just signed on for three more vessels (albeit powered by less-polluting liquefied natural gas). To go back to the Golden Globes, does it matter that this year’s guests were eating vegan in the overall scheme of an event with the kind of footprint that includes a $10,000 (£7,630) gift bag for VIPs?

In the absence of true industry-wide practice, Hollywood eco initiatives remain piecemeal, and are usually opt-in or imposed by powerful stars with a conscience. It has been reported, for example, that it was Phoenix who persuaded the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to serve a vegan menu at the Globes. (The effect of his good work was rather undone when Stella McCartney commended him for his “bravery” in wearing a single tuxedo – hers – throughout awards season.) Maybe even the minimum gesture, carbon offsetting, is a form of cheap expiation that stops root-and-branch overhaul of how film productions are run.

In the meantime, the disconnect between publicly declared environmentalism and daily practice in Hollywood continues. Not only is blockbuster film-making a resource-intensive activity, but it is part of a bigger superstructure of capitalist enterprise that is inherently ecologically costly.

You have to remember that entertainment is market-driven. Audiences don’t want to hear about climate change

To take two examples, 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was touted for its sustainable shoot, distributing reusable water bottles to cast and crew, employing hybrid vehicles and using 75% LED lighting. It also contained product placement or commercial partnerships with Amazon, Jeep Wrangler, Dr Pepper, Dairy Queen and Doritos, among others; putting aside what this great network of commerce represents, the latter brand’s use of palm oil should have been reason enough to think twice.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2, from 2014, has been brandished as a best-practice example, earning the EMA’s Green Seal for recycling practices that stopped 52% of the waste it generated from ending up in landfill. But how significant is this when the film comes slathered in placement for production company Sony’s laptops and mobile phones – built with components using rare-Earth elements, the extraction of which has a heavy impact?

Hollywood is not alone in struggling with these contradictions. The value of small actions weighed against the bigger picture, whether these efforts are meaningful or self-deluding, is the great middle-class dilemma of the 21st century. But Hollywood is alone in its capacity to draw attention to these quandaries, through the subject matter it chooses to film. Here, again, its record is questionable – apart from documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth. Environmental themes have never been catnip to Hollywood executives, despite the efforts of the likes of the NRDC to steer film-makers in this direction. Traditionally, they have crept into the context of certain top-tier films, such as Waterworld, AI or WALL-E, but less than a handful of mainstream directors, such as Emmerich, seem willing to engage with the issue directly.

Maybe, as the global situation has darkened, there has been movement on this front. From Avatar to Mad Max: Fury Road to Interstellar to Blade Runner 2049 to Avengers: Infinity War to Aquaman, it does feel as if ecological collapse is now more fully normalised in the mainstream. But none of these films dared be explicitly political, whether out of fear of alienating the climate-sceptic middle-American audience, or just of tearing off the veil of Hollywood’s breezy escapism. The Asian mainstream – from Hayao Miyazaki’s longstanding ecological commitment to Stephen Chow’s recent eco-comedy The Mermaid and Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and Okja – does more heavy lifting.

“The thing you have to remember is that entertainment is market-driven. Frankly, [audiences] don’t want to hear about climate change,” the director James Cameron – who is planning to make his Avatar sequels solar-powered and vegan-catered – recently told Variety. He remains doubtful about the impact of ecologically themed films: “I think you can insinuate these ideas into your storytelling. I’ve certainly done that with Avatar, but, frankly, Avatar came out 10 years ago. And in that time our population has grown by almost a billion people, and the effects of that alone on our environment and climate change are devastating. Does [storytelling] do that much good?”

Perhaps the problem is the kind of storytelling. Maybe ecologically progressive thinking is too challenging to the capitalist paradigm of which Hollywood remains a central part. It is easier to put everyone’s planetary worst thoughts into the mouths of villains such as Thanos or Aquaman’s King Orm, or to let us wallow in postlapsarian dystopias than to write stories that envisage solutions, or even dig into the complexities. There is no magic gauntlet or golden sea-trident to wish away the climate crisis. But if Hollywood’s recent spate of ecologically conscious blockbusters is itself another form of greenwashing, then – as Cameron points out – we as paying viewers are ultimately responsible.

Nothing illustrates this link between the entertainment industry and its consumers more directly than the rise of Netflix. Now, as cinema attendance continues to fall, we are ditching the collective viewing in favour of individual comfort that keeps the energy tab rolling every time we let the autoplay scroll through. It is the audiovisual equivalent of ditching public transport for private vehicles. The impact of this is huge: in 2018, video-related internet – 34% of which was accounted for by video-on-demand services – produced 300m tonnes of CO2; roughly the same as Spain.

By 2022, Cisco estimates that 80% of internet traffic will be video-related in a field that is heating up as Disney+ and Apple TV+ chase down Netflix and Amazon. In his Globes speech, Gervais skewered the blind spot at the centre of Hollywood’s current tech obsession: “If Isis started a streaming service, you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you?” It seems like a matter of time before we are served up a Silicon Valley tech billionaire as blockbuster baddie, but that lets us off too easily. If we are demanding that Hollywood be honest about its ecological ledger, that means taking a long look in the black mirror, too.

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Vegan food, recycled tuxedos – and billions of tonnes of CO2: can Hollywood ever go green?
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