International film industry has high viewership, but lack of global awareness

Movies need to drastically improve sustainability measures, raise awareness

By Karuna Chandran

When I think of the climate crisis, the first things that come to mind are carbon emissions from automobiles, greenhouse gasses, sea level rise and much more. But one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation is an industry cemented in our nation’s legacy: the film industry. 

In 2021, the Sustainable Production Alliance, a group of companies working towards reducing their environment released their first report on their carbon footprint according to Variety. The SPA included members such as Disney, Amazon Studios and Netflix. The report found that tentpole films or movies that are expensive, money making ventures had an average footprint of 33 metric tons per day. This means these types of movies emit more carbon dioxide in a day than the average passenger vehicle emits per year at around 4.6 metric tons, according to the EPA. So much of the efforts surrounding climate change activism revolve around automobiles, and of course while the impact of vehicles adds up, it is important we do not neglect an industry that has a provable, tangible impact on the environment.

After filming of the movie “The Beach,” the island of Koh Phi Phi Leh in Thailand where the movie was shot became increasingly damaged, exacerbated by the influx of tourists along the shores. (Image from the Guardian)

In locations such as Hollywood, the center of the country’s entertainment, the movie industry was more of a polluter than industries such as aerospace, fashion and hospitality, according to The Guardian. Tons of labor, crew, visuals, sets, travel, costumes, special effects and more go into creating the finished product viewers see on screen and everything adds ups. Not only are emissions a problem, but several movies have caused environmental disasters while filming. With the 2015 movie “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the production of the film damaged vulnerable locations along the African Atlantic coast according to Vice. In addition, when “The Beach” was filmed in Thailand in 2000, the crew uprooted several native species and introduced foreign ones, a decision which local officials believe has had severe consequences on the ecosystem. Films always have a goal to leave an impression on their viewers, something that imbeds itself within their brains, but this is not the type of lasting impression I ever want to witness. Destruction of valuable ecosystems for the sake of entertainment is not a fair tradeoff.

If these companies continue to leave a trail of disaster in their wake, they should at least use their platform to promote awareness for environmental issues. A study done from 2016-2020, according to AP News,  highlighted how only 2.8% of television uses climate-change specific terminology. Movies such as “Avatar” and its sequel have themes that directly relate to ecological preservation and an immense appreciation for the natural world in the face of existential threats. If more big-budget films had such thought-provoking themes, they could help become discussion starters for people to initiate change both locally and globally.

While we cannot tell the industries to stop making movies entirely (I for one want to watch the next Marvel superhero movie or Netflix romcom), we can ask that they make an active effort to reduce their footprint whenever possible. The SPA report is a great step, but should be more comprehensive about the industry’s environmental impact in a variety of other areas, such as the damage to natural ecosystems during on-location shooting or overall municipal solid waste production. 

Major studios should also require movies to hire sustainability consultants from groups such as Earth Angel and Green Spark that work to advise the production team on how to go green wherever possible. These professionals should be given the respect and jurisdiction they need in order to actively make a change in the movie’s creation. 

Even if the industries have an impact, they can also work to offset it wherever possible by donating a percentage of their income to green organizations. When an industry has such a national and global presence, it has the responsibility to promote sustainable practices, so their target demographic will be able to appreciate their art and activism for a better planet.