Sunday, March 3, 2024

They Brought Sustainability to Social Media. Now, Gen Z Is Coming for Hollywood.


The new Environmental Media Association’s Gen Z-led Activist Board is ready to bring sustainability to Hollywood.

At the recent British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards, Prince William told the audience that now more than ever, program makers have “a unique opportunity to ensure climate change and sustainability remain at the forefront of our collective consciousness.”

By creating innovative, educational, and emotive content for television, he said, writers and producers are “playing a unique role in ensuring the future of our planet is something that we all want to talk about.”

The Prince, who just turned 40 last month, straddles the line between Millennial and Gen X, growing up before the Internet was part of our everyday lives. He’s seen progress over the years. But it’s a lot different from the perspective of Gen Z and Gen Alpha, those born in the mid-nineties and later. For them, film and television are still light years behind the changes they’ve helped to bring to social media. And they’re ready to do something about it.

Hollywood: ahead of the times and way behind

The entertainment industry has long struggled with cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, the industry has seen itself as a progressive leader, supporting not just experimental film and television, but also telling stories about marginalized communities and personal struggles the mainstream media often doesn’t give airtime to until Hollywood does it first.

But on the other hand, there are a number of antiquated beliefs and practices the industry can’t—or won’t— shake despite the #Oscarssowhite campaign, among others, that keeps BIPOC actors and filmmakers on the sidelines, for example. There are scores of issues Hollywood struggles to address—misogyny, sexual assault, and nepotism, which are all still de rigueur even despite high-profile cases and campaigns that have drawn more attention to them.

film production
Courtesy Jakob Owens | Unsplash

Hollywood’s elite have historically used their personal platforms to support “liberal agendas.” The New York Times reports that during the 2016 presidential election cycle, individuals and firms in the television, movie, and music industries gave $84 million in campaign contributions, “with 80 percent going to Democrats.”

There is certainly no shortage of examples of celebrities supporting charities or leveraging their platform to share messages of inclusion and accountability.

At 84, Jane Fonda spends much of her time fighting for climate justice. Frances McDormand famously called for an “inclusion rider” to ensure gender and racial equity in hiring on movie sets during her 2018 Best Actress win speech. Don Cheadle, who was named a UN Environment Program Goodwill Ambassador back in 2010, has been sounding the alarm over climate change in the years since. Cate Blanchett recently launched a climate-themed podcast; In 2015, Lupita Nyong’o was named the WildAid Global Elephant Ambassador and continues to shine a spotlight on conservation across Africa.

Then, there’s Leonardo DiCaprio, who used his Oscar win speech to touch on environmental and ethical issues. DiCaprio’s nonprofit Re:wild recently joined a $5 billion fund for conservation and climate action.

don't look up
Courtesy Don’t Look Up

But when it comes to changes within the industry itself, that’s another matter. While films like Netflix’s 2021 Don’t Look Up help draw attention to the issue, or the Jurassic World franchise committing to sustainable merchandise, these are hardly wholesale solutions for an industry that wields arguably as much, if not more power and influence than politicians and industries.

All of this intersects at the Environmental Media Association’s (EMA) new Activist Board comprised of a range of Gen-Z influencers and activists working to address representation and sustainability in the industry. Several of the board members took the stage at EMA’s Impact Summit last month at the Pendry Hotel in West Hollywood for one of the event’s liveliest discussions about the challenges facing the entertainment industry.

EMA Activist Board

“EMA has a long history of working with dynamic young generations of talent,” Debbie Levin, EMA CEO tells Ethos via email. She says this new generation of young people is armed with more facts and more resources than any generation before them. “Gen Z is the most powerful demographic to influence the youth on a global level,” she says.

The new board is chaired by Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, the climate justice advocate behind Black Girl Environmentalist and the first Black person to receive the Rhodes, Truman, and Udall scholarships. She just received her Master’s Degree in environmental governance from Oxford University.

Levin calls Gatheru “essential” to this next phase for EMA and for the industry at large. “She can guide us,” she says. “Gen Z is our future and we better listen.”

So far, the board is exceeding her expectations with a range of young people from all backgrounds. “We wanted to make sure that the people on the board have a long-standing commitment to environmental and climate justice,” Gatheru says.

The board members all grew up in the Age of the Internet, leveraging social media as their medium of choice; they’re influencers with varying focuses, but they’re all steeped in social justice and environmentalism—two problem areas Hollywood has both perpetuated and tried to address.

“I watched An Inconvenient Truth in the first grade,” Gatheru says. “I see my calling as being environmental justice, making sure that we’re building out an environmental movement that is for everyone and that is accessible, which is why EMA is such a cool community to be a part of,” she says.

At just 22, Maya Penn is a multi-hyphenate artist, author entrepreneur, educator, activist, and three-time TED speaker. “If you’re breathing air, you’re drinking water, if you’re living on land, then environmental issues affect you in some capacity—some people more than others, some communities more than others, but they affect you,” she says.

In some ways, the climate crisis is the MacGuffin of the real world, except, it’s not only a plot device, it’s an integral storyline that threads through all of the issues the Activist Board is aiming to address. From institutional racism and sexism to labor issues and what stories the industry even prioritizes, the climate crisis is touching it all.

Isaias Hernandez, an environmental educator and content creator under the moniker QueerBrownVegan, tells Ethos that the board brings in the perspective of “being imperfect” yet celebrating progress in the move toward an equitable future.

“We have to realize that ecological wealth is more valuable than our economic system,” he says.

“Many of us, disagree with perfectionism and want to materialize a world filled with imperfections because that is what makes us organic beings on this planet,” he says. “I think that we bring in a lens of justice and love for each other while acknowledging that we must unlearn and relearn.”


Penn says she has seen how quickly a moment of inspiration can change everything for people. “I’ve seen those aha moments. I’ve had young people tell me, ‘wow, I’m so inspired. Now I’m starting my own nonprofit, I want to start a sustainability club at my school, I want to give back to my community in some way,'” she says.

Traditional entertainment mediums have historically done this for fans—from the theater to radio to television and film and now social media, stories allow us to escape the real world, but they can also frame it and help us problem solve in our own lives.

“I’m really passionate about how far stories can reach when it comes to environmental advocacy,” says Kristy Drutman who goes by the handle BrownGirl_Green. “I feel media is the biggest way to do that.” She’s now trying her hand at it, too. She and Hernandez recently returned from filming in Southeast Asia for a docu-series project on the fashion industry.

“It’s going to require people from the inside to push for these things,” Drutman says. She says social media works much in the opposite way—the audience finds you. There are no hoops to jump through—or, at least, fewer hoops than those facing the entertainment industry. That timeline just doesn’t work anymore.

The board members have all built successful social followings and started their careers through platforms like Youtube, TikTok, and Instagram—Hernandez and Gatheru were both just on the stage for Billie Eilish’s Overheated climate event in the U.K. as a result of their social media presence. For these Gen Z EMA board members, at least, Hollywood is just another platform to tackle.

“There need to be more internal advocates—people from the inside that are like, ‘Hey, we can’t just wait two or three years to be putting out shows or movies about this,'” Drutman says. “We don’t have time to wait for that.”

It’s not the impatience of youth that’s behind this urgency; it’s science. They’ve all seen changes to the environment in their lifetimes, and it’s only expected to get worse. The recent IPCC Sixth Assessment report said we’re likely to surpass the 1.5°C temperature threshold set at the Paris Accord in 2015, which means extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and threats to our food systems, among other issues. California is now in its third straight drought year and already one of the hottest summers on record.

“We need to reach the people outside of our bubble—the everyday individuals who know little to nothing about the climate crisis,” says Penn. She says Hollywood is the logical next step for reaching the audience who doesn’t—or doesn’t want to—fully understand the climate crisis or justice issues.

But this new version of Hollywood doesn’t have to be more Al Gore-style documentaries, or even climate-themed parodies like Don’t Look Up. Gatheru says romcoms can tackle it, too. “I’m not funny myself. So I’m very much of a consumer. But I love the concept of climate comedy. Like, what would that look like?” she asks.

Penn agrees, saying comedy is one of the best and easiest ways to address big issues. “In order to do that, to call those people in and let them feel empowered, we have to include comedy, we have to include humor in order to reach who we need to reach in order to turn things around,” she says.

Hernandez says the biggest challenge for the entertainment industry is that there’s still not a culture of sustainability either in front of the camera or behind the scenes.

There are steps in that direction, certainly; Netflix, for example, continues to work toward decreasing its carbon footprint—no small feat when streaming has increased demand for content, which means more production in general, but shot in shorter production windows that fit everyone’s busy schedules. That often comes at the expense of doing things with sustainability in mind. Reality show Love Island and HBO’s Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That promoted circular, secondhand fashion both in wardrobe and in media sponsors. James Cameron made the Avatar sequels sets as sustainable as possible.

But there’s a long way to go, Hernandez says. “There is often a romanticization of having excess items without addressing the belly of the beast, which is overconsumption,” he says. “If we aren’t able to instill a culture of circularity with the way that we approach our actions and values then we may fail to empower younger generations.”

Drutman says this mindset needs to be baked into the backdrop of films and television shows to help normalize sustainability. “In that sense, Hollywood is still living in the stone age,” she says. “It’s as simple as a movie where no one is ever drinking out of plastic water bottles. Can you imagine a film where everyone drinks out of reusable water bottles instead? It’s things like that.”

Read about the first zero-emissions studio working to make the industry more sustainable.


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