Insight article

Visions of the Future: plastic-free world

On a daily basis, we are bombarded by news that requires action, but doesn’t drive us to act. Consuming colossal numbers about colossal issues, we become fixed points, unmoved by the baying demands on our empathy. Climate change, the ultimate colossal issue, perfectly captures the battle between know and do, think and feel. Our sluggish global response, a litany of non-committal grunts from our world leaders and bombastic counter-narratives, persists even as the evidence becomes incontrovertible and the real human suffering – from people on other shores, driven, increasingly to our own – becomes abundant.

But something is shifting, now, with a momentum that’s by-passing all the usual blocking points: breaking domestic habits; declaring itself in the manifestos of our most powerful businesses; redesigning the way we shop; declaring itself in entire UK towns. It’s even taken up residency in the Queen’s estate. That thing is the narrative being built against single-use plastics.

It goes like this: plastics are choking our oceans, destroying our sea life and poisoning the food chain on a catastrophic scale – and it can and must be reversed, by us, now.

Plastic isn’t a new story. Recycling has now reached the status of mass social etiquette, regulated by reliable waste collection and friendly colour-coded bins. We recycle committedly, if inconsistently – ‘mixed recycling’ remains our Everest – and participation rises slowly, year on year. But this low-level anxiety has taken years to accrue in our consciousness, more sediment than sweeping change. And though it’s now mainstream, the real impact is still hard to quantify.

Why has it been such a hard sell? If behaviour change needs motivation, means and the momentum of visible progress to sustain itself, recycling is making it easy for us. It’s not hard to recycle when the means to do so exist on every street corner and in our homes. We’re not being asked to change anything fundamental about the way we sell and consume. But if it’s not asking much, perhaps it’s not giving much either: neither offering us anything concrete in terms of emotional motivation (we know recycling is good, but when do we feel it’s good?) nor momentum: the seas are still clogged, the landfills still grow… councils are broke, recycling costs… and isn’t it all shipped to China anyway on vast, oil-guzzling trawlers?

Compare this to the plastic-free movement. Suddenly, people are going out of their way to embrace inconvenience. They are rejecting assumption and reinventing how they live. In just four months, public declarations of war on wasteful norms – from average consumers to senior politicians to business leaders – have already affected fundamental change in the way we produce and consume. Targeted campaigns – on plastic straws, on plastic bags, on plastic bottles – are carving focused, attainable action into the heart of the movement and bringing a new, purposeful character to the cause.

And yet, once again, plastics-free is not a new narrative. But something has happened to make it powerful enough to change mindsets and behaviour, rapidly and on a mass scale. So where was the tipping point?

Sensationalist headlines across the major papers left little room for ambiguity. ‘In one of the most powerfully emotive TV sequences to ever have been broadcast, Sir David Attenborough made the case to end plastic pollution in Sunday night’s Big Blue episode of Blue Planet II.’ ‘The scourge of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans must be tackled, Sir David Attenborough said as he launched the second series of Blue Planet II’. ‘David Attenborough urges action on plastics after filming Blue Planet II.’ Michael Gove “haunted” by plastic pollution seen in Blue Planet II. ‘Blue Planet 2 behind BBC’s new promise to ditch single-use plastics’. ‘People are giving up plastic for Lent and it’s all because of “Blue Planet II”’.

It’s hard to imagine a more celebrated, unifying, or iconic series, fronted by our most national of treasures. But in an age of targeted, network-based influence, it feels unlikely that this tipping point could be something so mass, so mainstream, so familiar in format.

But look closer, and we see a collision of narrative techniques that exemplifies the way that storytelling is used by the world’s most effective social change leaders.

We all know that empathy is a powerful emotional driver, motivating us to act in extraordinary ways for those we feel connected to. Its limitation is its inability to operate on a mass scale; but by connecting us to an individual experience, storytelling bypasses the apathy of mass statistics and rational information, funnelling our emotional energy into a series of narrow storylines. Harnessed correctly, this singular focus can affect mass change. No surprise then, against a backdrop of sweeping environmental damage, that it was two distinctly human narratives that unleashed an outpouring of empathy from viewers: a pelican unwittingly feeding her chick plastic; and a mourning pilot whale, refusing to let go of her stillborn calf, poisoned by toxic build-up.

Coupled with Attenborough’s powerful closing address – a soft-spoken rebuke which, in three lines, challenges us as individuals, bonds us together in our shared humanity, and calls us to action in the face of immediate danger on a global scale – Blue Planet II suddenly has the narrative prerequisites of history’s most effective social movements, capable of transcending its form to galvanise a moment of rare, collective possibility.

And the impact of this trigger has been profound. We have taken to the internet in droves. We have reached out and found others who feel the same. And as our motivation builds, we discover new means: innovators offering plastic-free products, easy tips for a plastic-free life – means we never cared to discover until now. We realise that action can be targeted or wholesale, the choice is ours, but we have the power to choose it. And the momentum feels real: we share our stories, the difference we’re making, and we know that we can make a difference too. Every action reinforces the values that unite us and the belief that drives us on. And then it starts to become real: declarations are made, policy is passed, the conversation is permanently changed.

If we take anything from the anti-plastics movement it should be this: storytelling is the most powerful tool we have to change even the most engrained behaviour. The leader who learns this lesson today will be the leader of tomorrow.

If we’re lucky, it might even be Attenborough.

We are The Storytellers. We exist to move more people to do great things through the power and influence of storytelling.

What story will move you and the people around you to do great things in 2018? Share your story with us.

Bex Felton

Senior Strategist and Writer