Environment: Is your screen green?

DirtgirlMeg Argyriou argues why a ‘green’ message is no longer enough for the screen industry.

The screen industry is perhaps the single most influential industry in any democratic country, and Australia is no exception. Screen content shapes the hearts and minds of the population, decides which issues we care about, and defines our national identity. Al Gore, in his book An Assault on Reason discusses how ‘the visceral vividness portrayed on television has the capacity to trigger instinctual responses similar to those triggered by reality itself – and without being modulated by logic, reason, and reflective thought’.
While this might sound disturbingly like brain-washing, it highlights the significant role the industry plays in shaping popular culture. The impact this has on how sustainably we live can no longer be ignored.

The screen industry is populated by passionate, intelligent individuals. Most of us not only believe that the threat of human-induced climate change is real, but actively work to reduce our personal environmental footprint. Yet, as an industry we lag far behind most other commercial sectors in addressing the ecological impacts of our work.


As an industry, we can take credit for the widespread public concern over climate change. It might have taken films like An Inconvenient Truth to move the climate debate out of government boardrooms and into living rooms, but the ‘green’ content on our small screens, in shows from ABC TV’s Carbon Cops to the Seven Network’s Better Homes and Gardens, has been critical in showing us all how easy it is to make a difference.

Yet, while we’ve played a vital role in raising public awareness of these issues, our industry is, paradoxically, dominated by a ‘throw-away’ mentality. Our concern for protecting the environment is mostly limited to the ‘green’ content, while the heavy toll our industry takes on the environment has barely changed.

Most people are drawn to a career in the screen industry by a desire to do something meaningful in life. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to see our lack of engagement with this most pressing of issues. It is our generation, those of us in the workforce today and for the next 20 years, who will decide the fate of our planet.

Not one of us can shrug our shoulders and say it isn’t our responsibility. To do so is to abuse the privileged position that we, as shapers of public opinion, hold in Australian society. We are an industry of collaborators, and as an industry, it is time to work collectively on the most important project of our careers.

Although ‘green’ content is critical, it is worth noting that its scope is limited. Broadcasters will only ever commission a finite number of programs about sustainability over a given period of time, and it’s possible such programming only preaches to the converted.

I remind you again of Al Gore’s quote in the opening paragraph. Bearing it in mind, imagine the cumulative impact of familiar characters in all our favourite programs behaving in sustainable ways… character choices that demonstrate consideration for the environment irrespective of storyline or dialogue. With no other changes to the content of our programs, imagine the positive impact if characters simply bought their take away coffee in travel mugs instead of disposable cups. Imagine if they refused plastic bags and chose to walk instead of drive. Simple actions most of us do in our personal lives, yet we rarely see reflected on our screens.

The beauty of the moving image is that messages can be communicated with subtlety. Screen characters lead us by their example, whether we like it or not. Yet this can provide a more effective way of creating widespread behaviour change than trying to make people alter their views.

But as the general public becomes increasingly cynical of ‘greenwash’ (no doubt through awareness gained from watching screen content), the positive influence of sustainable content will be undermined if the medium isn’t also ‘green’. Soon our industry is likely to face closer scrutiny of its environmental impacts, particularly considering our reliance on taxpayer subsidy. Not only could a failure to improve our performance undermine our ability to deliver compelling environmental messages, but it has the potential to trigger funding cuts from a government that needs to be seen to be decisive in combating climate change.


Waiting for Government leadership in addressing industry environmental impacts is not a wise move. Given the lack of funding agency action to date, it could be a long wait. The longer we wait, the more we risk funding cuts, as Government directs funding to those industries leading the charge on climate change.

In 2008, while working at Film Victoria as Professional Development Officer, I initiated and developed an industry strategy focused on encouraging sustainability in the Victorian screen sector. A committed team of 12 people from across the organisation were engaged to roll out a decisive action plan, which included developing online tools and resources, undertaking a production audit to better understand the environmental impacts of the industry, and rolling out industry engagement and training programs. The project received funding from the Film Victoria Board and the first stages were due for completion by the end of this financial year. Film Victoria was positioned to be the national industry leader in environmental sustainability. Disappointingly, when my contract expired in November last year, the team of twelve was reduced to a team of 3, and to date none of the actions have been achieved.

Film Victoria is instead looking to set up a working group of state funding agencies to develop an industry approach to the issue of sustainability. But as this has not yet progressed beyond initial conversations with some agencies, any decisive government action is likely to be a long time coming.

A lack of government leadership has not stopped committed individuals from leading by example. Dirtgirl, scheduled for Australian broadcast in March 2010, is an animated series with a sustainability focus for four to seven-year olds. Each 11-minute episode focuses on a different aspect of living sustainably, delivering a weighty message in a fun and engaging package.

For creators Cate McQuillan and Hewey Eustace of Mememe Productions, it was vital that the medium was as ecologically sound as the message. All contracts for the series include a ‘for the good of the planet’ clause, ensuring that environmental impacts are considered at every stage of production. For example, although McQuillan and Eustace live in regional NSW and the series animators are based in Sydney and Canada, travel has been minimised by relying on Skype for ‘face-toface’ meetings and cineSync to share and review workin-progress. They have a commitment to be paperless wherever possible, to use recycled materials, reduce food miles and waste, and purchase 100 percent green power.

The producers have also looked beyond the direct production impacts of Dirtgirl to its distribution and merchandising impacts. They have engaged a full-time brand guardian who ensures the production’s sustainability principles are always honoured, and this extends to the ecological impacts of packaging used for Dirtgirl merchandise. 2.4 percent of the budget has been allocated to offset the production’s small footprint. Rather than purchasing carbon offsets, the producers have set up a foundation which pays back Dirtgirl’s ‘carbon debt’ to its audience by, for example, investing in solar panels and veggie gardens for pre-schools.

The assumption is that environmentally sustainable alternatives are more expensive, and one of the barriers to industry-wide change is the unknown costs involved in making a low impact production. It is interesting to note, therefore, that McQuillan and Eustace found that a sustainable approach was often more cost-effective. And where the costs were greater (such as purchasing 100% green power), these were offset by savings in other areas, such as reduced flights. This also provided a significant learning curve for their suppliers, many of whom have expressed a commitment to sustainable choices on future productions, wherever possible.

Artillery SEED, a Melbourne-based architecture and interior design agency, has been working with Red Dress Productions to reduce the environmental impact of their feature film Red Dress, slated for production in August. Although this might appear to be an incongruous relationship, Artillery SEED has expertise in environmental sustainability in built design, and there are a number of learnings from the building sector that translate to film and television production. In fact, the synergy has been so successful that Red Dress Productions and Artillery SEED are collaborating on the development of Green Reel (www.greenreel.com.au), an environmental rating tool specifically for the Australian film industry. Green Reel will evaluate the potential environmental impacts of the production process and develop a rating system similar to those used in the building industry. A Green Reel rating will provide marketing benefits for productions, and verification for the broader community on the validity of ‘green’ claims from the industry. In addition, Green Reel will provide online resources and develop a comprehensive environmental training program for crew.

Green Reel will eventually be offered as an iPhone app, enabling producers and key production personnel to input data while on set or away from a computer, streamlining the rating process. Green Reel are currently seeking industry endorsement in order to secure funding to implement the project.


While the commitment of individuals is crucial, a collaborative approach is vital to making our industry sustainable. We bandy the word ‘sustainability’ around a lot in this industry, meaning financial sustainability.

As resources become scarcer and more expensive, industries that use resources sparingly and wisely will remain financially viable, while those that remain wasteful and resource-intensive, as ours currently is, face potential collapse.

Fortunately, some quarters of the industry are working to build a groundswell of movement. The Australian Director’s Guild, for example, established GRASS (Get Real About Sustainable Screens) in 2008 to stimulate industry debate and awareness of the environmental impacts of screen production. GRASS recognises achievements in environmentally sustainable filmmaking (in content or production methodology) with an ADG Award, and has hosted two industry forums this year, in Sydney and Dungog (plans are afoot for a Melbourne forum on July 27) Production companies wishing to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability can complete a Sustainability Scorecard (developed by Carbon Planet and The Rozelle Protocol) via the GRASS website (www.grass.org.au).

The opportunity still exists for Australia to become a leader in sustainable production, as the rest of the world remains fragmented. ■


If you are interested in making your next production more sustainable, a number of ‘green filmmaking’ guidelines and tools are available online:

• GRASS Sustainability Scorecard, www.grass.org.au/scorecard/index.php
• Greening the Screen www.greeningthescreen.co.nz
• Greencode Project http://greencodeproject.org/en
• Code of Best Practices for Sustainable Filmmaking, www.sustainablefilmmaking.org
• Real Green BC, www.bcfilmcommission.com/reel_green_bc/ind ex.htm
• Green Filmmaking Program www.nmfilm.com/filming/green-filming/
• Green Seal Guidelines, www.emaonline.org/green_seal.ph


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