Making Environmentalism Accessible through Reality TV

As a genre, reality television has a bad rap. A so-called "guilty pleasure" in many circles, top of mind here are the dating shows, cabin fever-fueled competitions, and the observational fly-on-the-wall brand of reality that has turned regular people into celebrities. For better or worse, reality TV holds the attention and interest of a wide and diverse audience, taking up more than half of the total annual audience viewership for top 10 primetime programming. One thing is for certain: when it comes to reaching a large number of people and keeping them hooked, reality television has it down.

Can the mass appeal of reality television be used to make environmentalism more accessible to a wider audience? At TerraCycle, our teams are constantly brainstorming new ideas and activations to engage consumers and take steps towards closing the "green-gap" and turning values into action. We have found that the first step to enacting social change is raising awareness.

In a previous post I discuss getting people excited about environmental issues by presenting them in a positive and fun way. Topics like poisoned water in Flint, the steadily increasing tonnage of the nation's landfills, and the methane gas released by decomposing trash adding to the earth's greenhouse gas emissions are not exactly light fare. The seriousness of these matters can be quite intimidating to the average consumer, subduing them into inaction. Moreover, the people contending with these issues, environmentalists, may seem like an intimidating, unrelatable bunch, as well.

Human Resources is a reality television show bringing viewers behind the scenes and into-the fast-moving environment of the TerraCycle office. It's shot on-location, features real employees (including myself), and uses no scripts. Definitely more Real World than An Inconvenient Truth.

Early on, we realized that an important balance had to be maintained between our message of sustainability and eco-mindedness (TerraCycle is a recycling company "Eliminating the Idea of Waste," after all), and creating an entertaining premise that viewers will come back to. We have achieved that equilibrium by integrating TerraCycle projects, mission goals and events into each episode, and giving them a fun, more often funny, spin on our corporate culture by highlighting what really makes TerraCycle tick: its people.

TerraCycle runs on the ideas, work ethic and talent of people of all ages, backgrounds and experiences, and not only does that make for a successful company, it makes for great entertainment. Described as "The Office" meets "Project Runway," Human Resources has given viewers a dynamic look at our Materials Sales team as they struggle to find a recycling solution for dirty diapers, chronicled the friendly intra-office competition that a boys vs. girls "recycle-a-thon" (with collegiate Greek-life recruits, no less) inspires, and followed our Design team down the rabbit hole of turning items bound for landfill into valuable, usable works of art.

These are the same people we see eating ramen at their desks, playing "Rock, Paper, Scissors" (badly), giving each other side-eye across the office, and laughing together. It is this human element that makes the show interesting and relatable, creating a conduit for exposure to our environmental message, and allowing viewers to see themselves as very much alike to the "professional" environmentalists featured on-screen.

The appeal of reality TV as a form of entertainment stems from our desire to know ourselves better by "knowing" others. This social comparison tendency is a potential reason people are drawn to this type of entertainment, as reality television creates perceived access to people, lifestyles and concepts they are either very familiar with, or can learn from. These reference points to our own experience create connections that allow us to see ourselves through characters and scenarios, increase our empathy, and potentially make us more receptive to new concepts and topics we may not have considered before.

Now in its third season (premiering August 26 on Pivot), Human Resources has been invaluable to TerraCycle's message. The success of the show is proving that people connect to environmental concepts and can be stewards for the planet in their own way, and we hope that it continues to be as fun for viewers to watch as it is for us film.