The Most Impactful Environmental Documentaries Ever Released

Documentaries have never been more popular - or more powerful. Over the years, they have become the go-to form of media for people to learn and educate themselves on important topics, from sustainability and environmental matters to celebrity culture and conspiracy theories. 

Thrilling, eye-opening and moving documentaries are designed to inform, influence and get people talking. How many conversations have you had with friends and co-workers about the absurdity of The Tiger King? How often have you looked forward to sitting down on a Sunday night and tuning in to the next David Attenborough Planet installment? Documentaries are the perfect way to understand and connect with what’s happening in the world.

Sustainability is one topic at the forefront of everyone’s minds right now. Larger corporations, such as Waitrose, Morrisons and Marks & Spencer, have been rolling out refill stations in some stores as a way to cut down on single-use plastic packaging while also making products more affordable. And, newer companies, such as ourselves at Ocean Bottle, are making it our mission to create products with a positive impact and invest in programs to help make the world a better place.

Even individuals are doing their part to become more eco-friendly in their everyday lives, with 14% of UK adults following a meat-free diet. With more and more documentaries being released around sustainability, more people are influenced to make a change. So, we wanted to find out which sustainability documentaries had the biggest effect in both the UK and the US.

To discover which documentaries had the biggest effect, we collected a list of keywords which included:

  • Save the ocean
  • Plastic-free
  • Sustainable fishing
  • Eco-friendly
  • Sustainability
  • Reusable
  • Vegetarian
  • Save the planet
  • Climate change

With these keywords, we calculated the average search volume 3 months before each documentary’s release date and then compared this average search volume to the month after each documentary’s release date to find out the impact. Keep reading to learn the results!

Which Sustainability Documentaries Had the Biggest Effect in the UK?

Rank

Documentary

Year of release

Percentage change

#1

The Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet

2021

+44.36%

#2

An Inconvenient Truth

2006

+35.00%

#3

Before The Flood

2016

+30.72%

#4

Frozen Planet

2011

+24.07%

#5

A Plastic Ocean

2016

+20.71%

From our research, we learned that the documentary with the biggest impact in the UK was The Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet, which was narrated by David Attenborough and Prince William and released in October 2021. This documentary looked at the urgent challenges we currently face in order to protect and repair the environment - exploring ideas and solutions for nature. The average search volume prior to the documentary was 295,868. After the documentary was released, the search volume jumped up to 427,110, an increase of 44.36%.

Shortly after the documentary’s release, in November 2021, the government ruled out plans to ban single-use plastic. It's estimated that England uses 1.1 billion single-use plates and 4.25 billion items of single-use cutlery, most of which are plastic, per year. But, only 10% of those are recycled! Alongside plates and cutlery, other everyday items, such as wet wipes and menstrual products, were also put in the forefront.

An Inconvenient Truth, narrated by Al Gore, was released in September 2006 to raise awareness of the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions and explore how they can be reduced with current technologies and in an affordable way. Before the documentary was released, search volume around similarly related topics was 157,049 following the release, this increased by 35% with 212,014 searches.

In third place, as the most impactful documentary, we have Before the Flood, which was released in October 2016 and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a strong voice amongst climate and environmental activists. In the 3 months leading up to the documentary, relevant keywords had a search volume of 203,576 which was then boosted to 266,107 after the release, a 30.72% increase.

Ahead of the game on the cut of single-use plastic was France. In September 2016, one month before Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary, France made international news by becoming the first country to ban plastic plates and cutlery. The new law came into effect in 2020 and formed part of the country’s Energy Transition for Green Growth Act, the same legislation that also outlawed plastic bags in grocery stores and markets beginning in July.

It’s safe to say that 2016 was big on the implications of single-use plastic!

Rank

Documentary

Year of release

Months of impact

#1

A Plastic Ocean

2016

71

#2

Before The Flood

2016

70

#3

An Inconvenient Truth

2006

21

#4

Blue Planet II

2017

7

#5

Frozen Planet

2011

6

We also looked at how many months it took these combined keywords' search volume, after the release of each documentary, to go back to their average figure to see just how long the documentary influenced people.

A Plastic Ocean, an award-winning documentary that was first screened at the Raindance Film Festival in September 2016, focuses on the causes and consequences of plastic pollution, spent 71 months with their search volume over their 3-month average. Before The Flood was a close second, impacting search volumes for 70 months. And An Inconvenient Truth took 21 months for search volume to go back to their average figure.

Which Sustainability Documentaries Had the Biggest Effect in the US?

Rank

Documentary

Year of release

Percentage change

#1

Before The Flood

2016

+46.89%

#2

My Octopus Teacher

2020

+14.57%

#3

Seaspiracy

2021

+5.91%

#4

Planet Earth II

2017

+4.82%

#5

A Plastic Ocean

2017

+1.34%

In the US, the results from our research differed slightly but still, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood documentary had as great an impact as it did in the UK. With a search volume of 902,553 3 months before the release, this jumped up massively to 1,328,923 searches, an increase of 46.89%.

My Octopus Teacher proved to influence many American citizens too. Released in September 2020 on Netflix, this documentary followed filmmaker and founder of the Sea Change Project, Craig Foster, as he formed an unlikely friendship with a wild octopus and his journey of healing through nature. 3 months prior to the documentary, the average search volume of related keywords was 1,013,009, which increased by 14.57% to 1,162,834 searches.

Toward the end of 2020, a study revealed that Americans generate the most plastic waste in the world. The data considered how waste was treated after it was shipped abroad, and found that the US mismanaged plastic waste jumped by a whopping 400% between 2010 and 2016.

Another US-centered study by The Oceana on necropsies added that 90% of the animals in US waters had swallowed plastic, while the rest had become entangled in it. 'Necropsies often showed that the animals had died from blockages or lacerations. Other times, ingesting plastic may have simply weakened the animal or played no role in its death. Overall, in 82% of the cases, the animals died.' The study also highlighted the issue of rising sea temperatures, which go hand in hand with plastics.

The groundbreaking and controversial Seaspiracy documentary, released in March 2022 and narrated by Ali Tabrizi, exposed the damaging environmental impact that commercial fishing has on the planet and its ocean wildlife. Before the release of the documentary, the keywords collected had an average search volume of 983,043. After the release, this increased by 5.91%, with 1,040,963 searches.

March 2022 also marked a 'truly historic moment' when 'world leaders, environment ministers and other representatives from 173 countries have agreed to develop a legally binding treaty on plastics.'

Rank

Documentary

Year of release

Months of impact

#1

Before The Flood

2016

18

#2

My Octopus Teacher

2020

1

#3

Planet Earth II

2017

1

We looked again at how many months it took our list of combined keywords to go back to their average figure after each release, and only three documentaries showed a positive impact. Matching the UK’s rankings, Before the Flood had the longest monthly impact in keyword searches in the US following its 2016 release (18 months). 

Two documentaries both tied at 14 months - Breaking Boundaries, released on Netflix in 2021 and narrated by David Attenborough, examines the Earth's biodiversity collapse and how it can still be avoided. And Clarkson’s Farm, released on Amazon Prime in 2021, followed Jeremy Clarkson as he attempted to run a farm in the English Countryside.

Methodology:

We collated a list of documentaries surrounding sustainability and then used keyword search volume to discover the impact these had on the UK and US public. The release dates for each documentary per country were collected from IMDb. Search volumes were sourced using Glimpse via Google Trends. 

All search volumes are correct as of the 1st of each corresponding month. So, where a documentary’s release date is after the 1st, we collected the following month’s search volume to calculate the data.

Whenever you buy one of our reusable bottles, made of 90% recycled stainless steel, BPA-free plastic, silicone rubber and ocean-bound plastic, we fund the collection of 1000 ocean-bound plastic bottles in weight before they reach the ocean. Shop our sustainable water bottles.

See a full list of documentaries included in our study here.

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