How to Ruin the Party
This podcast probes into Disney’s narrative of corporate environmentalism, which is evident in the release of the Classic Disney Moana Doll in 2016. Together, we will dissect the context of Moana’s release alongside the Walt Disney Company’s historic influence on global and American cultures, to promote imagery about the environment that is skewed and works to protect harmful abstraction practices.
Walking in a department store, you see all the new environmentally-conscious brands promising a holiday season full of guilt-free purchases, you wonder why purchasing these products makes you feel like you’ve just performed a selfless act in true holiday spirit. In that moment, you may realize that you had just conceptualized environmental sustainability using feelings and emotions rather than reason. That feeling doesn’t just say something about your purchasing habits. It says something about your identity stemming from a long history of social processes that surround you like signage hanging in a department store window.
I’m Brynna Darley, and on this podcast we probe common assumptions about the environment using an environmental geopolitics framework. I promise it’s not as intimidating as it sounds. Think of it as a fun game I like to call “Ruin the Party in 15 Minutes or Less”. It’s a game about better understanding the way we all make sense of the world around us with pesky questions you’d never ask at a party. Here are the rules. I present a claim about the environment to you, and you are going to help me look for the answers to three simple questions:
One, is there sufficient attention paid to the spatial dimensions of human-environmental relationships between cultural, political, and local geographies?
Two, how are the role and meaning of the environment specified by the claim?
Three, what is the role of agency and is it considered selectively?
Extra points if you can spot when discourse frames the environment in terms of risk and security. But most importantly, always look for missing data.
Today, we will investigate an amalgamation of claims made by the authors of different articles about the release of the Disney Classic Moana Doll as it was sold to consumers in recycled packaging materials. Ready for the claim? Disney is protecting the environment by using sustainable packaging for the Disney Classic Moana Doll, we will be domineering your dinner table conversation to better understand how we all make sense of the world around us.
In 2016, Disney fans and toy collectors gathered in excitement to welcome the release of the Disney Classic Moana Doll. This doll marked the launch of the Walt Disney Company smart packaging initiative. Simon Mainwaring exalted the Moana doll’s use of these packaging metrics in his Forbes article, naming it “a first for the toy industry and our future for the first time, Disney toy manufacturers utilize sustainable measurement tools to package Moana using 70 percent recyclable packaging materials.” Wendy Tietz underlines the importance of the Moana doll’s recyclable packaging, bringing viewers’ attentions to the third of landfill waste in the US that is packaging materials.
The sustainable achievements of the Moana doll include the use of vegetable-based ink for the print on the cardboard components. Additionally, no adhesives were used in the packaging process, although plastic ties were included. To create the clear window component, PET plastic was used as opposed to PVC: a plastic that is more difficult to recycle. While Disney’s smart packaging initiative waves all these fancy metrics and numbers in our face, we should notice that the commencement of Disney’s smart packaging initiative happened just one year after Disney, and it’s tens of thousands of toy factories came into hot water for dangerous and disturbing labor practices.
In 2015, alarming reports from China Labor Watch brought attention to human rights violations taking place inside of Disney toy factories. NGOs such as Green America responded to the news, calling upon Disney to dramatically improve labor standards in Chinese toy factories. In tandem with raising awareness for fair wages, sanitary working conditions, and more, a part of their demands included the phrase, “speak out and opt for safe green toys.”
Wait, what would a green toy be, as opposed to a non-green toy? A Chia Pet? What did they mean by green toys? Well, how are toys made?
The toy industry isn’t just representative of childhood imagination, but of the environmental destruction caused by the production and manufacture of crude oil. The plastic used for building the body and hairstyle of the Moana doll is a high density polyethylene, which is made from refined petroleum extractions.
This is Dow Chemical, the world’s foremost producer of polyethylene. We’re inside a manufacturing plant in Jiajing, China. Once the crude oil is extracted from oil reserves, the raw material is put into the furnace before being sent to a distillation unit. This process allows the thousands of chemical compounds to separate into lighter components, refined into monomers. The component for plastic being naphtha. To create polyethylene, peroxide is added to naphtha. This process polymerizes the gasoline components, including ethylene, and bonds them into chains.
Now we step inside Wah Tung toy factory where the petroleum extracts now in pellet form are melted into molten plastic and pressed into a silicone mold to create the doll’s individual pieces. Polyethylene is also used for the doll hair, and these synthetic polymer fiber strands are sewn into the plastic dome head. Moana’s clothes are made from a polyester material. Once the doll has been painted, the pieces are attached, clothed, and packaged all before being sent to shipping locations for transport. It has been estimated that the toy industry uses 40 tons of plastic for every 1 million in revenues, making the toy industry the fairest of them— I mean, the most plastic intensive of them all.
When Green America called upon concerned consumers to advocate for green toys, they were referencing this process, understanding that the same parts of petroleum that are used in toy reproduction are known carcinogens. Studies from Taiwan even indicate higher rates of premature births in residential areas near oil refineries, where these plastic extracts are sourced. With elaborate chains of stations and large accessories needed for abstraction, drilling mines are also known for their disruptiveness and even destruction of local habitats, causing chains of environmental events that often result in the dwindling of local animal species.
Uh-oh, we’re missing some data.
Well, I found one report from the Business and Human Rights Center naming 5500 factories where Disney toys are produced. Disney’s own public response to the China human rights report stated that the company had a number of toy factories ranging in the tens of thousands. This explained to me why isolating research on key factors, such as how many Disney toys have been produced or even how many Disney toys were produced last year, was impossible. Not only are these figures probably incredibly difficult to track, the number is inherently sensitive information on the basis of how much plastic production and oil extraction that equates to year after year. In Disney’s financial report, toy revenues are grouped together with other financial assets, meaning that the exact amount of plastic used by Disney is virtually unknown.
[chill piano groove]
If Moana dolls are made of oil extracts, do the benefits of sustainable packaging balance out the environmental harms caused by oil extraction?
In the case of the Moana doll, Disney’s marketing tactics use a textual discourse to focus on the risks posed to the environment by landfills, by highlighting its use of recyclable materials. In turn, Disney frames purchasing the Moana doll as an act of securing the environment from this wastefulness. So to quickly test whether or not purchasing a Moana doll is a truly sustainable act, let’s compare the emissions rates caused by both landfills and oil mines.
Can you guess which emits more?
In 2020, the Wilderness Society found that in the US alone, oil development could emit up to 5.9 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas over the next three years. Whereas the most recent emissions inventory report from the EPA indicated that landfills in the United States only admit 114.5 million metric tons of the greenhouse gas methane.
I know what you’re thinking. Come on, Brynna. Now you’re just comparing apples to poisoned apples. I told you I know how to ruin a party. But let’s return to the claim we are investigating.
Disney is protecting the planet by using sustainable packaging for the Disney Classic Moana doll. Given the environmental impacts of toy production, we can establish that this claim pays insufficient attention to the spatial dimensions of human-environmental relationships by choosing to look at only waste in landfills and ignoring the damage done to local communities affected by oil refineries and the oil extraction. So while the utilization of sustainable packaging metric tools used for Moana dolls is easily perceived as an improvement from previous standards, these measures don’t really do anything to improve the negative conditions which are continuously created by oil extraction. But maybe that’s the point.
Was Disney trying to distract us from the environmental degradation taking place altogether? I think Moana just got greenwashed.
Greenwashing is defined as a form of intentionally misleading advertising that promotes an overly positive image about a company’s environmental performance to consumers. Today, these tactics are understood as essential for marketing campaigns because if the demand for sustainable products among consumers, greenwashing tactics occur at the product and corporate levels with different approaches involving numerous variations of image and information coupling.
In 1981, three researchers described one cognitive reaction caused by misleading advertising known as the halo effect. Thomas Lyon and A. Montgomery later explained that the halo effect takes place when audiences are unable to perceive the individual attributes of products as apart from their overall impression of the company. Understanding the demand for green products among consumers informs the context of Disney’s smart packaging initiative launch in the wake of startling allegations of human rights violations. In the case of the Classic Moana Doll, the marketing promises 70 percent recycled materials used in its packaging.
This is exactly the sort of forward thinking we expect from a beloved family-friendly company, right? But we know it’s not that simple.
What is more difficult to perceive is how what we might call the Disney halo effect has scattered the spatial variables represented by oil manufacturing, which are relevant to the process of toy production to create a skewed image of the environment through advertising. So Disney, a respected corporation and trusted hallmark of our childhood, gets away with making misleading claims about its environmental performance. But how? Well greenwashing is more than just cheap public relations. Greenwashing is best understood as corporate environmentalism, or the coupling of images and information to create a narrative about the environment that protects business operations. This is how we can understand why such skewed narratives had been adopted by audiences, as demonstrated by the articles that make the assumptions we are investigating. Greenwashing, or Disney’s corporate environmentalism, is the projector screen draped in front of real life. We know what they’re showing us and we know what’s being hidden.
But what about the technicolor Fantasia that dances on the silver screen? Let’s decipher the narrative elements involved in Disney’s corporate environmentalism and why it has such an impact on us in the first place.
I’ll save you the boilerplate statistics about how Disney as a multi-billion dollar franchise with international recognition for brilliant storytelling.
[slow heroic horn solo begins]
Because here’s the thing: You already know what Disney is, right? I know I’m right.
And that’s kinda the whole point, isn’t it? We all know what fucking Disney is.
So instead, I’ll start by saying: Welcome to the happiest place on Earth, the wonderful world of Disney.
[harmonica joins in]
[tempo kicks up into jaunty heroic music]
The geography of this mythical place developed alongside psychology and sociology as these concepts too gained popularity in the 30s and through the 60s. Walt Disney used these scientific discourses to create a cultural language for mediating childhood innocence through story, for children and adults to define for themselves a sense of identity. Let’s traverse the rabbit holes of this Wonderland.
First stop: Your troubled origin story.
The psychological concept of a normal child standard was used to anchor narrative formulas for Disney’s vast array of media in an attempt to provide children what was not always provided at home. This correct parenting was intended as a means of eliminating negative social behavior because every rapscallion Aladdin can become a well-to-do prince.
Next: Our central-most desires.
Dreams of safety from treachery or a sense of heroic purpose are reflected by Disney’s educational content and its defenses of childhood innocence. Disney stories animate the importance of free will, the beauty of the nuclear family, and middle-class protestant values. Whether you seek refuge or unpredictable adventure, you can find the meaning of those wonders on your journey through the clouds of Pixar’s Up.
How can I forget? Your private wonders.
Disney’s dream like animations include highly fantastical scenes. Soar through the sky with superheroes in the Marvel franchise or spin through the stars with WALL-E. Disney celebrates the principle of happiness, happiness, and more happiness. The powerful feelings of nostalgia brought on by these images can deliver us to the limits of our imaginations. Disney narratives coax the same emotions out of viewers that are used for adopting one’s prescription of national narrative and one’s pro-social relationship with nature. These psychological effects often happen at the same time as can be seen in the sanitized rendition of Pocahontas’ tale wherein the princess heroically fights to defend her environment. Depictions of nature and Disney media date back to the beginning of Disney’s franchise and are visible throughout the company 60+ attractions worldwide. With politically-symbolic architecture throughout locations such as Fantasyland, looking to examples like the settler colonial 1955 film “Davy Crockett”, or chemical company Monsanto’s exhibit on nuclear energy development entitled “Our Friend the Atom” at Disney’s Tomorrowland.
Ron Taylor contextualizes the origins of Disney environmentalism as mirroring the narrative arches of Manifest Destiny or the mythology of white people’s dominance of all the Earth. These American ideals described capitalistic practices as a part of environmental management, sedimenting middle-class consumerism as a cultural tradition. But no matter where you go as you tour this magical world, right in front of you is the great beyond, as frightening and awe-inspiring is the gaping mouth of the dragon. Disney tales follow the pattern of the United States cultural dimensions empowering listeners to confront fear and evil forces. Individual improvement and optimism for the advancement of humankind is the chasm that separates Mulan’s weaknesses and her larger destiny— and ours too!
And all of this is brought to you by Disney’s kingdom of constant consumption.
[music dies back]
Disney narratives in the present contradictions of a mega corporation commodifying childhood innocence have come to define American popular cultures power through globalization. To put this political power in perspective: In 1989, former CEO of Walt Disney Company Michael Eisner suggested that Disney’s cultural influence actually played a role in the destruction of the Berlin Wall, saying in part the Berlin Wall was destroyed not by the force of Western arms, but by the force of Western ideas.
Let’s get back to Earth, shall we?
Because however enchanting these narratives are, they often ignore the destructive relationship humans have forged with the environment under Disney’s capitalist operations, despite how Disney stories call for the adoption of compassionate environmental values. While Disney seeks to give childhood innocence a place of refuge with beautiful storytelling, A clear example of how Disney fairy tales starkly differ from reality is present in the controversial release of the animated movie Moana in 2016 wherein Polynesian indigenous communities grappled with the pros and cons of their story being commodified. Moana tells the tale of a young Polynesian woman pulled on an adventure by an inexplicable connection to the ocean. Moana braves the unknown to save her people, bracing the open waters.
The Disney Classic Moana doll is framed as an extension of Moana’s narrative, wherein consumers can transmit their shared connections to the environment by purchasing the product. The packaging for the doll includes the same environmental images used in the movie and other movies about island culture with paradisiacal white sand beaches, clean and incandescent water, and luscious tropical forests.
However, commodities like plastic dolls became the subject of heated debate among indigenous Pacific anthropologists on Facebook group “Mana Moana. I am Moana. I am Maoi”, wherein they critiqued the sale of dolls and other Moana toys because they are likely to wash up on shores or in the ocean. In contrast to Disney cinematic narrative, the real oceans that line indigenous peoples coastlines are seen as being jeopardized. While Disney often attempts to banish oblique realities from their fictional worlds, it was all just a rabbit hole.
By examining the topography of Disney’s environmental discourse, we can see how the psychological effect of Disney’s corporate environmentalism can have lasting effects on society as these image distort consumers’ understandings of the environment and perpetuate harmful practices and discourses of consumption.
Your role in Disney’s narrative of corporate environmentalism is to be one significant and capable person to do the right thing.
The environment is your damsel and you must save her.
Disney is not your evil stepmother, but your fairy godmother, giving you the mentorship, the tools, and the motivation to see the beautiful ends of your values.
But let’s return to our claim one last time. Disney is protecting the planet by using sustainable packaging for the classic Disney Moana doll.
Given that toy production represents markedly high rates of plastic consumption, we can establish that this claim skews the role of human agency by selectively prioritizing one’s power to purchase products sold in sustainable packaging without considering the ramifications of purchasing a product that is not sustainably produced. This claim misleadingly specifies the role and meaning of the environment as something that is being positively impacted by Disney and thus the consumers who purchase Disney products.
Remember how I said this game is about asking the difficult questions you’d never ask someone at a party?
Well, what better example of a question we don’t want to ask ourselves then?
Is it possible that the same storytellers who helped me understand my adolescence could be causing harm to the environment I thought they believed in protecting?
We often understand the world around us by creating a patchwork of external influences. Disney’s paradigm of conservation values has impressed generation after generation and has incentivized us to perform positive action towards the environment long before we can understand it. The quagmire is: not only is this consumer need to protect the environment often created by Disney messaging tactics when children are very young, but it is then exploited with millions of dollars in advertising to children that often includes misleading claims about Disney’s environmental performance.
At the end of every adventure, Disney was always a profit-focused business. The harm is that the palpability of Disney narratives and misleading marketing claims work to skew our already fragile understandings of the environment.
[chill piano groove]
In turn, the halo effect often causes us to adopt Disney’s narrative of corporate environmentalism, our trust in the magnanimous Disney brand and our skewed understanding of the environment are further sustained by ignorance about Disney’s toy production processes. Today, we learned that we can see the journalistic claims we investigated as emblematic of a cultural system sustained by Disney’s corporate environmentalism and that we can push past the projector screen as we remember the forgotten spatial variables that are ignored by these marketing tactics and that the role of the environment is not subject to select business practices.
Well, the game is over and the party might be too.
But thanks for playing anyway, and if you take anything away from this just remember, the best way to ruin the party is to just come out and ask: How do you make sense of the world around us?
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