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"Barbie" A Tale of Two Dolls: Exploring the Movie's Waste vs. Eco-Friendly Production

With billions of Barbies sold and even more plastic waste created, Mattel is evolving Barbie into an eco-friendly role model through sustainable costume design and production practices in her new film.

Barbie is a tale of two dolls. On one hand, she is a pop culture icon approaching her 60th anniversary, with over a billion versions sold, a highly anticipated movie raking in over $1.3 Billion so far, and partnerships with more than 100 major brands.

On the other hand, Barbie symbolizes environmentally damaging plastic waste and excessive consumerism, with estimates that over 1 million metric tons of plastic from Barbie products currently litter landfills or float in the oceans. Her new film highlights efforts to course-correct Barbies planetary impacts through sustainable costume design and production practices.

The vivid, plastic-free costumes in Greta Gerwig’s hit film Barbie represent a step toward sustainability for the iconic doll. By showcasing ethical design practices on screen and off, Barbie is evolving from plastic paradise princess to planet-friendly role model.

Barbie’s wide-reaching cultural influence carries both opportunity and obligation to champion broader change. As costume designer Jacqueline Durran explained, “With the upcoming release of the ‘Barbie’ movie, we knew there was a better way to offer the iconic hot pink color that Barbie is known for without the harsh chemical dyes or synthetic fabrics.”

Durran’s team brought Barbie’s signature looks to life through recycled and upcycled materials. Sources included vintage finds and deadstock fabric discarded by manufacturers. Many costumes also utilized mineral dyes less taxing on the environment compared to conventional textile coloring.

“We were able to use a special non-azo, mineral-based dye that is low-impact, biodegradable and eco-friendly on our 100% plastic-free Pima Cotton basics,” explained sustainable underwear brand The Big Favorite. Their “Better Barbie” collection, including cotton pieces dyed pink with minerals, offers fans a sustainable “Barbiecore” option.

Barbiecore Shop via ThredUp

In another forward-thinking collaboration, Durran partnered with resale platform thredUP to curate a “Barbiecore Dream Shop” of thrifted, Mattel-inspired fashions. This styling guide encourages fans to find Barbie ensembles secondhand versus buying new fast fashion apparel.

As thredUP’s Erin Wallace said, “We hope our #Barbiecore Dream Shop inspires fans everywhere to be mindful of how they participate in the latest trends without missing out on the fun.”

Of course, Barbie’s main act of modeling sustainability happens on screen through the characters’ looks. Costumes were designed for reuse, with Barbie transforming her outfit into a tuxedo in one scene. Vintage pieces were also tailored into modern statement looks, like a ruffled pink dress crafted from a found 1960s curtain.

Upcycling and conscientious sourcing reduced waste in bringing the fashion fantasy to life. And Barbie’s pivot toward eco-conscious style aligns with the character’s forward-looking values around empowerment and inclusivity.

Sustainable Sets and Production

Behind the cameras, the Barbie production sought to mirror the film’s themes of positive social and environmental impact. The Warner Bros. lot housing the shoot was christened “Barbieland” for the duration of filming.

Fittingly, Barbieland met strict sustainability standards on waste diversion, energy use, transportation and giving back. Rigorous protocols enabled the production to achieve the Environmental Media Association’s coveted Gold Seal distinguishing environmentally responsible filming.

To reduce the shoot’s emissions, production relied heavily on electric vehicles, including an electric truck from partner BrightDrop used to transport equipment. Rides were also coordinated to maximize transport efficiency and minimize solo trips.

Single-use plastics were banned in catering and craft services, replaced with compostable bamboo plates and cutlery. Reusable water bottles were standard issue on set to eliminate plastic waste. More than 75% of materials left over from set builds were donated or recycled.

The feel-good vibes even extended to charitable initiatives. Each week, the crew organized a community giveback based on the movie’s theme of spreading joy. Packaging care kits, furnishing schools, and donating art supplies brought Barbie’s spirit of generosity into the real world.

Partners like thredUP and Mattel also supported community organizations through their Barbie collaborations. Sales of Barbiecore items at thredUP generated $30,000 for the women’s poverty relief fund The Barbie Fund. And Mattel donated $25,000 to benefit the nonprofit Dress for Success.

Advancing Toward a Sustainable Future

While critics contend Barbie’s lifestyle promotes overconsumption and plastic waste, the sustainability measures surrounding the new movie provide promising steps forward. The Next Great Generation founder Gary White believes, like people, brands can redeem themselves by evolving.

He reflected, “Hasbro recently announced the end of plastic packaging. LEGO is working hard toward sustainability with investments in Brazil's Cerrado Region. Mattel and Barbie, therefore, have to continue driving toward a zero-plastic world.”

To their credit, Mattel has pledged to use 100% recycled or bio-based plastics in products and packaging by 2030. In 2021, the company achieved nearly 98% recycled/certified paper and wood content in Barbie materials. More broadly, Mattel is working to minimize packaging, utilize ocean-bound plastics, and boost recycling playability of toys.

While some may not look to Barbie as a sustainability champion, her cultural standing means even incremental progress can accelerate change. TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky believes “Corporations have immense power to eliminate the concept of waste.” As awareness grows around plastic’s impacts, fans are pushing brands like Barbie to wield their influence for good.

All signs indicate Barbie is responding. As Jacqueline Durran said, “I’m passionate about reimagining the old and turning it into something entirely new.” By evolving Barbie’s signature plastic aesthetic toward circularity on screen and off, the brand aims to inspire fans to view sustainability through a new lens.

As Barbie learns, progress often means recognizing imperfections of the past while reaching for a values-aligned future. With her new movie, Barbie embraces that self-inquiry spirit, hinting she may yet help spark a rethinking of our plastic world.

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