By Brittney Nial and Maggie Maue

If you have an Internet connection, you’ve probably heard of the newly released Barbie movie. Maybe you’ve already watched the movie, twice. While the set is very pink and plastic, the characters and their struggles are not. Between shots of Venice Beach and Barbieland, the movie explores the difficulty of finding one’s own identity, the reductive tendencies of labels, and the impossibility of perfection including the contradictory expectations we often strive to meet to make everyone happy with who we are.

The movie’s nuanced approach to discussing identity reflects the Barbie parent company, Mattel’s, increasing attempts to encompass this complex world through their dolls.

Mattel sets goal for 100 percent recycled, recyclable, bio-based plastics

In recent years, Mattel has continued to add diverse role models to their collection of Barbies. These include disabled Barbies in 2019, Barbies with more diverse body types between 2015-2017, and Barbies with a wide variety of occupations. But Mattel’s mission to represent “the world as [consumers] see and imagine it” does not stop at how the brand depicts young women; Mattel has also made a move to dramatically improve their products’ sustainability to do their part to address climate change.

In their 2021 Citizenship Report, Mattel announced their goal to achieve 100% recycled, recyclable, or bio-based plastic in products and packaging by 2030, and to reduce their plastic packaging overall by 25%.

Eco-Leadership and Inspiring Women Barbies

One step towards their goal was the Jane Goodall Barbie, released in 2022 along with their “Eco-Leadership” career dolls. The career dolls include a Renewable Energy Engineer, a Chief Sustainability Officer, a Conservation Scientist, and an Environmental Advocate. While all four dolls are made from recycled plastic and are certified carbon neutral (except for the head and hair, Mattel’s site announces), the Jane Goodall Barbie has made the biggest splash due to the real-life woman’s fame. The doll is sold out on the Mattel site, but is available for resale on Amazon, Walmart, and other online stores.

Mattel’s “Eco-Leadership” career dolls. The career dolls include a Renewable Energy Engineer, a Chief Sustainability Officer, a Conservation Scientist, and an Environmental Advocate. Courtesy image.

Environmentally perfect?

Are these new dolls perfect? No. It takes energy to recycle plastics, create a doll, and transport the doll to buyers. And while that energy may be offset by Mattel to create a carbon neutral product, plastic packaging is still plastic packaging. However, as useful as it is to note areas in which sustainability can be improved, we can also learn from the company’s new path and the Barbie movie itself.

As we continue to navigate a changing world climate, there is increasing pressure to be an “environmentalist,” and in turn, increasing expectations placed on the word itself. There are a lot of lifestyle changes being advertised at once, and it can feel impossible to actually start to change.

Is someone an environmentalist if they don’t exclusively thrift, grow their own food, compost, line-dry their clothing, and use exclusively renewable energies to power their lifestyle? Does being an environmentalist mean living like a hermit and denouncing anyone who does not? Can someone be an environmentalist and also eat a hamburger sometimes?

It is not unlike the pressure to be a “thin, but not too thin” woman that Gloria, a “real-world” mom from the movie, rants about in the film.

Dr. Jane Goodall Barbie, released in 2022. Courtesy image.

“Barbie” teaches us to expect perfection, not

The Barbie movie teaches us that it’s normal to struggle under a label. Just as Barbie and Ken have their own separate issues with the different labels they juggle, and Gloria grapples with the pressures of being a likable female, we may struggle to feel like we are adequately doing our part to address climate change. If a Barbie doll can feel this pressure, as Gloria points out, surely the problem is external rather than internal.

In the movie, we see Barbie slowly grow, lean on others, and fall down rather dramatically as she tries to make changes to the world around her. When she gets back up, she does it with the ability to empower others around her to do the same, though she still needs help herself.

In the pursuit of treating our environment better, we cannot expect to do every sustainable lifestyle tip we see advertised. We cannot expect perfection, and we absolutely cannot expect to do it alone. There is a reason that Mattel’s packaging goals are set for 2030, not tomorrow. They expect to have some hiccups.

We all have to start somewhere, and where we start may be different than where our neighbor starts. At the end of the day, the word “environmentalist” may mean different things for different people. That’s okay, it probably should.

If we follow the movie’s advice, we should try our hardest to utilize our local support systems and continue, every month, to try.

Dr. Jane Goodall is an English primatologist and anthropologist.[4] She is considered the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, after 60 years studying the social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees. Goodall first went to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania to observe its chimpanzees in 1960.[5] She is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and the Roots & Shoots programme, and she has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues.

More reading

Jane Goodall Institute 

Barbie Eco-Leadership Dolls

Mattel Inc. About Us 

Brittney Nial and Maggie Maue are incoming UC Davis Communications Interns for Cool Davis for Fall 2023. We are super excited to see more articles like this one from Maggie and Brittney!