How to make your cause go viral: 3 lessons changemakers can learn from the Plastic Free movement

How to make your cause go viral: 3 lessons changemakers can learn from the Plastic Free movement

Today the UK has announced new controls on single use plastics to be introduced in England from April 2020.

After vigorous campaigning by environmental groups, the Government has now announced new measures to ban plastic drink stirrers, restrict the availability of plastic straws and remove plastic cotton buds from public sale.

This result is the kind of systematic change that many campaigners in the ethical and sustainable space would love to see for their cause.

The campaign against single use plastic first gained mainstream momentum when Blue Planet II thrust the issue of plastic pollution into the spotlight, back in October 2017.

Although only one episode of the 7 part series focused on plastic pollution, the footage shocked viewers into action.


Environment Secretary Michael Gove wasn’t alone when he said how he was ‘haunted’ by the images that showed the damage being done to the ocean, animals and sea birds.

An incredible 88% of people who watched the programme say they have since changed their behaviour as a result, making it one of the most influential pieces of mainstream media coverage to happen for the sustainability movement, and sparking a ripple effect of coverage, conversation and behaviour change.

Plastic pollution is just one piece in a complicated puzzle when it comes to combating climate change – but regardless of the focus issue, the desired outcome is the same – behavioural and systematic change.

Changemakers can learn a lot from the virality of the plastic free movement. Particularly from three factors that captured hearts and minds for the cause and inspired people to take action:

Emotional connection

Many people feel a strong emotional connection to the ocean. In fact, scientists believe that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water.

Many artists have involved in the plastic free campaign to produce creative responses to the problem by producing art work from reclaimed ocean plastic and beach litter.

These non-verbal forms of communication often hit us at a deeper emotional level than scientific reports or written coverage.

This, combined with our deeply felt connection to the environment and animals that are suffering as a result of plastic pollution, strikes an emotional cord which creates a feeling of responsibility and a desire to create change.

When connecting people to the emotion in your cause, it’s important not to overwhelm them, or trigger feelings of guilt or shame that they might have been contributing to the problem.

These strong emotions can trigger people’s fight or flight response, which might lead them to resist or ignore your message.

However, stimulating an emotional response and carefully managing it with empathy and compassion can be a great way to relate to your audience and bring them on board with the change you’re trying to create.


Visual evidence

Often in the developed world the impact of our actions and global problems are not visible in our daily lives.

The footage of animals consuming plastic was visceral and shocking – leaving a lasting impression, but the scale of the issue is also visible every day when you start realising how much single use plastic you consume.

Sky Ocean Rescue’s campaign created a 10m whale made up of a quarter of a ton of plastic to represent the amount that enters the world’s oceans every second.

The whale – named Plasticus – toured the UK to raise awareness of the plastic problem.

Visually engaging your audience and showing them the scale of the problem, rather than simply telling them, can be a powerful way to inspire change.

P7 pupils from Lady of the Missions Primary School interact with a 10-metre long whale made entirely from recycled plastic recovered from the ocean, beach cleans and local recycling plants, unveiled by Sky Ocean Rescue at Sky HQ in Livingston to raise awareness of the issue of ocean health.
Photo credit: Sandy Young/PA Wire


Easy to action

The solutions to many global problems are often out of the hands of consumers – or too difficult and overwhelming to implement.

But when it comes to plastic pollution there are some simple and effective changes consumers can make in their everyday lives to have a big difference.

Saying no to the ‘Big 4’ is often promoted as the easiest entry point – encouraging consumers to give up single use plastic bags, bottles, straws and cups.

Giving people actionable first steps to follow is an effective way to get people on board.

From there, you can support them on the journey to make more changes and engage further with the issue, but the first step is usually the hardest – so the easier you can make it for your audience the better.


We still have a long way to go in the fight against single use plastic, but reports show that public interest in the plastic problem is growing.

Google searches about plastic are on the rise and more people are talking about what they can do to reduce their impact.

Public interest is the first step to creating widespread change.

If we can understand what made the plastic revolution catch on with mainstream consumers, perhaps we can capture the same audience for other causes too.

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