habit shift: favorite documentaries.

January 20, 2016

habit shift: documentaries that changed my mind | reading my tea leavesHabit Shift is a new series that I have in the works. I’m hoping the series will offer quick tips, concrete takeaways, and a whole lotta can-do spirit for focusing on ways to shift personal habits in an effort to be little bit more environmentally friendly, a little more healthy, and a little more happy.  Good for us, good for our planet. I hope you like it.

With the Sundance Film Festival officially kicking off tomorrow, I thought it was the perfect time to talk about the list of documentaries that have made an impact on my habits over the past ten or so years. Fair warning: These aren’t exactly feel-good movies. And, if I’m being really frank, some of them border on being a little annoying, or a little depressing, or, well, both! Yay!?

But they’re all films that actually made something click and inspired me to make a change. To be clear: They weren’t films that made me feel hand-wringy and anxious, but they spurred me to change my mind, kick a bad habit, or reassess my choices. Most of them are more than a few years old at this point, but I think they can still hold their own.

In case you’re finding yourself searching for something to occupy these long, dark nights. Here are a few of my favorite habit-shifting documentary recommendations, in no particular order.

King Corn: This one’s a real oldie at this point, but when my brother-in-law and our friend Ian made this way back in 2007, it changed the whole way I thought about the food industry and what I was putting in my mouth (and not just the corn)! Even though we’re all quite a bit older now, it still offers good food for thought. (Currently available to rent on Amazon and iTunes)

Supersize Me: It’s probably not terribly surprising that I’ve never been a huge fast food junkie, but before I watched this movie, I definitely still partook in the occasional road-trip fast food. Afterward, even that paper packet of fries was harder to stomach. (Currently available to rent on Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes.)

Bag It: More than just encouraging me to stop using plastic bags—this film had me reassess my dependency on single-use plastics in general. Prepare to invest in a reusable water bottle and a cloth grocery bag after watching (and maybe to feel less thrilled about your recycling efforts). (Currently available to rent on AmazoniTunes, and Netflix.)

The End of the LineThis film took me on a deep dive (pun, of course, intended) into the world of fish and fisheries that I’d never even considered before I watched it. I’m not a regular fish eater, but when I am, I make sure that the fish I’m eating has been sustainably sourced, all thanks to this film. (Currently available to rent on Amazon and iTunes.)

TappedIf you still haven’t kicked your plastic water bottle habit, this might just be what finally makes you do it. Since watching this, I’m pretty sure I can’t count the number of disposable plastic water bottles I’ve used on one one hand. (Currently available to rent on Amazon and iTunes.)

Toxic Hot SeatThis documentary tackles the chemical industry. In particular, it traces the Chicago Tribune reporting on the chemical flame retardant industry. Fascinating and scary stuff that definitely made me rethink my approach to upholstered furniture. (Available to rent on iTunes)

What about you guys? Anything you’ve watched that made you change your mind about something, or change an old habit?

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  • Reply Caitlyn Hampton January 20, 2016 at 8:24 am

    Oh, thanks! I love finding new ways to stay informed and to learn more about my environmental impact. I appreciate your efforts to spread the word.

    The only one I’ve watched is Supersize Me, which definitely had an impact on my fast food habits. I’m not going to say I’ve stopped eating it entirely, or that I ate a whole lot to begin with, but I’d say I could count on one hand how many times I’ve had it in the past year. Haven’t had a soda in 2-3 years, either!

    What do you do about meat? I can’t recall reading anything on your blog about it, but I’m curious if you try to source it locally or if you abstain from it?

    Have a great morning 🙂

    xo, Caitlyn

    • Reply Erin Boyle January 20, 2016 at 8:54 am

      I do personally abstain. I haven’t eaten red meat since I was about 12, but I also stopped eating poultry after working on a sustainable farm in my mid-twenties. Turns out, even when chickens were being super thoughtfully raised, I still couldn’t bring myself to eat them! James occasionally eats meat and always makes sure it’s sourced carefully!

  • Reply CA January 20, 2016 at 8:25 am

    True Cost! Available on Netflix last I checked. It will change how you think about the clothing and textile industry forever.

    • Reply Erin Boyle January 20, 2016 at 8:45 am

      Ah, yes. I’m already very much converted, but I’ve seen parts of the film and have been meaning to watch the whole thing!

    • Reply meg January 20, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      I was about to comment to recommend True Cost also! I have only bought fairtrade clothing since watching.

  • Reply Christie January 20, 2016 at 8:34 am

    The True Cost, on fast fashion.

    • Reply Ris January 20, 2016 at 9:40 am

      Chiming in to say TRUE COST. Nothing has changed my shopping/purchasing habits more, not just toward clothing but toward everything that is made by someone else, somewhere else. Such an eye-opener.

  • Reply Linda January 20, 2016 at 8:40 am

    Forks Over Knives has made be think twice about a plant based diet…I am not entirely a purist by any measure but it makes me think twice every time I plan meals and most are plant based. Great post today!!!

    • Reply Emma January 20, 2016 at 2:26 pm

      Yes! I second Forks over Knives! Great presentation of research, and very inspiring/habit-shifting for me. I love your new series already!

  • Reply Beth January 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

    Thanks for the recommendations! The documentary No Impact Man really directed my attention towards some habits I could change in regards to how much trash I was creating, the resources I was using, and where my food/goods were sourced from. I would highly recommend for anyone who is wanting to live with less and decrease their carbon footprint.

    • Reply Erin Boyle January 20, 2016 at 9:24 am

      Ah, yes! That one was fascinating, too!

  • Reply laura January 20, 2016 at 9:25 am

    “Vegucated” is what pushed me to become a full-blown “pescatarian”. I used to be okay with eating locally sourced meat but now I just won’t eat meat at all. Fish is another story for me, mostly because I live somewhere where it’s freshly harvested!

    On a fun note, “Meet the Patels” is on Netflix and hilariously sweet! Also “Virunga” shook me to my core. I never cried so hard before and it’s made me rethink how we value and treat animals on this planet.

    • Reply Erin Boyle January 20, 2016 at 12:18 pm

      Shoulda married a lobsterman….;)

      • Reply laura January 20, 2016 at 12:43 pm


  • Reply Sharareh January 20, 2016 at 9:41 am

    There’s also another docu about plastic made by an Austrian whose grandfather once had a plastic toy factory and in his later years he got skeptical and made a film about it. I think it’s called Plastic World or so. That made me desperately try to reduce my allover plastic usage but it is really hard. Try spending a day in a city like Cologne without one single use of plastic, sigh. Also make up, cosmetics, clothes there’s always so much waste involved…

    • Reply Kate January 21, 2016 at 8:56 pm

      “Plastik Planet” by Werner Boote

  • Reply Sara January 20, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Very recently we watched both Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” on PBS (through the app on AppleTV) and the “United State of Trash” episode of Morgan Spurlock’s “Inside Man,” which airs on CNN but is available streaming on Netflix. Both of these documentaries have had an impact on our shopping and cooking habits.

    • Reply Linds January 20, 2016 at 3:16 pm

      I second “In Defense of Food!” I read the book years ago but just watched the documentary recently. Such a good reminder to maintain a plant-based diet.

      Also, can I ask where that beautiful throw is from? Would love to wrap up in it today in chilly Wisconsin.

  • Reply jenn January 20, 2016 at 10:10 am

    Fed Up. It talks about the governments role in our eating habits and it’s very disturbing….

  • Reply Aimee January 20, 2016 at 10:27 am

    All of these sound interesting… Just an FYI, Supersize Me is currently available on Netflix (I just watched it for maybe the 4th time last week).


    • Reply Erin Boyle January 20, 2016 at 10:34 am

      Oh, thanks. Updating with a link now.

  • Reply M. January 20, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Love “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead” and “Forks Over Knives.” I hadn’t considered just how bad the fast food I was occasionally eating might be for me (and the planet, although that came as a later revelation) or how to be proactive about my own long-term health.

  • Reply litterless January 20, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Love this list! Crazily, a documentary totally changed me life (how can that be?!). Forks Over Knives is a compelling look at the benefits of eating more plants. (I see Linda mentioned it above as well!).

  • Reply Yelle January 20, 2016 at 10:49 am

    Awesome list. I haven’t seen the two that talk about plastics, but I would really like to. Growing up, my mom always used plastic water bottles, and I always thought it was so wasteful. I’m so glad, slowly, people are changing their mindset about that.

  • Reply Andreya January 20, 2016 at 10:59 am

    I look forward to checkimg into these. We’ve recently joined the streaming site Doc Club. Its got great stuff.

  • Reply Emmy January 20, 2016 at 11:03 am

    For the animal lovers out there – Blackfish! Also available on Netflix, I think. It’s brutal, but so good and so important for the cause. The more I learn about the emotional and intellectual capacity of orcas and other cetaceans, the more I am amazed! (And frankly, astounded at the lengths we go to as a society to justify captivity of whales and dolphins.)

    • Reply gail January 20, 2016 at 11:48 am

      Absolutely Emmy! Thank you for pointing Blackfish out!

  • Reply Kimberley January 20, 2016 at 11:50 am

    What excellent timing of this post! I watched Cowspiracy this weekend. Having been heading in an entirely vegetarian…vegan direction for a while now (not just having less) this have given me a big final push. It’s on Netflix and is a very frank discussion of the cost to the planet (not just our own bodies) of raising livestock for human consumption. So thought provoking, well worth a watch! (Also Leo is a producer, so there’s that).

  • Reply Rhianna January 20, 2016 at 1:07 pm

    A few that I watched this past year that really impacted me.
    The True Cost.
    Forks Over Knives.

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog a few months ago.

  • Reply Emilie January 20, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Erin, I like the topic of habit switch. One that is finally getting the negative coverage it deserves is white sugar. Are you doing anything on that? We are careful about our diet — but I am so addicted to sugar and its implicated in an awful lot diseases.

  • Reply Annie January 20, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Erin! I’ve been reducing my use of plastic bags for groceries and shopping but I don’t know what to do about non-recyclable trash. What do you use in lieu of plastic trash bags?

    • Reply Erin Boyle January 20, 2016 at 4:30 pm

      We use compostable bags—or we reuse plastic bags that we don’t succeed in keeping out of the house!

    • Reply Samantha January 20, 2016 at 8:29 pm

      This may skeev people out but we don’t use any type of bags to line our garbage cans. We have a small can (our kitchen garbage can is the size of what I think people normally use in a bathroom or under a desk) in our kitchen and bathroom, and both get emptied often and cleaned every few weeks. Sounds gross but I haven’t found it to be any more gross than when we reused grocery bags. Trash is just kinda inherently gross. We live in a city that banned plastic bags a few years ago, and in CA which will (hopefully) start to ban plastic bags in the near future – so we were running out of bags to reuse and I didn’t want to buy them!

      • Reply Erin Boyle January 20, 2016 at 10:09 pm

        Ha! Awesome! We use a teeny tiny kitchen trash can too! Many flights of stairs from our kitchen to the curb makes no bags slightly impractical for the moment, but I’m hoping that will change as we work on reducing our waste! Love this.

        • Reply Annie January 21, 2016 at 5:26 pm

          I’m not ready try the no-bag method just yet but maybe one day! Erin, is there a brand of compostable bags that you recommend? Preferably one I can find on Amazon since we live in different cities – I live in Los Angeles :).

          Random thought: I now want a Netflix account just to watch all these documentaries!

  • Reply Amy January 20, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    Cowspiracy and Hungry for Change both available on Netflix. All I can say is that these along with http://www.nutritionfacts.org have turned me from an omnivore to a vegan for life!

  • Reply Sophia January 20, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    I have to say I’m nervous to watch Toxic Hot Seat because it’s a topic that is so infuriating to me, I don’t know how I’ll cope;) I think about flame retardants a lot when I sit on our couch, not kidding (and it’s hardly relaxing). I can forget about it for a while, but when I remember, I get pissed. The alternative is…well there aren’t many, if you prefer couches, which sucks. There are doable (though extremely pricey) alternatives in the mattress world, but couches?

  • Reply Anonymous January 20, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    What a powerful list of habit shifting documentaries, to be sure! I know nearly all and I dread watching the others, but I must!

    The high level of ambivalence on conservation, environmental awareness, food and/or fabric sourcing is even more shocking live and in person than in a movie/documentary. It’s overwhelming and sad and stares me in the face every day where we live in the southern U.S. (People: Tennessee is in a bad way….) Sure there are small pockets of conscientiousness, but the level of deliberate indifference and simple sheer laziness is truly astounding. I end up feeling like my efforts (really thoughtful, concerted ones likes yours, Erin’s, and the readers here!) are for naught….but they aren’t, I know…

    I look forward to more discussion in your habit shift series!

  • Reply Anonymous January 20, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    yow, grammar correction!

    concerted ones [efforts] like yours, Erin, and the readers’ here

  • Reply steph January 20, 2016 at 9:08 pm

    Great list! I got to meet the filmmakers of King Corn at a film fest and have worked with the director of Bag It for years at another fest. Kudos for sharing these small but mighty films!

  • Reply Sami Garcia January 20, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    Plastic Paradise really hit home for me. Since watching it shortly after its release we have started transitioning toward zero-waste.

  • Reply Elisa January 21, 2016 at 2:20 am

    Cowspiracy (on netflix): about the link between the meat industry & climate change, one of the last big secrets…why is no one speaking about it? If we all stop eating meat, emissions in greenhouse gases would reduce immensly!

  • Reply Susana Galli January 21, 2016 at 5:15 am

    “what a strange way of life” is a new release documentary about life in a eco-community, two very different villages in the country, and one in a city, it’s based in Europe, very inspiring too! available here: https://vimeo.com/user28143116/what-a-strange-way-of-life

  • Reply Emma January 21, 2016 at 6:14 am

    We feed the world! (Austrian documentary on food production and food waste – though they look at it internationally) – we actually went to the cinema with my school to see it. Especially the part about chicken, bread and fish was so shocking.

    There have been many more, but this one really is the one that stuck with me, maybe because it was one of the first ones I saw.

    Also amazing, when it comes to conscious consumerism: Anything from Feminist Frequency about toys (did you know lego has been cradle to cradle from the start?) and the very short, but on point youtube clip from ‘the checkout’ called ‘gender marketing’ – so interesting when it comes to pricing of products for females and males.

    I’m also really looking forward to the Fattitude documentary being released this spring. Though it is a little different from the ones you mentioned topic wise.

  • Reply marie January 21, 2016 at 6:59 am

    More than Honey …made me think of many things. Pesticides, the possible threat to existence for bees, mass production. But it’s not just depressing. It’s also so amazing what is shown about very different bees.

  • Reply TC January 21, 2016 at 7:07 pm

    Blackfish and The Cove made me passionate about no longer supporting marine animal parks. I’ve been wanting to see Race to Extinction, but I know it’ll be a downer. Usually I love a good downer — The Sixth Extinction was one of my favorite books of the last few years — but I have to be in the right mood.

  • Reply Karen January 22, 2016 at 10:52 am

    “Who Killed the Electric Car” prompted me to change my commute. Instantly. (And I drove a car fueled with biodiesel at the time!)

    My 50-mile, 1-hour commute to work turned into a 1.5-hour public transit, 2-bus commute (featuring a new bonus: Knitting time!)

    It is a bit older now, and the electric-car landscape has changed, but it was SO infuriating and definitely triggered a more sustainable habit for me.

    Thanks for the post! Love the idea of ‘habit shift.’

  • Reply alex chua January 22, 2016 at 11:28 pm

    Thank you for this. I’ve been considering going vegetarian for a while and The End of the Line, pretty much decided me on it.
    Please continue to write thoughtful posts like this one and Zero-waste Resolutions for a New Year. It’s really wonderful to see that there are simple changes we can make to start reducing our carbon foot print and to live more thoughtfully and conscientiously.

  • Reply Margaret January 25, 2016 at 10:56 am

    Outside of the food habits that have changed, I also watch What Would Jesus Buy with Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping about every year around Christmas. Billy is an incredible performance artist who sheds light on Americans’ shopping habit, specifically centering on Christmas Time. And it’s incredible. There are hilarious parts and greatly troubling parts. (The full movie is on Youtube!)

    My habits also change after watching documentaries about artists who live their dreams – like, Man on Wire.

  • Reply kathryn January 28, 2016 at 10:37 am

    habits are a shifting! two nights ago, my husband and i watched Bag It (rented from our local library in edmonton, alberta, canada for a whopping $0.00). last night, i sewed us a set of cloth produce bags using some funky fabric i received for christmas. it took no more than 6 minutes per bag,. man alive! — there’s something to be said about the satisfying aesthetic of a cloth bag. thanks for the gentle reminder that we all need to be more aware and start making changes in our lives.

  • Reply Gigi January 28, 2016 at 11:58 pm

    Dear Erin,

    This is actually my first comment! I love your blog and enjoy the thought you put into curating every post. 🙂 I discovered Marble & Milkweed through your site!!

    Anyhow, I came back to this post expressly to highly recommend “Cowspiracy,” a documentary that my campus screened tonight. As a self-proclaimed environmentalist who thought that everything could be solved by installing solar panels and driving Prii (plural for Prius? :-p), I was stunned to find out from the movie that the meat (yes, including fish) and dairy industry, regardless of small or factory farms, present the largest threats to environmental destruction and also to climate change, solely based on land use requirements and methane (more potent than CO2) production, etc. On the flip side, I found it quite empowering that we as consumers can actually make a huge impact by changing our diet to plant-based foods. You definitely don’t need a PhD to help solve climate change. Whereas the technology for clean energy may take many more years to become established and economical, we can easily make the decisions to eat beans, legumes, and nuts instead of animals. This change doesn’t require huge monetary investments in infrastructure, blah blah — it only requires our willpower and will really benefit our own health and the environment. Summary: Great documentary!! Also, Kip has a cute style of narrating and uses great animated metaphors, which help to balance the seriousness of the issue with uplifting humor.

  • Reply Lauren February 9, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    Hi Erin,

    I love your blog! I’ve made so many positive changes in our household since I started reading your blog and book.
    I’m curious what you do about trash in your household. Do you have a method to avoid plastic trash bags? I’ve seen some “eco friendly” trash bags on Amazon but just wondering what you do.


    • Reply Erin Boyle February 9, 2016 at 2:58 pm

      We have a tiny garbage can and we use compostable bags in that!

  • Reply Kate March 5, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    Check out “Cooked” on Netflix for more conscious eating (plus it’s beautifully shot!) and the waste episode of Morgan Spurlock’s “Inside Man”, also on Netflix. It challenged me to reduce my plastic consumption as much as possible.

  • Reply Anna Claire July 14, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    I’m really late on this, but the documentary Cooked by Michael Pollan on Netflix is truly inspiring. It’s one that makes you feel great about your current choices, encourages you to bake some bread, and is only slightly depressing. Not to mention, it’s 4 shorter episodes, which makes it super easy to watch.

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