The Story of Stuff: A Conversation with Annie Leonard

Annie Leonard talks about the path to a healthy community, taking back our democracy and the three things that make people happy.

Annie Leonard has spent twenty years investigating where our stuff comes from, how we use it and where it goes. She is the creator of The Story of Stuff project, a series of films that discuss democracy, water bottles, cap and trade, electronics and cosmetics. She has traveled to 40 countries and visited hundreds of factories and dumps. Leonard has observed the effects of over and under-consumption all over the world, and is dedicated to building a clean, green, healthy, safe community for everyone.

We caught up with her recently to talk about how the Staten Island dump, Pacific Northwestern clear cuts and planned obsolescence helped fuel the passion that is now her career.

How did you start down this road of activism? What influenced you and when?

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and I went camping a lot as a kid. I loved the feeling of being in forests. There was something about it that felt so grounded and so good. So, when I saw these vicious, huge clear cuts, I remember feeling that something is wrong, so I planned to be a forest activist when I grew up. I went to college in New York City, which is a funny place to go to be a forest activist, but it turned out to be really smart.

I would walk to school every day, and there would be these huge, literally shoulder-high, piles of garbage. And I started wondering, what was in all those bags? So I started looking in garbage and I was amazed to see that it was almost all paper. My beloved forests are being chopped down to be made into paper, and the paper is going into the garbage, but where does it go afterward? So I took a field trip to the dump on Staten Island where New York City’s garbage goes. I really recommend everyone go visit the dump. It’s a fascinating thing to see the back end of where all our stuff comes out.

I’ll never forget this moment. I stood there as a sophomore in college looking out at this pile of waste. As far as I could see there were shoes and appliances and books and food and everything you could imagine, and I thought, “My God, we have a real problem. We have built our economy on the unsustainable flow of materials from resources to waste.”

So I decided to figure it out. I studied garbage and waste management in school. I went to Washington DC, worked for environmental groups and spent the next twenty years traveling around the world visiting factories where our stuff is made, visiting dumps, and interviewing people about toxins and chemicals and pollution and garbage and consumption and figuring out how to put the pieces together to understand what was going on. And that’s what I summarized in The Story of Stuff film and book.


When did you create The Story of Stuff and what was your goal?

For about ten years, I had been practicing different ways of talking about where our stuff comes from and where it goes, and I was finding that the more that I learned about it and the more my expertise grew, the less I could communicate with people in a way that they found accessible and relevant.

I tried to figure out if there was a way we could talk about environmental issues that’s fun and easy and welcoming and not all science, charts and graphs, and not all about guilt and fear and shame. Guilt and fear and shame are not powerful places to hang out, yet so many environmentalists bombard the public with those things.

So I developed this talk and turned it into The Story of Stuff film. I must have given that talk a hundred times, and every time, someone would say, can you make a movie of this? So, after three years of resisting, I did the talk one last time and a friend of mine filmed it. We took the film to Free Range Studios, who are these absolute geniuses at capturing different issues in these do-gooder films online.

We put it online free in December 2007. Our goal – our dream – was that 50,000 people would watch it. We thought if we could get 50,000 people to watch this film, then we could really get people talking about this stuff. To our utter amazement, we got 50,000 people in one day. We are now at over 12 million views of the original film and we’ve made additional films and now we’ve had 20 million views total. All of our films are these short, fun films that look at really serious issues about what’s wrong with our materials economy.

I have been so excited about the response, because these are difficult issues to talk about, everything from planned obsolescence (where product designers make stuff designed to break) to corporate influence in democracy. We’ve found a fun way to talk about it and people are watching and having these amazing conversations all over the world. The films have been watched in over 200 countries, shown in schools and churches and synagogues and festivals and conferences – it’s so cool to see all the ways people are using them to spark much-needed conversation.


Where do your ideas for topics come from?

I have been looking at how we make, use and throw away stuff for a long time, so I have lots of things I’d love to talk to people about, but first we pick issues we feel are big chunks of the problem, things we need to be talking about. We also pick things that tend to be technical or there’s just not a lot of discussion about it – things like manufactured demand or planned obsolescence or corporate hijacking of our democracy. We also focus on what our viewers want to hear. We get hundreds and hundreds of emails every week and I really like to get a sense of what people really want to understand more about.

I would talk about how it is absolutely possible to build a safe, healthy, fair society – I am absolutely convinced of it. The technology exists, the research exists, we absolutely could do it, but people would raise their hands and say, yes, but we can’t because we are butting up against the coal industry and the oil industry and corporations have too much control of Congress and we can’t get good laws passed because corporations get mad. So we made a film about corporate power and some steps we can take to reign in corporate power in our democracy so we can take our democracy back.

Our next film is called The Story of Broke. Wherever I go and talk about how we can make a safe, healthy, fair and fun society, people write back and say, “There’s no money for that. It’s a nice idea, safe products and clean energy – but there’s no money for that.” But the truth is – there IS money for it. There’s a lot of money for it. It’s actually our money, because it’s our government and we’re giving that money right now to nuclear reactors, loan guarantees, and enormous subsidies for incredibly profitable oil and gas companies. So we should get involved with what’s happening to it. And right now it’s being used to prop up the dinosaur economy and what we should use it for instead is to build a healthy, fair future.

We have more ideas and requests that we can possibly do. We want to watch the response to each film and pay attention to what’s happening in society, and we really want to respond to our viewers. We’re trying to provide the information that they need to engage in the conversation. One of the things we definitely want to look at in one of the next couple of films is solutions. We want to really focus on how many solutions are out there – there are so many, it’s just incredible how possible it is to make clean, green, safe, healthy stuff.

What direct impact has The Story of Stuff had?

It’s interesting with online work is that you don’t really know what direct impact it has really had. Part of what we do know is anecdotal. We hear lots and lots of stories from people who say, “I never thought about where our stuff comes from and where it goes until I saw your films. And because of that film, I am rethinking the role of stuff in my life. I am looking for ways to buy stuff used, to share things, to find happiness through other ways than going shopping.” Thousands and thousands of incredibly heartwarming stories like that make us really happy.

We can track how many people watch it online and people have watched it in every single country except one in the middle of Africa. We can track what resources they download and those materials have been downloaded tens of thousands of times. So we absolutely know that we are contributing to thinking and talking about these issues. The only way we’ll really know if it’s working is if we can build up enough power in this country to demand a clean, green and healthy economy. Then we’ll know that we’ve won.


If you could tell everyone in the world (or just the U.S.) to make one change in their lives to make the biggest impact, what would it be?

I think if I could just pick one, what I would say is to develop the infrastructure and culture for sharing. There are lots of solutions to the problems we face that are very complex and technical, but there are also some that are very simple, and bringing back sharing is one.

As we’re in tough economic times and as we’re bumping up against the planet’s limits, we are going to have to learn how to live well with less stuff. It’s crazy in this country for EVERY single house to have a wheelbarrow, a power drill and a lawn mower and a cupcake tin and all these things that you only use a few times a year. So if we share, it means we have to mine less metals, cut less trees, we can make our resources go further if one lawn mower or power drill can serve six families instead of just one.

Perhaps the most important part of sharing is that it’s better for our happiness. Because if you’re going to share something, you have to talk to people, you have to have friends, you have to have community. And the more we can develop friends and community and get out of our social isolation that this country is experiencing, the less we’re going to feel the need to go out and go shopping because we can find fun and meaning in our sense of community. It’s better for the planet, better for our economy, and way more fun.

Speaking of possessions, what is your most cherished possession?

You know what I really love? I love my clothesline. Because I’m often so busy, having a clothesline in my backyard makes me pause twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon, to just spend ten minutes standing in my garden. It makes me feel connected to the natural environment because the sun is drying my clothes. It just makes me slow down and take a breath and just have a moment to reflect on my day and have gratitude for all that I have. When I travel, I even take a little clothesline with me.

Who are your real-life heroes?

People often ask how I remain so hopeful and it’s because there are so many people helping to make the world better in so many ways. But for me, the real heroes are the everyday moms who are just trying to get dinner on the table and get their kids to do well in school, who are standing up and taking a stand against corporate polluters. People like Lois Gibbs. She was the mother at Love Canal (a town near Niagra Falls, New York).

For decades, a chemical company had poured their toxic waste into a canal and covered it up with dirt. Then they sold it to a school district for some nominal fee. Lois Gibbs and the other moms began noticing a very high rate of rare and very serious diseases, a lot of miscarriages, and kids getting really sick. She figured it out, about this toxic waste that was seeping into the school as well as into a bunch of the basements in this town.

She was a mom without a college degree in any of these issues, and no scientific training. She started putting together the data and faced enormous ostracism from the community. She risked threats of violence and she still demanded that the government come and clean up the mess, and move the people out of there whose houses were built on this toxic waste site.

It’s people like that, who, when life is hard enough, are able to still find the strength to stand up to the forces against us, and demand something better. They inspire me so much. I just feel like if they can do it, I can certainly do it.


What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Two things. I am very proud that The Story of Stuff has been so well-received. I am enormously happy that we figured out a way to talk about complex issues in a fun way.

I am also happy about how I have been able to integrate many of the lessons I’ve learned into my own life. So that my life, while far from perfect, has been made better by changes I’ve made because of the things I’ve learned from doing this research. For example, there are six households on my block that are very, very good friends and we share everything from childcare to cutting each other’s hair to a pickup truck.

When people ask me how do I know sharing and having community is better than having massive credit card debit and going to the mall, I know because I live it. I can speak with a real authenticity, that sharing, that taking meaning through community and making the world better is just way more fun than being on this hyper-consumption, consumer mania treadmill. I’m happy with my work and I’m happy with my community.

I watched Citizens United v. FEC. It is particularly relevant since we are facing an election in the next year. Do you think that people will stand up and demand change, or are they so discouraged that they won’t try, and no change will happen for a long time?

I think, both. I think people are already starting to speak up, like this amazing protest in front of the White House last month about the Tar Sands pipeline. I watched it feeling so hopeful, because they weren’t just Greenpeacers and Rainforest Action Network types, there were people who said they never attended a protest before, but they just couldn’t take it any longer. They realized that corporations all over Capitol Hill are making their voices heard, and if we are going to make our voices heard, it is time for really dire action. I saw one interview with a rancher who said he’d just had it with the government’s inability to act on climate change. I saw a grandmother from Texas. It was just so inspiring to see regular folks saying “I’ve just had enough. I’m ready to put my body on the line to have my concern for the climate be heard.”

I feel very hopeful about that kind of things that’s happening all over the world – people getting involved. I also think people are frustrated, especially after this last presidential election when people volunteered and donated money and knocked on doors and did all this work for change, and there hasn’t been enough change. And so I’m worried that people are going to choose to check out of the political process and I appeal to them – this is NOT the time to do that. The most important battle that we will ever face in our lifetime is wrestling back our democracy from the corporate interests. We have got to stay engaged, we have got to not hand over our democracy.

We have to really encourage people we know to get involved in making our voices heard. It is absolutely true that these super-rich, big companies are controlling the dialogue right now, but there are more of us, than of them. So every day that we do not voice our opinions, we’re actually voting for the status quo to continue. We’ve simply got to engage.

This country is way too incredible and wonderful and valuable to just hand off to people who don’t actually care about it. So we need to take our country back. And then, once we’ve done that, we can deal with the kinds of issues that I talked about in The Story of Stuff. We can make our products safe and our schools good and our environment clean. But we’ve got to get the power so our government is working for us, instead of the big companies.

What is your idea of true happiness?

It’s hard for me to separate my own ideas and thoughts from all the data that I’ve read. I’ve done a huge amount of looking into what actually makes people happy. I was very interested in the fact that we have more, better, cooler stuff than at any time throughout history, but our happiness levels are actually going down.

It turns out that there are three things that make people happy. The first one is the quality of our social relationships and having friends and family and community. The second thing is having leisure time and not working around the clock. We work so many hours in this country. We work about 300 hours more per year than our counterparts in Europe do. So we’re exhausted and socially isolated. The third big one is having meaning in life.

That resonated so much with me. For me, true happiness is if everyone on the whole planet has those things. A healthy, strong community, some leisure time, so we can invest in art, in community, in family, the environment, civic activities, and having a purpose in life.

Visit The Story of Stuff to view the videos and be notified about new topics.

Images: The Story of Stuff Project

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.