Environmental activist Annie Leonard’s twenty-minute online film, The Story of Stuff, created in collaboration with Berkeley’s Free Range Studios, became a viral hit when it launched in 2007. It was an incisive, easy-to-understand critique of how our consumer culture trashes global resources by encouraging us to endlessly acquire—and then dump—more “stuff.” Her Web site, StoryofStuff.org, is now a platform for new short films, including The Story of Cap & Trade, which launched in December, 2009. This March The Story of Stuff will be released as a book. I spoke with Leonard at her Berkeley office about her projects, her surprise success, and how her lifetime fascination with garbage began.
How did you get so interested in stuff?
I grew up in Seattle, in a family and school where there was a real appreciation of the outdoors. I spent a lot of time in the forests, in the north Cascades especially. As [we drove] to go camping each summer, we would pass the clear-cuts. We’d be in this Datsun station wagon going through these little mountain roads, and these trucks would come by with these huge logs on them. There was just something about it that felt so violent and wrong. I decided I was going to be a public lands activist. I actually thought I would be the first female Secretary of the Interior. Meanwhile I had become infatuated with New York. I wanted to go to college in New York even though that was obviously a dumb place to go if you wanted to be Secretary of the Interior.
[At Columbia], I studied environmental science and got fascinated by this microcosm of materials flow, the piles and piles of garbage along upper Broadway. My dorm was on 110th Street and the campus was on 116th Street and I would walk those six blocks every day and see shoulder-high piles of garbage. It was just amazing to see so many bags. I started digging through these bags because I was so curious about what was in them. I couldn’t believe how much stuff there was, but also how much paper there was. I don’t know what the statistics were then, but now forty percent of garbage
in this country is paper. I said, “That’s what these logs were being cut down for? That’s why those trees are being cleared and those forests felled?”
I signed up to take a tour of Fresh Kills landfill, this gigantic landfill in Staten Island. In every direction as far as I could see was just stuff. You know, appliances and clothes and shoes and pizza boxes and food. I was stunned at both the level of waste and that nobody was talking about this, as if I had stumbled on some secret mass grave. I kept thinking, “How is this happening? How did we build an economy based on such a massive level of destruction?” I vowed to figure it out. I became totally obsessed with garbage.
I was very lucky to be able to get a job at Greenpeace working on garbage. It was the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, and there was massive community opposition to landfills and incinerators in this country. There were about 400 incinerators proposed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in the US and three-quarters of them were stopped because of community opposition. There was a real pressure about “What are we going to do with our waste?” Greenpeace had the idea—which like many people in Berkeley I thought was a good idea—to make it increasingly difficult and expensive, increasingly strictly regulated, increasingly politically unpopular to build incinerators and dump your stuff in dumps, the idea being that the harder it gets to throw it away, the more motivation there is to reduce the waste upstream.
But we didn’t foresee that some real sleazy schmucks would just load their garbage onto ships and take it around the world and dump it on other countries. I was amazingly fortunate to be at Greenpeace right when they started this campaign, and I spent almost a decade traveling around the world tracking our garbage. I tracked US garbage ships to Haiti, [I went to] South Africa, all over Asia, just all over the place.
How did seeing where our trash ends up change your perspective?
It’s left me with this kind of social neurosis. I can’t help it, whenever I look at anything I just think of its lifecycle. I’ve been to literally hundreds of factories where stuff is made and dumps where stuff is dumped, all over the world except Antarctica. When I look at anything I think about where it came from.
A lot of people say that I’m anti-stuff, and some people that lack a critical thinking muscle email me to say, “If you’re so against stuff, where did you get that shirt you’re wearing?” I’m not against stuff. It’s actually the opposite—I’m pro-stuff. I’m into having knowledge and appreciation and reverence for our stuff. [She holds out her Blackberry.] These metals were mined somewhere. Some habitat was destroyed to get these metals. These chemicals that are inside it, the flame retardants, there’s probably a PVC coating on it—all these chemicals were produced at some factory that made some kid sick somewhere. There’s energy use, it was shipped around the world. So much is embodied in this that what I want to do is appreciate it and take care of it and to keep it as long as possible.
I’m not against consumption; I’m against consumerism, which is the particular kind of consumption where we try to meet our emotional needs and show our status through our stuff. If you’re cold, get a sweater, no problem, I’m not against that. But if you think you’re better than the person with an older sweater next to you, or if you have eight sweaters while someone is cold next to you, or if your sweater was made at the expense of workers using toxics, pesticides, and heavy metal dyes, those are a problem.
How did you branch out into public speaking?
I did a lot of talks being on staff at Greenpeace, working more and more with people around the world on environmental health and justice issues. But I finally realized I needed to come back to the US because the US was the driver of so much of this. I tracked the export of our hazardous
waste overseas. I tracked the export of our hazardous technologies overseas, things like incinerators that we don’t want here anymore but US companies are exporting overseas. I tracked the export of hazardous products like cigarettes or banned pesticides that we don’t want but we export. But I realized that the most dangerous thing that we were exporting is this toxic-based consumer-driven economic model. I realized I’ve got to come home and try to get us to slow down our consumption because we’re modeling this around the world. We’re telling people everywhere that they can live like this … when already we’re using one and a half planet’s worth of resources a year. If everybody lived like we do in the US we’d be using five!
You joined Berkeley’s Rockwood Institute leadership training program to learn about publicizing your message.
We had this exercise where you had to stand up in front of the group and you have five minutes to explain your purpose. I am such a materials geek and technical wonk that I stood up there and said, “My purpose is to bring about a paradigm shift in our relationship to materials.” I said, “We use too much materials, and we use too toxic materials.” I gave this whole talk—I’d been doing this for twenty years and I was very confident. At the end Eli [Pariser] from MoveOn, obviously a smart guy, raised his hand and said, “I have no idea what you just said!”
I was like, “What is not to understand—too much materials, too toxic materials?” And Eli said, “What is a material?” I asked, “What do you mean, ‘What is a material?’ It’s everything, it’s what you’re holding, it’s what you’re sitting on.”
And he looked and said, “I’m sitting on a chair.” That was the most important moment. I said, “Is that what you guys see when you look at that—your brain says ‘chair?’” And they were like, “Yeah, what does yours say?”
I said, “Mine says: ‘Wood, it looks like teak. I wonder if it came from Malaysia or Indonesia? I wonder which people got kicked out of the forest to make that? I wonder if it’s a clear-cut now or a palm oil plantation? It looks like PVC—I wonder if it’s got flame retardant?’”
They were just like, “Oh my God.” They said, “You are lost.” They wrote me off. They said, “You will never be able to talk about this to people who are not already talking about it.” They said that my talk was so full of jargon.
Van Jones [founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights] told me never to say the phrase “paradigm shift” in relation to materials in public ever again. He said that I was starting the conversation twenty years into it. He said, “You just spent twenty years looking at factories and dumps around the world—we didn’t. So you’re starting out there and we’re like, ‘chairs.’” That was so useful.
What happened next?
On the last session of this Rockwood training, almost as a joke, I got this big piece of paper and I drew this cartoon, “The Story of Stuff.” And they LOVED it. I was like, “You’re kidding, I just drew stick figures!”
Activists often take the wrong tack on communication. I did this in the first communication exercise I had in talking to this group—I realized in hindsight that my goal was to show them how much I knew, to share my most advanced thinking, to do as much of a brain dump as I could manage to establish myself as a credible source of information. I realized it was much more [about] showing off in a way, not so that they would think I was cool, but so they would think I was a valuable source of information on this so that they would want to come to me. … [But] as organizers it’s not our goals to tell every single thing we know to everybody. It’s to make a connection so that we can go on that journey together. They told me to take my center of gravity out of my head and put it into my heart and connect to people as humans.
How did you turn your cartoon into a film?
I was getting invited to do this talk all the time. I did it so many times I thought, “I’m going to barf if I have to give this talk again.” Every time after I would give the talk someone would raise their hand and say, “Do you have a film of this talk?” So I just collected all their names. I didn’t have any good film, and I’m busy and I just didn’t believe anybody would watch it. Films are expensive—it’s hard to make a film. Finally [a] funder gave me a seed grant and assigned her communications director to work with me. We took a film of me doing the talk live, and then we took it around to some different production houses and asked how they might make a film of it. I just loved Free Range Studios. I thought they were really creative. By then I had this pile of people who said they’d help so I wrote back to all of them and said, “Remember that talk that you saw a few years ago that you liked? We’re making a movie, you want to help?” Thank goodness so many people pitched in.
What did you think would happen when you released the movie online in 2007?
I just expected, phew, I don’t ever have to do that goddamn talk any more. I remember Free Range said, “Annie, you might need some help with this after you launch it.” And I was like, “Help with what? It’s a twenty-minute cartoon, you put it on the Web, what is there to do? I’ll just have to update the Web site once in a while.” I was so naïve. We had thought that success would be 50,0000 people watching it, and we got that in like four hours. We were getting emails from people literally all over the world. Now it’s been viewed online about 8 million times by people in 223 countries and territories.
Why do you think that happened?
I think a huge part of it was the moment. We’re trashing the planet, we’re trashing each other and we’re not even having fun—those three things are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
You got some flack from people who thought not buying stuff is unpatriotic.
Isn’t that so funny? I feel like the best way we can honor and pay tribute to our country is by pointing out where things are going wrong. It’s like, if you’re in a ship and it’s sinking and you point out that it’s sinking, is that anti-ship?
Was making the film free online part of its success?
When I was making it, I had another friend who works for an environmental group who was also making a film and he was making his available for $19.95 if you buy the DVD online. I told him, “Make it free, the new price point is free. The goal is getting the message out.” We had some arguments. He said, “No, people value stuff more if they pay for it.”
This movie, the viral success of it has just shocked everybody. Even before we made it, Free Range Studios, which knows so much about this, said twenty-minute things don’t go viral. They said, “Your primary distribution strategy will be DVDs.”
We do distribution by DVDs because a lot of places don’t have access to high-speed Internet. Some people have written to us and given us a hard time about the materials in the DVDs, but from my international travels I know that there’s such a digital divide. I didn’t want to limit this conversation to people who have high-speed Internet. We’ve sold a lot of DVDs to Native American communities, to public schools that don’t have Internet access, to Russia, China, India, places all over the world.
Why do a book too?
It’s one way to make it available beyond the high-speed Internet crowd. Also, I couldn’t fit all this in the movie. I had to leave a lot out. The number one complaint that The Story of Stuff movie gets is “You left something out.” I get that all the time. And I’m like, “Guys, cut me some slack, it’s a twenty-minute cartoon! I’m taking on the entire global materials economy!” I tried to talk really fast but there’s only so much you can say in twenty minutes.
There are four things that the book has beyond the movie. One is more detail. A lot of people wrote and wanted more detail: Is extraction always bad, could mining be reformed, are all chemicals bad, are all corporations bad?
Second thing is there are more explanations and alternatives and solutions. … People often ask, “What are the ten things I can do to save the planet?” and I’m like, “There aren’t ten things to do.” But I do recommend individual actions, and Appendix 1 is examples of the kinds of policies and reforms and laws that people could work for. So the third thing is more examples of ways to get involved.
The fourth is more personal stories. I was kind of hesitant to include this because it felt so narcissistic to talk about my own travels, but the publisher convinced me that it allows people to relate to me as a person. Not everybody is interested in the technical makeup of organochlorines and medical waste management techniques.
One of the book’s big recommendations is that we should value time over stuff.
Right now the people of the United States work longer hours than probably any other industrialized country. Juliet Schorr, who wrote The Overworked American, said that we’re working more hours now than in feudal society. In between feudal society and now, it got better for a while during the Industrial Revolution. In the Industrial Revolution there were gains in productivity and we chose a different path than Europe—we chose to trade those gains in productivity for more stuff. So we continued to work long hours but we have huge houses, huge cars, huge refrigerators, multiple televisions—I mean we have more and bigger stuff than anybody in any other country. Europe took a different path. They chose to trade those gains in productivity for more leisure. So if you spend time in Europe, their apartments are smaller, their fridges are smaller, their cars are smaller and fewer, they invested in public transportation instead of in a car ownership society. They have less stuff. It’s a less commodified society and there’s more leisure.
Are they happier?
All the data shows that they’re happier. The Happy Planet Index by the New Economics Foundation looks at happiness over resource use, which means: How efficient is that country at converting resources into well-being? They consider happiness [to be] life satisfaction times life expectancy. The United States [ranks] 114th out of 143. All of Asia, all of Latin America, all of Europe except Luxembourg, most of the former Soviet Union—almost everybody was above us [in 2009] except for one Middle Eastern country like the United Arab Emirates because they have such intensive resource use, and Africa. Costa Rica was number 1 in 2009, which is interesting because they’ve also abandoned their defensive military and diverted all those resources into social well-being. They have a higher life expectancy than us, a higher life satisfaction than us, and they are using a quarter of the resources.
You also recommend more sharing.
There is no reason not to do it: less resource use [and] you save money. If you save money you don’t have to work as much so you can have more leisure time. Another thing is you have to talk to people to share. When you look at the data of how we are working longer hours than at any time in recent history, where is all that time coming from? Where there’s less time spent is in community engagement and civil society.
There is this terrifying downward spiral where we are so exhausted and stressed and socially isolated, we’re spending less time investing into community, so community is less able to provide the resources it used to provide: entertainment, free childcare, someone to bring you food when you are at home sick, someone to bring in your mail when you are traveling, a ride to the airport, help moving. Those things get commodified, which means we have to work more to pay for them all.
Are you turning StoryofStuff.org into a channel for other films? In December you released The Story of Cap & Trade, and you’re also planning to do films on electronics and bottled water.
We were getting about 10,000 views a day and I thought, “If this many people are looking, we might as well give them some new information.” We decided we would work with partner groups that were working on issues directly related to systems of production and consumption. Our criteria is that [they be] more solutions-oriented. … Another criteria is that the organization we’re partnering with would do the follow-up work. We’re not going to start campaigns on cap and trade and bottled water and electronics and cosmetics. There are very good organizations on those issues. We wanted to encourage our viewers to contact them.
Another criteria is that the new films [be] emblematic of a key point of The Story of Stuff. The bottled water one is about manufactured demand. How was it that they got us all to spend $2 for a glass of water when you can get it for a cent at the faucet? The electronics one is about planned obsolescence.
How do you want people to use these films?
We use a Creative Commons license specifically because we want people to do whatever they want with these films. Anybody is allowed to download it for free. On the Web site for The Story of Stuff we have downloadable posters to announce a screening, downloadable invitations for house parties, and a little kit about how to have a house party. We want people to show these films and start a discussion with their classmates, their community.
The goal of making The Story of Stuff was to turn the volume up on public discourse around how we make, use and throw away stuff. I don’t have a particular thing I want [people] to do. If they’re turned on by gardening, they should start community gardens. If they’re turned on by transportation, they could fight for bike lanes. If they’re sick of working like dogs, they could fight for a mandatory vacation law.
Why did you do The Story of Cap & Trade? It’s about an abstract idea, not about a kind of stuff.
The cap and trade one was different because it was an emergency. Because of my work internationally I knew a lot of environmental activists in other countries and a lot of them are in the countries that are bearing the brunt of climate change. They felt excluded from the policy discussions and they were deeply concerned that this cap and trade approach was not going to work … [and] asked me if I would please work with members of Climate Justice Now! to make a film that would encourage critical discussions about cap and trade.
I called so many environmental groups around here and asked them, “What do you think about cap and trade?” Everybody I talked to said it doesn’t meet what the science says we need, it probably won’t work, but it’s the best we’re going to get. … I had this existential crisis because a lot of the groups that I knew said, “Don’t make that film, because it’s going to jeopardize our chance to get this bill, and even though it won’t work it’s the best we’re going to get.” And I said, “Well, it’s definitely the best we’re going to get if that’s all we ask for.”
What are your objections—you like the “cap,” but not the “trade” part?
“Cap” means you put a limit on how much carbon you’re producing. Duh, of course we need to do that. We’re producing too much carbon; we have to put a cap immediately. But then the devil’s in the details.
One of the devils is that the current bill in the US Congress is called “cap and give-away,” you cap how much carbon there is and then you make permits for companies to release that carbon. The companies get these permits for free. The other approach is that you charge the companies for the permits and you can use the money for all kinds of things to help transition to a clean energy economy, to help low-income residents deal with the higher cost of energy during this transition. We should charge them for [permits]—that should be a cost of doing business.
The second thing I’m concerned about is the offsets, which sort of ruins the whole point of cap and trade. With offsets if one reduces their emissions below how many permits they have, they can sell their permits to someone else. There are a number of problems with that. One is that it means there is more pollution still. If you’ve reduced [emissions], someone else has increased it, so it’s the same. Another thing is there tend to be pollution hotspots in those situations, which brings up a real environmental justice issue. In some communities people have the political clout to demand that their companies clean up, and in other communities they don’t. … [By] allowing companies to do these offsets I fear that you’ll see a migration of dirty industries to these communities that are perceived not to have the political clout to stop it.
The other thing is that there are just total scams with this. Under these offset programs a company can do something like say, “Oh, I was going to increase [emissions] 500 percent but because I care so much about the planet I’m going to only increase 100 percent.” So they can say that they are voluntarily reducing it 400 percent and then get paid to have offsets for that.
Another devil in the detail with this is that it’s a distraction. This creates a huge financial market for trading these offsets. It’s about creating a new bubble because the dot.com bubble burst, the housing bubble burst. The people whose jobs are creating and investing in bubbles are looking for a new bubble, and the carbon market is a really ripe one.
What’s a better solution?
What we really need is a complete overhaul of how we do business today. One is cutting fossil fuel subsidies. We said in the film that right now the US government subsidizes fossil fuels 2.5 times more than renewables. A lot of people told us that that is conservative … by some calculations the US subsidizes fossil fuels five times more than renewables.
We need to get subsidies [to move] away from an individual car ownership society, invest in public transportation, redesign cities so that people can live closer to their work and closer to stores and things so they don’t have to commute as much, build up our communities and increase sharing so that not everybody has to buy everything, because anything you buy adds more carbon to the planet. Invest in clean energies. Stop burning coal, no new coal plants. It’s hard to give a quick summary because it really means redesigning our entire economy.
For The Story of Stuff most of the criticism came from the right—for The Story of Cap & Trade some of it came from the left, people who say you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
These were the “This is the best we’re going to get” people. There are some times in which you have to make compromises in politics. That is part of the game. But you can only make so many compromises before your solution is not a solution any more. I don’t trust commodities traders to save the planet. They’ve never made saving the planet their priority; I don’t believe they’re going to do it now.
Who should be at the helm?
I think it should be democratically elected government.
What are you going to do next?
We have a number of ideas for upcoming films. I want to do the story of credit cards. We want to focus on issues that are not getting a lot of attention and that we can take the risk, because we have nothing to lose.