Book Release: The Story of Stuff

Environmental activist Annie Leonard on how we’re trashing the planet

BY Elizabeth Royte April 28, 2010

Leonard: Dorothy Hong; The Story of Stuff illustrations: courtesy of Free Range Studios

Before she deployed a cutely animated Internet film to indict the American way of consumption, the environmental activist Annie Leonard had another weapon: her long, brown ponytail. She fastened it high and bouncy, like a cartoon coed. That, plus a crumpled list in her hand and a Valley Girl lilt, was apparently all she needed to get into the dumps, ports, and factories she was investigating on behalf of her then-employer, Greenpeace. Where were Los Angeles' recyclable plastics ending up? Who was dismantling our toxics-laced computers? "I'm pledging into a sorority?" Leonard would say, "and I need to find these things for a scavenger hunt?" In a pre-9/11 world, the tactic nearly always worked. "They never thought this dumb girl could do them any harm," she says.

Fifteen years on, Leonard walked into Free Range Studios in Berkeley and talked like ack-ack fire for 20 minutes, straight into the camera. In the bluntest of terms, she explained how the manufacture, distribution, consumption, and disposal of consumer goods are trashing the planet and our health. All around her in the film, wavery line drawings represented mountains and forests, factories, big-box stores, and landfills. Stick figures (genus: Nebbish) stood for laborers, clerks, and civilians. Fat cats with dollar signs on their big bellies represented The Man: the owners of the means of production.

Leonard called her little film The Story of Stuff. Free Range put the Story online in December 2007, and Leonard notified a handful of activist groups. "I expected maybe 50,000 people to see the film," she says, "and then I'd go back to doing my job-job"—marrying sustainability funders with environmental nonprofits. But what happened next constitutes a landmark in the annals of virology: The Story of Stuff got 50,000 hits in four hours, and within days, a million more. Leonard has just published a critically acclaimed, analysis-packed book version of the movie, which roughly 9 million people around the world have viewed; more than 8,000 schools, churches, and other institutions have ordered a DVD of the film (more on that later); and her peculiar delivery—a hybrid of schoolmarm-cheerleader, perky and scolding, subversive yet sweet—is on its way to becoming a meme, copycatted and invoked by ads for Working Assets and Apple computer.

During the Copenhagen climate summit last December, Leonard released a 10-minute spin-off film, The Story of Cap & Trade, and in March came another, The Story of Bottled Water. Up next is The Story of Electronics. Needless to say, the author's job-job is a memory. Like An Inconvenient Truth and The Omnivore's Dilemma, The Story of Stuff has managed to break through the mainstream malaise where scores of other messages, equally qualified, have failed. The movie is now a movement.

At the beginning of The Story of Stuff, wearing little makeup and a shirt that signifies neither hippie, yuppie, nor preppie, Leonard ambles on-screen holding an MP3 player. She's obsessed with the device, she tells us, but she didn't know where it came from or where it would go when she threw it out. "So I looked it up," she says. And what did Leonard find? That the way we make and consume stuff is "a system in crisis."

In perhaps the film's most emblematic sequence, Nebbish—our unenlightened Everyman protagonist—comes home from work exhausted and plops down in front of the television. "And the commercials tell us, `You suck!'?" Leonard says. "So you gotta go to the mall to buy something to feel better, then you gotta work more to pay for the stuff you just bought, so you come home and you're more tired, so you sit down and watch more TV, and it tells you to go to the mall again, and you're on this crazy work-watch-spend treadmill." By now we're hooked; what will this curiously emphatic woman say next?

For decades, environmentalists have been making Leonard's argument: Our consumer habits, molded by powerful forces, are trashing the planet, our health, and our communities. If everybody consumed at the rate we do in the United States, we'd need three to five planets to meet our needs. "And you know what?" Leonard says. "We've only got one."

The message is depressing and easy to tune out. But Leonard is not. She captures our attention precisely because of her blunt words and quirky line drawings. "They're non-Al Gore-ish," says Leslie Savan, an advertising critic and author of The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture. Environmentalists "have been pussyfooting around," Savan continues. "Suck is a word that works. The right wing has been using that kind of gut language for years."

At the crack of 10:30, Leonard arrives at a café, ponytail low and mussed, to meet me for breakfast. A single mom, she lives nearby with her 10-year-old daughter in an arts and crafts bungalow on a leafy Berkeley block, part of a six-home compound. "Actually, it's a kampung," Leonard, 45, says, gulping coffee and thumbing her BlackBerry, making sure I understand the Bahasa Indonesian word and its emphasis on helping one another as a community. Kampung members live in their own homes but often share meals, child-care duties, lawn mowers, grills, and garden chores—an arrangement that brings them joy and also makes possible group ownership of a large vacation house on the Russian River.

In between appointments, Leonard tours me through her home at blur speed. It's modest in size, uncluttered, dimly lit, and free of any trace of patchouli. The decor hints, through textiles, at Asian travel. Absent, she tells me, are PVC plastic ("pernicious violating crap," she calls it in the book); the plasticizer BPA (used in can linings); and BFRs, otherwise known as brominated flame retardants. "I borrowed a BFR-detecting gun from a friend—they cost $33,000—and pointed it at all the fabrics and rugs," she says. "Everything was clear." In the small backyard, which connects with her neighbors' more expansive yards, Leonard finally pauses for breath. "Isn't this incredible?" she says of the open space, the floral aroma, the neighborly bonhomie. I register her genuine contentment and her compost bin, clothesline, gray-water system, tree house, and solar panels, which charge her electric car, a ZENN: Zero Emissions No Noise, made in Canada.