Annie Leonard's Story of Stuff

If you haven’t watched Annie Leonard’s film, The Story of Stuff, you really should. Seven million people have watched the 20-minute film since it was launched in December 2007, captivated by Leonard’s breakneck-paced, fact-filled look at the story of modern consumption.

I’m in Los Angeles, at the Opportunity Green conference, this weekend, and Leonard was a featured speaker this afternoon. Along with her co-presenter, Jonah Sachs of Free Range Studios, she was a real highlight. And what I loved most about her presentation was her matter-of-fact analysis of where she’d gone wrong in the past.

Having spent 20 years investigating environmental health and justice issues around the world, she said, she was super confident that she had figured out the issues and problems. Yet for some reason, others didn’t seem to share her enthusiastic concern. After taking a program at the Rockwood Leadership Institute, she was confronted with the fact that not only was she 20 years ahead of everyone else, she was so charmed by the cogent argument of her own intellectual ideas she had forgotten to engage an audience that had no idea what she was on about.

“I had been standing there wondering why people were not excited about the idea of a paradigm shift in our relationship to materials,” she described. “I was too much in my head. And I needed to move to my heart.”

So that’s what she did with The Story of Stuff, which tackles her topic (issues with materials) in a way that an audience of laypeople can understand. Importantly, it’s not about dumbing down or over-simplifying, but of speaking in a language to which people can relate. “If you’re trying to connect with people, a super intellectual brain-dump is not what’s needed,” she said. “A connection with people is what’s needed.”

Two years after it was released, the film is still watched by some 10,000 people every day. And Leonard has become a folk hero of sustainability. Next year, a book version of the film will be published. “I don’t like to encourage people to buy things,” Leonard concluded wryly. “But buy it, and then give it to your local library later.”