Do you know your neighbors? Annie Leonard, creator of the viral video The Story of Stuff thinks you should. In fact, she thinks it’s the number one thing we can do to take back our power as citizens and solve our environmental problems. In this interview, she explains why, and insists that all of us need to be comfortable with speaking up and letting our voices be heard.
I sat down with Annie in her office in Berkeley two weeks ago, just before the launch of her new book, appropriately titled, The Story of Stuff for a conversation with the woman who has inspired millions around the globe. If you happen not to be one of those millions because you haven’t yet seen the video, please take twenty minutes out of your day to watch it. Annie is intense, engaging, and explains where all our “stuff” comes from and how it affects us in a way that powerful in its simplicity.
Some analysts say we have less leisure time than any time since feudal society. And do you know what the two main activities are that we do with the scant leisure time we have? Watch TV and shop. In the U.S. we spend three to four times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe do. So we’re in this ridiculous situation where we go to work, work two jobs even, and we come home and we’re exhausted. So we plop down on our new couch and watch TV. And the commercials tell us, “You suck!” So we gotta go to the mall to buy something to feel better. And then you gotta go to work more to pay for the stuff you just bought, so you come home and you’re more tired, so you sit down and you watch more TV, and then you go to the mall again, and we’re on this crazy work watch spend treadmill. And we could just stop.
It’s simple. We have too much stuff, it’s trashing the planet and making us unhappy. What if we just said no?
Some viewers have criticized The Story of Stuff video for being too simplistic. So, to flesh out her ideas, Annie has written The Story of Stuff book, just released yesterday. Following the path our stuff travels: Extraction, Production, Distribution, Consumption, and Disposal, Annie explains that the one-way system in place now is not sustainable. The planet simply doesn’t have the resources to support the creation of new stuff each year that will simply end up in the landfill at the end of its life. From oil to minerals to trees, we are running out, and our earth and its people and animals are suffering in the process.
Sound heavy? Chatting with Annie is anything but. Preparing for her book tour and nervous about her upcoming appearance on The Colbert Report (She needn’t have worried. She did a great job, answering questions like, “Are you saying my bean bag chair is gay?” and “Have you thought about putting out plastic action figures?”), Annie nevertheless took some time to rap about plastic raincoats, glowing neon body wash, and the kampung in which she lives. But first, I asked her about “stuff” and the criticism that she is anti-business.
Annie: I’m not anti-business, but I’m anti Schmucky Business. Not all businesses are schmucks, but some of them are, and there’s just no need to be.
Sending Stuff Back
Beth: In your book, you tell a story about a raincoat that you ordered for your daughter. When it arrived, you realized it was made from PVC [polyvinyl chloride, aka vinyl, one of the most toxic plastics] and how you returned it and demanded a refund. What was that like?
Annie: Yeah, I went back and forth on the phone with them until they finally gave me credit.
Beth: And you also sent back an extension cord after realizing it too was made from PVC?
Annie: No I didn’t send that one back yet. I have to send that one back.
Beth: Are there any cords that are not PVC?
Annie: One reason I haven’t sent it back yet is that I have an electric car, and I bought this really long extension cord just to have in the car because when you run out of charge, you can’t just walk and get a tank of gas and come back to it. So I’m like, “What am I gonna do?” Because it didn’t occur to me that it was PVC until I opened it. Some stuff it’s hard to find not PVC. What I feel is that we should not beat ourselves up about the few things that are hard to get because I feel like the energy we spend beating ourselves up, like the energy I spent on that stupid coat, I could have spent lobbying for change.
Beth: You could. Or you could take that energy that you put into it and publish your story, and then you’re at least being an example showing people what’s possible.
Annie: Yeah, that’s so true. Because taking it out of the individual and to the community is so important.
Blogging is Powerful
Annie: For example, after The Story of Stuff came out, I was reading the New York Times, and there was this article about this shower gel that has in the base of the bottle batteries and a computer chip… I don’t know for what… and an LED light, and it shines this blue light up through the shower gel so that it makes some weird patterns and glows light blue.
Beth: [Cracking up] And the purpose of that is just to look cool?
Annie: Well, I read it in the Business section of the NY Times, and it was being heralded as this innovative product because it said they will need to spend nothing on advertising because the blue will attract us. And so it was an entirely complimentary article about how innovative this is that they’re doing this and have no advertising budget.
So then I Googled and starting searching, and there were all these articles about how innovative it is. And the only innovation is that they don’t have to invest in advertising. I was stunned. So I looked up their website. Oh my god, it was so sick. It said, “One bottle is an innovation but many is an experience.” And there were comments on the blog. Most of the comments were about where to find it cheap. One guy said he lined his whole bathroom with them, so when he has to pee at night it’s like an airplane landing on the runway. But there was nothing critical!
So I called them up, and I talked to them about what’s it made of, and they said it’s recyclable, and I said, “What resin is it?” I asked them all these questions, and the woman had no clue. She just had no clue about any of this stuff. So then, out of curiosity, I put up a blog post about it. And all I said was check out their blog. The next day there were dozens of comments on their blog saying how stupid this is. The next day they contacted me and said they meant it could be used as a flashlight or a toy.
Beth: And then you’re gonna end up with all these flashlights because you have to keep buying shower gel, right?
Annie: Right. And then finally, I looked at it again and their website was down. And I thought wow, that’s such an example of how powerful it is putting it on a blog!
I’m Not Against Stuff
Beth: You tell another story in the book about being in the hospital after having your baby and being presented with a PVC baby bag full of coupons for unnecessary stuff. What about all the stuff you get at conferences, for example? The conference has to be funded by sponsors, so there is inevitably a lot of stuff given way. And it’s really hard for people to say no to it, since it’s free.
Annie: Well, I’m not against stuff. One of the things I say in the book is I’m not against stuff… I’m for safe, well made, durable stuff… If they wanna give something, they could give some useful stuff. They could give a cup like this [holds up travel mug] with their logo on it.
I was at a conference recently where they gave… it was so nice… instead of giving all this material, they gave a pen, and it opened up and was a hard drive and all the materials from the conference were on there, and you could use the hard drive over and over. So that’s all that you got was a pen, and it had all the presentations, all the participants lists, all this stuff on it. I thought that was nice.
Also, I think people are getting less attracted to all the free stuff because you have to figure out where to put it when you get home. You know, and we all have these drawers full of this junk that’s spilling out…
Beth: It’s overwhelming…
Annie: Yeah, I think people are burdened by their stuff. The other day I was complaining about my car and my roommate said, “The more shoes you have, the more shoelaces you have to tie.”
Beth: [Once again, Annie makes me laugh out loud.] Not at the same time!
Sharing a Bundt Pan
Beth: So I was really intrigued by your description in the book of your living situation and your community. I would love to hear more about that and how it works.
Annie: It’s really great. Sometimes for shorthand, I tell people it’s co-housing, but it’s not really. We’re really good friends who live next door to each other in North Berkeley. We all used to live in a big house in Washington DC and we all worked for different environmental groups 15 years ago. When the first one moved out and got a house, and we were all like, “Oh we miss you.” And while they were there because they were in the Ph.D. program at Berkeley, the house next door came up for sale, so the next person moved out. So it’s been about 18 years that we’ve been slowly getting houses next door to each other.
We have 6 houses in a row, and we’re really good friends, and then other folks have bought houses within a couple of blocks. We have other really good friends who have come to be near it. We call it the Kampung because that’s an Indonesian term for a small village. One of the guys who lives there has spent a lot of time in Indonesia so he just started calling it that and then we all started calling it that.
On the main Kampung, there are 6 families, and we just share everything. And it is so great. Like we share a pickup truck, a barbecue, we share a hot tub, we share a swing set. And the cool thing about it is that since there are 6 families sharing stuff, I only have to be responsible for 1/6th of the stuff. We don’t all need to have a Bundt pan and a turkey roasting pan and a lawnmower. It’s just so much lighter.
For example, my daughter wanted to try skiing. I don’t know anything about skiing. But someone offered us to go up to Tahoe, and so I sent an email asking what do I take? And I came home from work and there were two grocery sacks full of kids’ ski clothes on my front porch. When her bike got too small, I sent an email out, “Anyone got a bike?” By default, when we need something we first turn to the community as opposed to the market. And so we’re taking more from the area of commodification back into community the way it used to be.
And we do things for each other that increasingly people can’t do like bring in our mail when we’re on a trip or watch our kids when we’re late. I’m often late. I’m a single mom so I’m constantly leaning on them. Like I don’t know how some moms can do it without that. It’s an unbelievable level of support.
Beth: And so do you eat together a lot?
Annie: It’s informal. There are some meals we always have together a few times a year. We have set things. But it’s more like, “What are you having for dinner tonight? Can I come over?” You know, that kind of stuff. And also people have gotten a little more independent as our kids have gotten older because everyone’s kids doing their own thing. When the kids were littler, the parents got to decide.
Beth: On my blog Fake Plastic Fish I emphasize not buying new plastic, which forces you not to consume so much because plastic is in everything, right? But there are some things that are made out of plastic that we need to have, like computers or cell phones, and so I recognize that and use Freecycle and Craigslist to try and find things secondhand instead of new.
But there are some things, like printer cartridges, that are not made to be reused. For example, in my HP printer, the cartridges have an expiration date on them, so they stop working even if there’s still ink inside.
Annie: [gasps loudly] Are you kidding?!?
Annie: That’s so interesting. Have you read the book The Waste Makers?
Annie: Okay, you have to read this book. It was written in the late 50’s… early 60’s… when “planned obsolescence” was just coming in. Sort of explains the history of planned obsolescence. He was anticipating what companies were going to do, and the thing is it’s so old that’s it’s so fresh. It shows us how far we’ve sunk because of his level of outrage about stuff that’s so normal now. He’s totally furious. He says one company’s even started making disposable razors. He’s outraged.
He talks about this guy who wanted to end the depression by introducing death dates in products, like your printer thing, and he was arguing that people should have to turn in their products even if they’re still working by a certain date as a way to keep the economy stimulated. But that’s fascinating. I had not heard of this.
Beth: Well supposedly, HP doesn’t do it anymore. I had this long conversation with this guy from HP, and he said the printers that they’re putting out now, because they’re getting more concerned about environmental issues or whatever, they won’t do that. Or they have a way for you to override the expiration date or something like that.
Annie: Why is the onus on you?
Annie: I take my cartridges up to that Cartridge World and get them refilled.
Beth: Yeah, that’s what I do too. When you return cartridges to HP, they crush them up and make new HP equipment with them. But wouldn’t it be more efficient to just offer their own refill program?
Annie: It’s so infuriating. There’s a guy named Michael Manning, and he’s done great work on this, and he’s arguing for renting instead of owning… like he said why can’t Starbucks give you a cup like that [points to travel mug] and you rent it. And when people complain about it, he says, “Well, the video store does it.” It’s true. The video store does it.
Beth: Or like the Straus milk bottles, you know, the things that you use and then you bring back…
Annie: Well, we’re gonna have to move towards that because we’re running out of resources, so…
Changing the Menu
Beth: Sometimes when we’re asked to choose between two things, it’s the wrong question.
Annie: I always say it’s like do you want your right arm or your left arm cut off?
Beth: So the plastics manufacturers will say that putting things in glass is bad because glass is heavier and creates more emissions during shipping, and then the glass manufacturers will say that putting things in plastic is bad because plastic is toxic and it’s like… why do you have to buy a new glass container every time anyway?
Annie: See that limits the discussion. And I say the real power is not choosing between these choices that are presented to us but choosing which choices are presented to us. And the glass thing… it wouldn’t be such a big deal if our economy was more decentralized so we’re buying more stuff locally. If you’re shipping glass from Italy to have a drink of water, then it is very heavy. It is bad. But if you had a more decentralized economy…
Beth: Right. It’s like the question of paper or plastic bags.
Annie: I reject the parameters. I want a different menu.
Do Our Personal Actions Matter?
Beth: What do you think about extreme projects… you mentioned No Impact Man a couple times in the book. Colin Beavan is a friend of mine.
Annie: Mine too…
Beth: He actually was the person who inspired me in the first place…
Annie: That’s cool. Well, that right there shows you one of the values of extreme projects.
Beth: Yeah, I definitely think it’s worth it. But then the question is does this just make it look like it’s too hard to people? Do they think that all environmentalists are extremists…
Annie: I think it depends on how it’s done and what the point of it is. Like with Colin’s experiment, my understanding is not that he’s saying that this is how we’re going to save the world, for everyone to live like this, and I think some people have missed the subtleties in what he’s trying to say. What I think is that that experiment changed him more than it changed the world.
A lot of people ask what can I do to make a difference? And I ask them what can you think of to do? And it’s amazing to me how often people will go to the individual almost always, they go to the individual thing. I can recycle, I can drive less, I can buy less, I can whatever, as opposed to the collective let’s change the structure of the system.
And so, on the individual stuff, I think that of course, we should do those things. Of course, when we do shop we should buy the least toxic, least exploitive product available. Of course, we should try to lessen our impact. But the bulk of those things, to me, fit in the sort of personal hygiene/home maintenance. It’s like flossing and washing your hands after you go to the bathroom. You recycle; you compost; you do those things.
The danger is when people think those individual actions are going to change the systemic causes. But Colin’s not saying that. If he said that that was the answer and that that was where people should put their attention, I would say he’s hurting the cause because even if everybody in this country did all those things he said, it would be nowhere near enough to make a difference.
But what I saw is that it changed him. And to me, one of the biggest values of the individual lifestyle stuff is it brings into more integrity your values and your lifestyle, and with integrity, you can enter the world to make deeper political change.
Scolding and Guilt
Annie: I also think it’s important that people like Colin don’t imply that the people who do that are better than others. Scolding and guilt is just not a useful tool. And too much environmentalism has relied on scolding and guilt. You know, when you start to talk about consumption, a lot of people just shut down and go oh, I’m going to get corrected and scolded and guilt, and it’s just like I don’t think that guilt is a good place to hang out. It’s not a powerful emotion. So I think it’s important that those are like a celebration, and experiment, hey look at this, as opposed to…
Choice Editing: Trayless Tuesday
Beth: One part I really liked in your book is part of your list of why individual actions matter.
Individual actions we take to reduce our impact help us find the flaws in our system that need to be changed.
That’s one of the things that I always encourage people to do, is to actually try to reduce your plastic consumption as much as you can, and then get to a point where you go, oh I can’t go any further because the system won’t let me.
Beth: This is one of the things that I think is important about personal action is that if you don’t try, how do you know where to focus your attention?
Annie: I totally agree. We were just this morning talking about this with my daughter about the difference between a structural change to make doing the right thing the default option vs a place where the onus is on you. Because we have this problem with her where she wastes so much food. It just drove me nuts. The big issue in the morning is that she puts cereal in her bowl, she pours milk on it, and then she doesn’t finish it. And she does this every single day. Every day I’m pouring out milk.
I would ask her, “Can you pour in half a bowl?” So we talked about how we needed a structural change. So we decided to switch to smaller cereal bowls, and the problem is solved. That is a structural change where the onus not on you. There is a structural limit, and that that’s what we need to do as a society because otherwise, it’s like nagging and complaining and remembering and burden.
Paul Hawken told me the other day, he said solutions have to pass the “Duh” test. So that even someone who’s like “duh…” will do it. We have to make doing the right thing the new default option. I’m into what some people call “choice editing”. Just take the bad options off the menu.
I’ll tell you another example I think is so interesting. A lot of the environmental groups at colleges are doing this thing called “Trayless Tuesday.” This is a huge issue on campuses. In the cafeteria, they do not have trays on Tuesdays. They have figured out how much less food is wasted when there are no trays because trays encourage people to take more and more. Getting rid of trays reduces food waste. It increases people’s movement because they have to go back up and forth, and they don’t have to run the washer so they save energy and water for Trayless Tuesday.
But Trayless Tuesday is universally hated at every college I’ve seen. People gripe about it. It makes them not like the environmental group on campus; it marginalizes them. It’s a drag. And so some colleges have just banned trays altogether, and there’s no more complaining. People complain for two weeks and then they get over it. And the administration says, “You don’t have a tray at your home. Do you manage?”
If it’s not an option, people won’t complain. We have to think bigger.
Do You Know Your Neighbors?
Beth: So what advice would you have for people who don’t live in an area like we do where things are so… you know, this area is walkable, bikeable, great public transportation, we have year-round farmers markets, we have stores that sell all this stuff in bulk. But people in other areas of the country, especially those spread out in the suburbs, might find making changes more difficult.
Annie: Well I definitely think hooking up with other people and building community is so important. Because there’s not that much we can do as an individual. As more than one person, we can do so many more things. And so one thing I say is, if you don’t know your neighbors, start inviting them over. Have a Sunday brunch at your house. Get to know your neighbors so you can rebuild community. It sounds corny but it is so true, that rebuilding community is a key to reducing our impact on the planet and reinvigorating our democracy so we can solve these problems at the root.
When people ask me what they should buy at the grocery store, I say the most effective thing you can do is turn to the person next to you and start talking to them. Because the choices at the grocery store have already been limited by some forces out there that are not necessarily on your side. So you’re choosing, you know paper or plastic, from this flawed menu. We need to change who’s deciding what goes on the menu. And to do that, we need power. And to do that we need engaged, informed people. So talk to people. Organize. And it’s also more fun.
I love that the things we need to do to take back our country are also the things that provide the most happiness. You know when you look at those happiness studies, the things that they say provide happiness are quality of our social relations, coming together with others towards a shared goal, a sense of meaning beyond yourself, and you get all those things from joining together with others to make change. I’m so glad that what we have to do is not ask people to have a worse time but to have a better time!
Do What You Love
Annie: The other thing is I like people to think about what they’re most interested in and pick what they are most interested in as opposed to what’s the most strategic thing to move forward. To inventory their passions and skills and look out there in the world and see where they can plug in. Because it’s gonna take a lot of work to turn this economy around. It’s going to take decades. So we should be doing something we like.
You know, if it’s children, you can go around and visit schools and do environmental education programs and teachers love that. If it’s food, start a CSA or get your schools to serve organic food. Whatever it is. There is so much to do. One of the good things about having such a gigantic problem is that there are so many places to get involved that we don’t have to do something boring. And I think that’s important.
Like for me, it’s garbage. And I get that it’s not garbage for everybody. But one of the things I talk about in the book is that I used to work in Ralph Nader’s office with brilliant strategic people who would try to get me to work on the WTO or some other thing that was strategically important. And I’d say, yes, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in garbage. You’ve gotta work on what turns you on so that it’s fun.
Influence of The Story of Stuff
Beth: So what kinds of changes have the video inspired already in terms of actions people have told you they have taken or things that they’ve organized?
Annie: The film purposely didn’t give any instructions on what people should do because what I really want to do is get people thinking more critically. And I am so happy. We’ve gotten tens of thousands of emails from people who said, “I never thought where my stuff came from or where it goes,” which is stunning in itself, but people have said, “I would never have watched your movie if I’d known what it was about, and it made me see the entire world differently.
So, the number one thing is to think differently. And from that, people have organized community stuff swaps. People have started organizations to work on different issues. A street puppet theater group in South Africa created a show based on The Story of Stuff. Destiny, this group in Oakland, do this great program for youth that’s part martial arts, part self-esteem, girls empowerment, this really fabulous organization… they did a whole theatrical production based on it. People have told me they have decided to not give gifts for Christmas anymore or to limit the kinds of gifts they give. Just different ways to rethink their relationship to stuff.
More Stories to Come
Next up: More videos. On March 22, Annie will release The Story of Bottled Water. Those who read my blog know that’s an issue that is dear to my heart. Here’s a little preview:
Check out StoryofStuff.org for updates on even more Story videos and appearances by Annie Leonard.
Here are a few related links:
Grist’s Umbra Fisk interviews Annie Leonard and asks more in-depth questions about the ideas in the video itself, as well as how Annie reacts to her detractors.
On The Huffington Post, Linda Buzzell extolls the beauty of Simplicity Circles, groups of people who come together to focus on shared experiences community rather than accumulating more stuff:
One thing we learned was that the accumulation of “stuff” has become a huge burden on all of our lives (and on the planet too, of course.) Annie Leonard’s wonderful video “The Story of Stuff” came out after we had started meeting, and it perfectly captures the rat race of consumerism. We find ourselves frantically working harder and harder in order to buy more and more stuff.
Last year, Leslie Kaufman wrote an article in the NY Times about how The Story of Stuff video has been embraced or rejected in the schools and its effect on children.
Cheryl Mahoney from PhilanthroPost looks at The Story of Stuff from a historical perspective:
Thomas Jefferson enshrined certain inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He was inspired in part by John Locke, who wrote about the rights of life, liberty, and property. That’s an interesting switch: from property to the pursuit of happiness. In some ways, I think we’ve gotten those two mixed up, and the pursuit of happiness has become a pursuit of property.
So what do you think about The Story of Stuff? Do you agree with its premises? Has it changed the way you think about and relate to the stuff in your life? And what do you think about the idea that to create structural change in our society, we should have fewer choices rather than more?