The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

September 27, 2012

Annie Leonard: Don’t Just “Be the Change.” Make Change!

When Annie Leonard (The Story of Stuff Project) admonishes us to “make change,” she’s not talking about dimes and quarters.  She’s one of my personal heroes and someone I was excited to interview back in 2010.  So you can imagine how honored I was this year when asked if she could interview me for her podcast The Good Stuff, a companion piece to her new video,  The Story of Change.  The premise of the video and podcast is that personal changes are great, but they’re not enough.  As Annie puts it, “Conscious consumerism is a great place to start, but it’s a lousy place to stop.” After watching the movie (it’s only 6-1/2 minutes long), do you agree?

In the the companion podcast, Annie interviews me along with people like Ralph Nader and Van Jones about how to go beyond personal lifestyle changes to make change on a more systemic level.  I talk about how making changes in my own life led me to start the Brita water filter recycling campaign in 2008.

Is Annie Leonard right?

After working since 2007 to reduce my own personal plastic consumption and to inspire other people to do the same in their lives, I started coming across articles from writers saying that personal changes were meaningless and that if we really wanted to fix our environmental mess, we needed to forget about bringing our own bags to the grocery store and changing light bulbs and push our world leaders to make global changes.  The articles made me think… and think… and think… In fact, I thought about the topic so much that it became the theme of my TEDx talk back in 2010 and continues to be what I talk about in every presentation I give.

Back then, I came up with 8 reasons why personal changes matter:

  1. We change because we want to personally stop doing harm
  2.  To protect our own health and that of our families
  3.  To support ethical businesses
  4. To develop our own ingenuity and self-reliance
  5.  To clarify our values
  6. To learn the limits of personal change and when it’s time to ask companies to change
  7. To figure out in what areas we need to work for systemic change
  8. To set an example for others

Then last year, writing the final chapter of my book, I found a 9th reason: Community.  We learn through making changes in our own lives that we can’t do it alone.

9 Reasons Why Personal Changes Matter, Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too

So I’m asking you, the plastic-free community, what do you think?  Is making changes in our personal lives enough?  Or is it important for each of us to go further and, as Annie puts it, not just develop our consumer muscles but our citizen muscles?  What qualities and actions do you think make a good citizen?


You might also enjoy...


Etsy handmade and vintage

I only post ads for companies I patronize myself. Your support helps to fund my plastic-free mission.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 years ago

As much as I admire what Leonard is trying to do, I have a big problem with the sentiment that personal change is not enough to make systemic change. That’s precisely where systemic change comes from- people, not rules. While the idea of regulating is a good one, we’ve seen exactly where this goes wrong. The laws we already have in place don’t keep people from killing, stealing, raping, selling drugs (etc, etc, etc)… And who gets to make up the rules? How long does that take? And since when is regulation impervious to corruption?

Personal change falls short in part because of the gross number of people living without the luxury of thinking beyond their immediate needs. It would be great to see more effort and focus devoted to empowerment at this level instead of talking in circles about regulations with bodies who are already recognized as corrupt.

It’s not just about living ‘green’. Finding ways that (yes, at an individual level) more of us can be more dependent on ourselves, and less dependent on this system altogether will be more effective than any regulation.

Elisa L
11 years ago

I really like the idea of activism and getting companies and the government to do the right thing. I would like to write letters and join a larger movement but with a family I find it hard to make time. I wish there was an organization I could join that would give me more directed advice on what needs to be done. If anyone knows of some place like this, please let me know. I give money to environmental advocacy groups and sign online petitions but am not sure how to go further without it becoming overwhelming.

Beth Terry
11 years ago
Reply to  Elisa L

Hi, Elisa. There are lots of organizations. Where do you live? In my book, I listed several that are dealing with plastic pollution. There is the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Surfrider, Clean Water Action, Environmental Working Group, and many others. But where you live makes a difference.

11 years ago

Well, I have to say that I have very mixed feelings about the personal action thing – not that I don’t practice it or anything, it’s just that the futility of it all becomes very apparent once you do start trying. I mean, there is simply no way (short of ceasing to exist) to live without having an environmental impact – and I’m always stuck feeling like I’m trying to choose the lesser of about a zillion evils.

Current conundrum – stick with the wheat kitty litter that comes in a paper bag, or switch to the walnut shell variety that comes in plastic. Probably an easy choice for you since your focus is plastic, but if you look at the bigger environmental picture it becomes much fuzzier. Walnut shells are a waste product while the wheat must be grown and harvested specifically for the litter. So the wheat carries a much bigger footprint in terms of fertilizers, pesticides, and environmental cost of production. AAARRRGGG!!! And this is only one of about a million similar choices. It just makes me want to pull my hair out.

And of course, the vast majority of people never even think about any of it – and really, how can we expect them to? It’s just crazy that we live in a world where one must put oneself at a financial disadvantage in order to live in a sustainable way. As long as the system is set up that way we’re sunk.

So ultimately I think that personal choices are good in that they tend to raise awareness, but awareness only goes so far when the economic realities set in. The part that I can’t figure out is that if such a big percentage of the population really is concerned about these issues, why is our government so out of step with the people? Actually, strike that – it’s not that hard to figure out… it’s money – pure and simple.

Anyhow, when I think about this stuff too long I start to get really depressed. The forces we’re up against are so huge, and so powerful, and so entrenched. And in my heart of hearts I figure this is all a self-limiting problem anyhow, because humans are quickly altering the planet to such a degree that there’s no way it’s gonna be able to sustain us for many more generations. I mean the feedback loops are already kicking in, the arctic is melting and belching methane, and part of me just wonders what the point is…

OK… sorry to leave a bummer comment – it’s just where I inevitably end up anymore whenever I start to think about these sorts of questions. Anybody got any cures for eco-despair?

Lynn Johnson Hasselberger
11 years ago

Wow! Fantastic!!

11 years ago

I very much appreciated Annie’s video AND your list of why personal change matters. indeed, the choices we have need to change. I believe that we need a miracle to pull the world back from the brink, and also that our lives have to be attractive enough to emulate.

That is, I totally believe in the collective action described by Annie (I’m in South Africa, after all, and the miracle of South Africa means that I, a white South Africa, get to stay and continue to call this my home country without fear) but there’s that famous quote: When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.

I know it’s cliched, but as a 29 year old PhD student with two little boys, I’ve taken this quote to heart- I’m starting with myself and hoping there are ripples. And I’m hoping that by leaving enough margin in my life by living really simply and not getting caught up with needing much money, my husband and I will have enough time to be involved in our communities and collective action.

11 years ago

@Greenmoms Today is Children’s Growth Awareness Day. Is your child growing normally? Find out: #growthspurt

Connie Curtis
11 years ago

no we have to go bigger.. its how things were changed in the 70’s.. individual changes are great.. this is a great video

Alexandra Grabbe
11 years ago


Suzanne Meyer
11 years ago

I love the Story of Stuff, Thanks for posting Beth

Stephanie Moram
11 years ago

You met Annie? You are my hero Beth!! and I am jealous….so jealous. Did you talk about me to her? LOL :)

11 years ago

What Annie says is true – it takes group action to accomplish things, but the irony is that ultimately it is individual action, what one does in everyday life, that accomplishes the goal. One person doing the right things environmentally doesn’t go far, there must be millions doing so. So how to get from individual concern to group action and back to individual behavior is the challenge.

Environmentalism comes from identification with nature. In your case, Beth, it was the albatross, but for anyone to be an environmentalist there must be a value placed on what happens to life, even if it is human life only. But making the connection between us and everything else on the planet is more difficult than it might seem…we really do have a hard time not thinking of people as distinct from all else.

Since we live in an almost entirely artificial world removed from nature, this concern with nature doesn’t come…er….naturally. We must carry in our heads an image of what is beyond our daily experience – the animal choking on a plastic bag, for example, or the pelican helplessly soaked in oil. This kind of image in the head can be very tough to establish and is very unlikely to be presented in advertising.

It’s an unfortunate fact that environmentalism is something of an elitist thing. When one is poor and feels helpless to change one’s situation, it isn’t easy to have a concern for trees and animals and wild rivers. When the national economy tanks, environmentalism drops to the bottom (polls show) of the priority list – betraying that it is considered a luxury that can be dispensed with when push comes to shove…save jobs, not the spotted owl.

But those concerned with keeping a job and those who are not well off make up the huge majority of our population, in the US and even more so worldwide. So the toughest challenge is to bring over the millions, the billions who are fighting just to keep their heads above water, let alone have a care for recycling or buying the right things.

This huge mass of humanity is largely immune to appeals such as yours or Annie’s or Greenpeace or the Nature Conservancy. Cheap and available is everything, understandably. But among us (you, Annie, me and probably 99% of those reading this) individual effort leveraged into group effort makes sense.

Stay at home mom
11 years ago
Reply to  Clif

It’s funny that you imply that environmentalism is not practiced by the poor (or at least is not a priority). I was raised by parents who survived the Great Depression, and their frugal lifestyle (use it up, wear it out, make it last or do without) goes hand in hand with what environmentalism means to me. We just have to psychologically go back in time to when people didn’t feel entitled to the latest iPhone or eat out at fast food restaurants, but cooked simple meals at home. Save things that might be able to be reused creatively rather than throwing them out. And retrain ourselves to donate or freecycle items that we have no use for but someone else might, and shop second hand stores instead of buying new). In other words, act like we don’t have any money.

11 years ago

That was one of the most perfect videos I have ever seen! Annie Leonard is right on and so of course are you. No one ever won any rights or protections by gently asking. It was always a fight. And now we need to fight for our personal and planetary health.

Eco novice
11 years ago

Absolutely both. My son just started public school. Parents take turns bringing snacks. In addition to being outraged by the blue sugar water (Gatorade) some people are bringing, I can’t believe the teacher asked parents to bring those teeny tiny water bottles (which they do recycle, but still!). Don’t get me started on the hand sanitizer, air fresheners, etc. It’s a green parent’s nightmare. Do I really want to make every parent and staff member hate me in my first month at this school, no? What I wish is that some of these products (I consider unsuitable for my child to ingest or to be around) were not on the market. So I’m getting a really strong dose of — my ind’l actions are not enough, b/c we’re all subject to each other’s choices anyway. That’s always been true, but since I’m now really feeling how very true that is for my school-aged child, it’s now writ large.

11 years ago
Reply to  Eco novice

I totally agree with you… I experience the same things in school… but I try to explain to the school staff or any party why I don’t want certain x product around my family… I will even given scientific papers or data. No matter how much data or logic I use, convenience & costs outweighs anything and everything. Knowing this I have even offered, at times, to purchase the healthier alternative to get around the costs fear, however they still refuse. Of course that is very frustrating… So I believe we need numbers to change things for the masses because as an individual I have no power and that has been proven a lot of times. Mass change takes mass numbers.But I still believe we need to make personal changes. Why ask for mass change but be unwilling to make changes yourself? It’s almost as crazy as politicians saying “Well China needs to change first because they pollute more.” I don’t believe we live in a closed system world… meaning I can do anything I want because it doesn’t affect anything else. No, I believe we live in an interconnected world. My life and choices affect not only myself but anything everything around me. This is why I will strive to make personal life changing choices for myself and my family. I am not only concerned about my families health but the health of all living creatures. Ironically this unselfish view should be the motivator for the personal change. If your focus is on others you will stop yourself falling into the trap of “Convenience and Cost” that will so often prevent you from making the right choice.