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...


Get 15% off at Guided!

I love Guided Products recycled binders & notebooks. Read my review.

Leave a Reply

13 Comment threads
3 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
10 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

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… Read more »

Elisa L

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

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.


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… Read more »

Lynn Johnson Hasselberger

Wow! Fantastic!!


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… Read more »


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


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… Read more »

Stay at home mom

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… Read more »

Connie Curtis

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


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

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… Read more »


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… Read more »

Alexandra Grabbe


Suzanne Meyer

I love the Story of Stuff, Thanks for posting Beth

Stephanie Moram

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