Annie Leonard and The Story of Stuff

Photo: Courtesy Simon & Schuster
Hear about the new book based on the well known-internet film that still has people talking.

Hear about the new book based on the well known-internet film that still has people talking.

We’ve all browsed the environmental studies section of bookstores, the shelves jammed with apocalyptic tomes detailing the inevitability of ecological disaster. The newly released book, The Story of Stuff (Simon & Schuster) fills in the startling gaps of what many of us know about the stuff we buy from its extraction to its disposal – sober stuff, to be sure. Its author, a veteran environmental activist, Annie Leonard gained international notice when she launched her Internet film of the same name that went viral in 2007. Hardly a proselytizing snoozer that will have you reaching for your SSRIs, the book is a spirited toolkit for everyday action, outside of the $25,000 buy-in for a hybrid vehicle.

According to Statistics Canada, each Canadian disposes of nearly 400 kg of solid waste per year. Moving forward, Leonard’s book unravels the power structures in our governing bodies that make sustainable change not only inaccessible to many, but unnecessarily bureaucratic. It’s a chatty, witty read, dotted with cartoons, and teeming with facts and courses for action suited to anyone, from armchair activists to professional protesters. 

We had a chance to sit down with Leonard who was in Toronto recently to promote her book and hear about some of her upcoming projects, Stuff and why my rubber ducky won’t be joining me in the bathtub henceforth. 

LH: What initially inspired you to get involved in this work? 

AL: It sounds strange, but I was always fascinated by garbage. I was raised by a mother who instilled in me the culture of not wasting and an appreciation of the stuff we have.  As a college student I visited a dump, and was stricken by the all of this waste and I wondered, where is it all coming from? I worked for a number of different environmental organizations to work on this issue. I was able to travel around the world to see where all of this stuff is made and where it’s dumped, so that I could understand the entire life cycle of all the stuff we use.  

LH: My biggest frustration as an activist centred on people simply choosing not to care. We have all of this knowledge, but it all seems so overwhelming for many of us.  How do we urge people to care and to get involved?

AL: I think it’s easier to be apathetic if you don’t see a lot of opportunities for change. Too often, environmental groups have provided enormous amounts of information about what’s wrong and limited options for change.  We shouldn’t bombard people with what’s wrong, but give them lots of opportunities to make a meaningful difference. Study after study shows that people who are civically engaged in some way, or volunteering are happier than people who aren’t. It’s really rewarding and empowering, so I encourage people to get involved in whatever way they can. 

We’re not going to change the planet by going person by person and getting them to make the right environmental decision. Often making the better ecological choice is more expensive, which makes it harder, or because it takes longer. For example, where I live in San Franscisco, it’s cheaper and faster to drive than to take public transportation! What we need to do is to change the systems to make the better ecological choices cheaper and easier. 

LH: Your book gives great analyses of everyday household objects and how toxic they are not only to the environment. Can you give us an example? 

AL: It’s stunning how many harmful chemicals are allowed in our skin care products, in our furniture, our electronics, our clothing, everywhere. One is PVC [polyvinyl chloride] plastic, which is really easy to avoid. This is far the most toxic plastic in all stages of its life, to produce, to use and to dispose. You can recognize it by the #3 in the recycling arrow on the product, you can also recognize it by its smell – you know that new shower curtain smell? It’s in a lot of fake leather stuff like purses, shoes, raincoats, extension cords and a lot of children’s toys – even rubber ducks. 

There’s a great resource online, the GoodGuide, which tells you all about toxic materials in the stuff we buy. The real solution is getting together with people who care and changing the rules, so our sunscreens and lipsticks don’t have reproductive toxins in them, and our toys don’t have neurotoxins in them. 

LH: What are your plans beyond the book, a feature-length documentary perhaps? 

AL: We’re going to make more short films about the different aspects in the book. The next one is titled The Story of Bottled Water. It’s a case study in manufactured demand: basically how industry convinces us to pay $2 for something we could have gotten for free from the tap! The next one is going to be called The Story of Electronics, which is a case study of planned obsolescence. We’re also partnering with Facing the Future to make these concepts into educational materials for classroom use. 

Sign up at to receive announcements of new films, and to read more about Annie and her projects.