Annie Leonard’s seminal video about consumption was released in 2007, instantly becoming a viral hit, and inspiring a book, in-depth website, and a series of videos and campaigns that fuel a movement for social change. The following article was published in the July-August 2017 issue of NewsNotes.
Ten years ago activist Annie Leonard released the Story of Stuff, an unassuming online video about consumerism and its effect on people and the planet. No one could have predicted that, in time, the 20-minute animated documentary about the lifecycle of material goods would be seen by millions, translated into more than 30 languages, and be the impetus for a series of efforts to educate and mobilize people for social change.
The website, www.storyofstuff.org, describes how the video, created with Free Range Studios in 2007, uses simple drawings and Leonard’s engaging personality to explain health and environmental problems created by “the way we make, use, and throw away all the stuff in our lives.” It also describes the failure of consumerism to bring happiness as advertised.
Though the topic can be overwhelming, Leonard maintains a positive attitude and “we-can-fix-it” attitude. “The good thing about such an all-pervasive problem is that there are so many points of intervention,” Leonard says in the video. Within two years, more than 7 million people in 200 countries and territories watched the video online and flooded Leonard with requests for more.
In response, Leonard created the Story of Stuff Project, which has produced a wealth of quality materials, including a book, study programs, and campaigns, to help people address the problems our production and consumption patterns create.
The Story of Stuff Project is best known for its numerous follow-on videos about specific issues and campaigns: bottled water, cosmetics, electronics, cap and trade, and so on. The 8-minute animated video, “The Story of Bottled Water,” was one of the most viral online videos the week of its release in 2010, and has been followed up with other videos about the effects that Nestlé Water has had on communities in the U.S. and campaigns to block the construction of new water bottling plants.
Despite achieving great success in moving people to take action—more than one million people have participated in Story of Stuff campaigns to date—the project decided to shift its focus in 2011 from specific issues and campaigns to systemic social change and helping people identify their role in that change. Their “changemaker personality quiz” helps people see where their passions and skills might be most useful. A four-week online “citizen muscle bootcamp” helps people find their purpose, involve others, and affect change. They also produce resources to help youth and religious groups find their place and purpose in the movement.
The project shifted the focus of its videos, too. In “Story of Citizens United v. FEC” Leonard describes how only a constitutional amendment can rein in the influence of corporate money on U.S. elections. In “Story of Broke,” Leonard takes on the myth that the U.S. government lacks the resources to support its programs. It is not a question of money, she argues, but rather priorities that citizens can change.
“Story of Change,” released in 2012, critiques the idea that significant environmental and social change can be accomplished by changing our buying habits. “This is a great place to start,” Leonard says, “but it’s a terrible place to stop.” “Real change happens,” she says, “when citizens come together to demand rules that work,” and she shows historic examples of that happening.
Leonard released the ninth and final video in the series in 2013. The “Story of Solutions” looks at shifts needed to move our economy toward greater sustainability and equity. “What if the goal of our economy wasn’t ‘more,’ but ‘better’—better health, better jobs and a better chance to survive on the planet?” Leonard asks.
While Leonard has moved on from the Story of Stuff Project to be the executive director of Greenpeace USA, the project continues to produce quality resources, most recently on microbeads and microfibers.