Ever wonder where that chair you’re sitting on came from? How it was made? And with what? And what’s going to happen to it once your cat finally shreds it beyond recognition? These are the kinds of questions that drove Annie Leonard across the globe to visit factories, manufacturing facilities and dumps in search of answers about how stuff is made and where it goes after we no longer have use for it.
Those answers are the stuff of The Story of Stuff, Leonard’s groundbreaking, totally fascinating and more than a little horrifying 20-minute web film. That little movie earned Leonard the distinction of one of Time Magazine’s 2007 Heroes of the Environment and has generated more than 10 million views in more than 200 countries and territories worldwide, making it one of the most successful environmental-themed viral films of all time.
Last year, Leonard released The Story of Stuff in book form, and she currently directs the Story of Stuff Project, with the goal of convincing stuff-loving folks everywhere that we can and must find a more sustainable way to meet our material needs. She emailed us while committing her worst eco sin.
EcoStiletto: The “Story of Stuff” video series has changed so many people’s lives in terms of how they look at sustainability and, really, just being conscious of consumption. How did the series come about?
Annie Leonard: I’m so happy that it has had this effect! My hope in making The Story of Stuff film and writing the book, was that I could inspire people to think more about the hidden impacts of all the stuff in their life: Where does it come from? What is it made of? Is all this stuff healthy for me, my family, my community? Where will it go when I am done with it? The more we think about these things, the better choices we can make.
ES: So how did all this stuff start? Pun intended.
AL: The Story of Stuff evolved from a live talk that I did for years at schools, conferences and environmental meetings. After every talk, people from the audience suggested I make a film. When I finally got so sick of doing the talk live that I didn’t think I could do it one more time, I had a friend film it with a handheld camera, and then we took it to Free Range Studios to ask them about options for capturing the presentation on film and sharing it for free on the web.
The result was the first The Story of Stuff film, released in December 2007. The fast-paced and even funny format turned out to be very effective in engaging people in conversations that could otherwise be too technical and wonky. So we decided to make more films—all of which are available free at StoryofStuff.org
ES: You’ve gone in-depth into the manufacturing and consumption of everything from bottled water to cosmetics to electronics. Which one was your favorite?
AL: I think all of these issues are fascinating. The ones I like the most are those with easy solutions. The problem of bottled water—or as I like to think of it, plastic-wrapped water—is easy: Don’t buy it unless you live in a community in which the tap water really is unhealthy. And even in this case, bottled water still isn’t the solution! Get a good filter and put all that time and energy you would have spent buying bottled water into advocacy work to get our water cleaned up so everyone gets clean safe water.
Electronics is also interesting because of the massive scale of the hidden impacts and the almost infinite potential to do better. It’s hard to imagine just how much energy, water and toxic materials are used to make today’s sleek, clean looking electronic gadgets, not to mention the mounds of mining and other waste left behind. The environmental and worker health impacts of today’s electronics are just disgusting, and kept well hidden from our view.
If we’re going to use these gadgets, we need to be responsible and learn more about their life cycle. Then we need to pressure electronics companies to eliminate toxic chemicals and make them last longer. Make them safe, make them last. And on a personal level, we should take good care of our gadgets and make them last as long as possible—resist the frivolous upgrade!
ES: If our readers could only choose one of your videos to watch, which do you this is the most important?
AL: I’d recommend the first one since it provides the best overview of today’s material economy. Then, I hope they are intrigued enough to watch more.