Lessons from The Story of Stuff

by Gan Pei Ling / 18 August 2010 © The Nut Graph

HAVE you ever wondered where all your stuff comes from, and where they end up after you throw them out? I do, and environmentalist Annie Leonard does, too. That was the reason she created The Story of Stuff.

The video became an online hit soon after its December 2007 release. In 2009, The New York Times reported that thousands of schools, churches and other institutions in the US have used the video to get people to rethink the environmental, social and economic impact of mindless consumerism.

Leonard’s team has since released new videos like The Story of Bottled Water in March 2010 and The Story of Cosmetics in July 2010.

One may argue that her videos are US-centric, but I think Leonard has achieved what environmentalists previously failed to do. She simplified the structural problems prevalent in the materials economy into a 20-minute video that even a nine-year-old child can understand: that our economies are structured based on the false assumption that we can have “infinite growth on a planet with finite resources”.

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A former Greenpeace employee and steering committee member of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Leonard spent almost two decades investigating environmental health and waste issues. She has visited factories and dumps in Asia and Africa.

She has been giving talks and advocating for the need for people to consume mindfully for years. However, she was shocked to discover that nobody understood what she was talking about when she gave her usual talk during a training programme at Rockwood Leadership Institute in 2005.

That was when Leonard realised she needed to simplify her vocabulary and do away with sentences like “paradigm shift in relation to materials”. She redid her story from the beginning and created The Story of Stuff.

Since then, millions of people have watched the film, and it has been translated to more than 15 languages, according to the Los Angeles Times. She has also released a book of the same name this year.


Additionally, Leonard has successfully explained academic terms like “planned obsolescence”, “manufactured demand” and “externalised cost” in layperson terms in her videos.

Planned obsolescence is another word for ‘designed for the dump’. It means they actually make stuff that is designed to be useless as quickly as possible so we will chuck it and go buy a new one.

“It’s obvious with stuff like plastic bags and coffee cups, but now it’s even big stuff: mops, DVDs, cameras, barbeques even, everything!” Leonard exclaims in exasperation in The Story of Stuff.

“Manufactured demand is a desire for something that didn’t just develop naturally but was stoked by some outside force. [It’s] a core strategy of today’s consumer economy.

“In order to get people to keep buying stuff, when most of us have plenty of stuff already, companies manufacture demand [through advertising] so we feel like we need ever more and ever newer clothes, cars, toasters, furniture, shoes … everything.

“I mean, it’s not like any of us just woke up and said, ‘I need, really need, a new cell phone to replace my perfectly functional one’,” explains Leonard in her footnoted-script in The Story of Bottled Water.


However, Leonard’s videos have stirred up controversy in the US. Conservatives have attacked her for being anti-capitalism and being a Karl Marx in ponytail.

Leonard refutes in an interview with Elle magazine that she is anti-capitalism: “I’m anti a system that’s poisoning us and protecting the wealthy over the poor.”

I think Leonard tells her stories from people’s perspective, and elucidates how corporations and governments have put profit over people over the years. The powers-that-be are uncomfortable with the messages in Leonard’s videos precisely because these messages challenge the status quo.

(Pic by lusi / sxc.hu)

Instead of encouraging people to buy more and more stuff so corporations can make more profit, Leonard asks people to be mindful of their consumption habits. Instead of encouraging people to conform to societal beauty standards by buying cosmetics, Leonard reminds the public to be aware of the toxic chemicals in them.

The Story of Stuff website contains materials and resources for people to launch a campaign or hold a screening and discussion in their community.

What Leonard is doing may be perceived as dangerous to corporations and governments. Through the new media, she and her team are empowering the public to mobilise and organise, for example, to reclaim their rights by demanding for clean tap water from governments and safe cosmetics from corporations.

This would, of course, translate to “trouble” for some corporations and governments. But to be fair, The Story of Stuff team is merely trying to hold governments and corporations accountable. And they ought to be credited for inspiring people into action, even if it’s the act of rethinking how we consume.

Although Annie Leonard often reveals awful stuff people don’t want to know in her videos, Gan Pei Ling is looking forward to reading her book and watching the next video installment, The Story of Electronics.

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