Annie Leonard, founder and president of The Story of Stuff Project, spoke to Rachel’s Network members about promoting sustainability solutions through citizen action. We followed up with Annie to learn more about the issues that keep her up at night, what trends give her hope, and much more. 

What about your work keeps you up at night?

The answer depends on if it is one of those nights on which I am up with worry or with excitement. Some nights when I lay awake worrying about the latest data on the state of the climate and ecosystems, it’s terrifying. A number of ecosystems are stressed to the point of near collapse. We’re experiencing climate impacts worse than many of the worst-case scenario models predicted. Overall, we’re on a bad trajectory and the time to turn things around without irreparable harm is running out. Sometimes, I hesitate to say such things since it sounds so alarmist, but the truth is, it’s alarming!

Other nights, I lay awake excited about the changes we see all around us: people taking action in their communities, schools, workplaces, and businesses working for change. I get so excited about the traction that The Story of Stuff Project is generating, with thousands of people contacting us each week who want to get involved. Sometimes I can’t bear to sleep since there’s so much good work to do!

What about your work gives you hope?

Two things give me hope. First, the amazing number of solutions available, and secondly, the growing number of people working for change. There are many technological, cultural, political, and economic solutions to today’s environmental crises. If these problems were intractable, it would be hard to have hope — but they aren’t! All over the world, people are working to figure out new ways to build an economy that is healthy for people and the planet. I love traveling because everywhere — from the biggest cities to small towns — I meet people charting a new path.

What’s something people might not know about your work, but they should?

We’re at a very exciting moment at The Story of Stuff Project. We originally thought we were just making one, then a few, films. We had no idea that so many people would watch them (38 million and counting on all the films!) and that hundreds of thousands would reach out to us for guidance on how to get involved. We have built a diverse and enthusiastic community around the films. In the coming year, we’re undergoing a big change, moving from being predominantly a media and resources organization which makes and shares valuable content to actually running campaigns to make change. We’re turning a movie into a movement! We’re very excited about this shift in direction which has evolved along with our growing community.

What organization do you support (other than your own) that is advancing issues important to you?

I love GAIA, which stands for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. Incinerators are incredibly polluting machines that destroy valuable resources which could have been recycled. They not only emit dangerous pollutants, but they undermine waste reduction programs because once built, they need to be fed with a constant flow of waste. Cities that invest in these monstrosities are locked into continuing to produce waste, which makes them major obstacles to progress. GAIA is a fantastic network with members in 91 countries, all working for safe, sustainable, healthy and just solutions to waste management without incineration.

What woman leader or role model had an influence on your work or inspired you?

Gosh, so many women have taught and inspired me that it’s hard to choose. Sandra Steingraber showed me the power of combining heart and head when talking about scientific issues. Lois Gibbs taught me not to let my voice be pushed aside because I am a woman. My mother taught me that following my passion will lead to a richer, more rewarding life than following someone else’s expectations.

Annie Leonard is founder and president of The Story of Stuff Project and has dedicated nearly two decades to investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues.

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