Transition Culture

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19 Dec 2013

Annie Leonard on stuff, "citizen muscle", and what she’s giving this Christmas

What better way to close our month’s theme than to talk to Annie Leonard, creator of the ‘Story of Stuff’ series of videos, who has done more than anyone to popularise the idea of “stuff”?  She now runs the Story of Stuff project, “a community of problem solvers – parents, community leaders, teachers and students, people of faith, entrepreneurs, scientists and more – working to create a healthy and just world”.  Here she talks to us about citizen muscle, Glen Beck and what she’s giving for Christmas this year. But before we begin, in case you might not have seen it before, here’s The Story of Stuff:  


As is usual, if you’d like to download or listen to the podcast of my conversation with Annie, here it is.  If not, read on … 

I started by asking Annie how she would describe what she does:

“What I do is I work to change the way that we make and use and throw away stuff, or in fancy lingo I say I’m transforming systems of production and consumption. But making, using and throwing away stuff is a lot more accessible.  Before The Story of Stuff, I really did spend about 20 years travelling around the world in my work for different environmental groups and I was investigating the factories where stuff is made and the dumps where stuff is dumped. I got to see first-hand the often hidden environmental, social, health, emotional, spiritual, economic, all the problems of the way that we use stuff and making new stuff.

When I came back from all those travels I was frustrated at how little people were talking about these issues. If you go through day-to-day life, the only relationship we have with stuff is the advertisements and the buying it, and maybe throwing it out often 10 minutes later. I was experimenting with different ways to talk about the underside of our consumption patterns without being a drag. So many environmentalists are so whiny and wonky and so much of the discussion about stuff is either super-technical and data-heavy, or really about guilt and fear – “shame on you for having a cell phone”. I just thought there must be a better way to talk about this stuff.

SoSSo I experimented and came up with this film, The Story of Stuff, which is a 20 minute, fast-paced, fact-filled, even funny look at systems of production and consumption. I put it online in December 2007, thinking that hardly anyone would watch it. I thought that the main avenue of distribution would be mailing DVDs to people who wanted me to come and give this talk live, and I didn’t want to fly there. To my amazement, we had 50,000 views in one day. We’re now at over 30 million views from every country in the world. I can actually go on line and see a map of the world with a dot everywhere someone has watched it, and it is now every country in the world. What I do now is run a small non-profit organisation that harnesses the energy that this film created.

Our theme this month has been “stuff”.  What do you mean by ‘stuff’?

My focus is on consumer goods, all the stuff in our day to day life. Our furniture, our clothes, our electronics, our personal care products. Everything you see when you go to the shopping mall and the supermarket, all this stuff that we have in our lives. I haven’t looked at food. Increasingly, the food production system looks like the industrial production system of other things, but I just haven’t looked as much at food; more the things that clutter our house. All the things we’re untangling the cords for and trying to figure out how to store in our closet and all that junk we have around.

That junk makes us happier though, doesn’t it?

That is such an interesting issue. We were raised, definitely in my country but also in yours, increasingly everywhere, to be told that the more stuff we have the happier we’ll be. We are bombarded with messages that tell us that our professional life will be better and we will be better loved and people will find us more attractive if we have whatever the stuff of the day is, clothes or makeup or cars or furniture or whatever it is.

The relationship between stuff and happiness is not that simple. If it was, the US would be the happiest country in the world because we have so much stuff. We have stuff that only royalty could have imagined, indeed they couldn’t have imagined all the stuff that we would have in our country. Yet happiness levels – our country and a lot of industrialised countries are actually declining and that just confused me. I looked more deeply into this relationship between stuff and happiness and it turns out that there is a relationship – that more stuff makes you happy if you’re really in deprivation. If you don’t have enough food, if you don’t have access to healthcare, if you don’t have a roof over your head, absolutely more stuff will make you happy.

But that relationship becomes more murky and then actually starts to diverge. The example I like to use is shoes, because I personally like shoes, and I know that the second pair of shoes that one gets adds more to your happiness than the twenty-second pair of shoes. The per unit of stuff increment of happiness shrinks. Then say you had 222 pairs of shoes, or 2,222 pairs of shoes. At some point along this shoe accumulation path, more stuff or more shoes actually undermines your happiness for a number of reasons.


One is that you have to work all those extra hours to buy those shoes, then you have to stress about whether you have the most fashionable shoes. Then you have to repair them and sort them and have a storage place for them. The increasing amount of time and energy and attention that it takes to manage all this stuff begins to undermine our happiness and take away time and energy and attention from the things that actually produce happiness. Those are not a new pair of shoes or a new iPhone or a new car or whatever.

If you look at what actually provides happiness across so many different age groups, ethnic groups, nationalities, incomes, once your basic needs are met the things that most provide happiness are the quality of your social relations, having time with friends and family. Another big one is having a sense of meaning or purpose in your life beyond yourself. Another big one I thought was really interesting is the act of working together with others, of collaborating towards a shared goal, be it a civic endeavour or a sports team or anything.  The act of working together with others towards a shared goal.

But we’re in this crazy situation in our hyper consumerised society that we are spending more and more time working and shopping to get more stuff, and less and less time on those things that actually provide more happiness. That’s why the relationship between stuff and happiness is not as clear as “more stuff equals = happiness”.

The film, as you said, has been watched by 30 million people. Has it had much in the way of negative reactions? Have you found yourself on the end of Koch Brothers-funded smear campaigns or anything?

It’s been watched by 30 million people online. We don’t even know how many millions in total, because it’s being used in tens of thousands of schools, it’s been on television in a number of different countries. It’s being used in classrooms and even corporate human resources trainings. I recently met a woman who was a sustainability officer at a huge computer company and she came up to me and said that every single employee in the US in the computer company has to see it as part of their orientation. We really don’t know how many millions of people, but far beyond 30.

Glen Beck

It was interesting – I was bracing myself for more critique when it first came out, because the film doesn’t soften its message. It’s fun and it has cute cartoons but it really lays out a pretty systemic critique of our consumeristic society and economy right. I tried to distil it without dumbing it down. I was waiting for people to attack us. For the first year we got nothing but positive feedback, and really interesting positive feedback. A lot of people said I knew that, I just didn’t know how to say it. I felt like the film touched a sense of unease that so many people had, rather than telling them something new. But others wrote and said I never even thought about this and now I can’t stop thinking about it – really positive feedback.

I was glad to have that buffer of a year of love from our movie viewers before the second year. Because in the second year, Glen Beck found out about it. I hope that you in the UK are lucky enough to not know who he is…

… unfortunately I do know who Glen Beck is …

I’m sorry! He had a daily television show, I think it was even on twice a day. He had a huge following, which to me is just an indication of the lack of critical thinking provided in our educational system in this country. He just was a hateful, fear-mongering crazy guy, but was very entertaining. He used to be an entertainer before he had this so-called ‘political’ show. He really latched on to people’s sense of economic insecurity and blamed in on everything from communists to immigrants to terrorists. He really stoked a culture of fear and hatred and paranoia.

He found out about the film because the environmental writer from the New York Times was doing an article on what schools are using for the educational curriculum around environmental issues today. What we know about the environment now is so much more than 10 or 20 years ago. She wanted to know how education is changing. When she called a bunch of schools to ask them what they were using, they all said Story of Stuff. So she called me up and said “who are you?”

She ended up writing a front page article in the New York Times which is the biggest newspaper in this country about how many schools are using The Story of Stuff. Glen Beck went crazy, and every day for weeks on his show, he would show a clip from The Story of Stuff and he said that I was spreading communism in schools under the guise of recycling. The thing he was particularly upset about in the film, he said it was anti-capitalist because I said we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet, and he also didn’t like the part where I said “it’s the government’s job to take care of us”.

Annie Leonard.

I have clarified so many times, I didn’t mean to remind us to brush our teeth and tuck us into bed at night, I meant it’s the government’s job to make sure rules are fair and products are healthy. I believe there’s a very crucially important role in government to make sure that our economy is fair and healthy.

His camp believes that there is no role for government and we should get rid of it., so he began attacking us. He actually told his viewers to find out if their children had watched it in school and then get their teachers in trouble. We got a flood of phone calls from teachers who were being put on semi trial for having shown this film. The great thing is every time he insulted us we got lots of donations and supporter letters which said “if Glen Beck hates you, we love you”. But the part of it that worried me is the element of the political discourse that his camp represents. During that time, we actually got death threats and hate mail. There’s a couple of people who actually made videos critiquing us, and on one of their Facebook pages there was a discussion for a while about how I should be killed, if I should be chopped up or nailed to a tree or all these other crazy things.

I thought isn’t that sad that our political discourse is such that a woman who stands up and says we’re using too much stuff, our society could be better and healthier and more sustainable. These are not controversial no-brainer facts. The things I’m saying are pretty basic – I had to receive death threats for that?

One of the things that drives the economy of stuff is advertising. I recently asked Adam Corner whether he felt we could ever have any hope of achieving the cuts in carbon emissions that we need in order to avert runaway climate change with an advertising industry in place and no restrictions on advertising. His sense was that he didn’t think that was going to be possible. What’s your take on the power of advertising and what we’ll be able to achieve or not achieve with it still being in place?

A lot of people roll their eyes when we critique advertising because they like to think that we are all self-determined beings and that advertising doesn’t influence us. But I agree with the gentleman you spoke with. Advertising is basically the relentless, constant indoctrination into this consumer society. If you think about it, as I said in The Story of Stuff, is that what’s the point of an advert but to make us feel insecure with the stuff that we have. And so the way that we have set up our advertising culture, in the US it’s 3000 adverts a day targeted at each one of us.

They tell us that our hair is wrong and our clothes are wrong and our furniture is wrong and that we are wrong. We’re absolutely bombarded with these messages promoting our inadequacy and promoting consumption as the solution to that. It really is relentless here. I’ve travelled to over 40 countries and have seen that it’s nothing like here. We have advertisements in our schools, advertisements in our textbooks. It is absolutely relentless.

Sometimes I imagine how different things would be if we were targeted with 3000 advertisements per day telling us about the state of our planet, or telling us that we are good people the way that we are, or encouraging different cultural values about empathy and solidarity and civic participation. We would have a fundamentally different cultural undertone if those advertisements contained different messages. The folks who think advertising is not playing a crucial role in our unsustainable and not fun trajectory, I think, are a little naïve.

I really feel that it’s essential that we restrict advertising. I would start with restricting advertising to kids. Kids don’t have that critical thinking capacity to differentiate between advertising and other contexts. We should definitely limit advertising to kids. Get it out of our schools, get it out of our public spaces. When people ask me what’s something they can do to change our culture in this country, I say that we need to reclaim both our mental and our physical landscape from the constant barrage of messages.

In so many ways, we’re fighting an unfairly stacked battle. We’re going out there trying to promote values of sustainability and collaboration and empathy and participation but the other side is just bombarding folks with incredibly well-designed, psychologically sophisticated messages telling them to just keep on that consumer treadmill. Until we can roll that back, it’s really an unfair battle.

In the time since The Story of Stuff came out, do you think in the world around you as you experience it, do you think our relationship with stuff has got better, or worse? Are we going in a good direction or not really?

I think you can find evidence for either and I swing wildly back and forth. There’s lots of things that I think are changing for the better. I think the fact we went through such a tough economic recession and are still going through it, I think even though it’s been a miserable experience and many, many people have suffered, there’s a small silver lining which is that people are re-evaluating their spending priorities. When you have less money to spend, it is less attractive to rack up all that consumer debt for superfluous, disposable fashion items. So I think there’s a shift happening.

Just last weekend in the New York Times, there was an article I found really encouraging. Some social scientists interviewed high school seniors, the last year of high school, and they’ve been doing so for decades. For the first time in four decades, high school seniors are saying that what’s important to them going forward in their life is having a life full of meaning and purpose as opposed to having a life of comfort and wealth. I find that really hopeful. There’s so much data showing that young people are choosing to not even buy cars, that they want to travel much more lightly.

I think there’s an interesting cultural shift happening with some in our relationship with stuff. When I think about my parents’ generation, they were the first generation that came out after World War II, they had experienced that deprivation and it was the first generation who could have a toaster and a bathing suit every year, and a blender and a microwave. All this stuff. There was a bumper sticker that was very popular in the 70s and 80s, I don’t know if you had it in the UK. It said “he who dies with the most toys wins”. I feel like that bumper sticker captures the acquisition-oriented relationship to stuff. And now I feel like young people don’t want to be burdened with all that stuff. It takes a lot of work and paying of rent to have room for all that stuff.

The shift that I’m seeing is from a focus on acquisition to a focus on access. This is where the sharing economy comes in. How can we have access to the things that we need without taking on the burden of ownership, which means the working and the maintaining and the storing and the worrying about? For example, in my town we have a tool lending library. If I need a power drill to fix one thing, I’m not going to go and buy it and then have it cluttering up my garage forever. I’m going to go down to the tool lending library and borrow it for a week for free, then give it back.

Young people can’t imagine this, but when I was in university people had record albums. The more record albums you had, the cooler you thought you were. So many people had a row of record albums that went their entire dorm room, and if they were really cool they had cinder blocks and a piece of plywood and another thousand records on top of that…

You’re describing my sitting room!

That means you’re giving like 10 or 20 square metres to records! If you tell young people today the idea of devoting 10 or 20 square metres of your living space to music, they think you’re weird because they have it all in a matchbox-sized thing now. So I think through dematerialisation, through sharing, I think there’s a hopeful cultural shift away from actually having to acquire and own all this stuff. That feels very positive.

But then I leave my little bubble where I live here in the Bay Area of California and fly across the country for some talk and I read the local newspaper and they’re celebrating on Black Friday that even more people went shopping this year than last. There was such a depressing article in the paper about how Black Friday shopping has become a social activity and how good it is that entire families were sleeping in line from midnight or were leaving their Thanksgiving dinner table, which is our last non-commercialised holiday that is actually about human relations, our last one. People are leaving that dinner table to get in line with their entire family and these newspaper articles were celebrating that fact.  So I think there’s both hopeful and distressing trends. I choose to screen for the hopeful ones because that helps me keep going.

What do you think this relentless treadmill of accumulation and pressure to consume and debt accumulation, what does it tell us about the deeper underlying psyche, do you think?

I think it tells us that something is hurting inside us as individuals, and as a society. We are tribal animals and we want to have a sense of belonging and a sense of community and a tribe. If we don’t have that through strong family ties and healthy social relations and participation in different civic activities, then we go buy that sense of belonging through a shirt that has a particular logo on it. To me, when I see people spending 50 or 100 dollars on a t-shirt that has a particular logo on it, I feel sorry for them that they feel the need to purchase that social proof or social access.

I have a teenage daughter who loves buying these clothes, so I get to watch the dynamics unfold right here in my house. What I see among her and her friends is the kids who have strong senses of self and strong identity – my daughter is on a sports team so she gets a strong sense of meaning and community and identity through that, those kids are so much more resistant to the advertising messages, that they have to have a certain article of clothing to be cool. I feel that the more that we can invest in our social relations and our sense of identity and our sense of civic participation, the less people will be trying to fill that hollowness inside them with more stuff.

You talked somewhere I read, you talked about the loss of ‘citizen muscle’. What does the reclaiming of that look like, do you think?

SoSI used the term “the loss of citizen muscle” in contrast or corollary to the consumer muscle. I came up with this theory after travelling across the country showing The Story of Stuff to incredibly diverse audiences. It was so interesting to me that the number one question by far also the number one question that we get in our inbox at work, that people ask us, is “what can I do?”

First, I rattled off all these ideas of what people could do, but I just thought it was interesting that people were at such a loss of what to do. The problem is so pervasive that there is an almost infinite number of things one could do to help. I was curious what people were thinking, so I started turning it back to them when they started asking me what can I do. I started asking them – what can you think of doing? The answers that came back were really consistent and to me quite worrysome.

Everyone would say things like: I can recycle, I can carry my own bag to the store, I can buy organic, I can support fair trade, I can stop buying bottled water, I can compost, I can get a clothes line. These are all things that are very, very good to do but they’re not about working together for big, bold, collective, systemic change. They’re about changing our consumption habits and our day to day lifestyles. I want to be really clear, I’m not disrespecting those things. Of course we should be doing those things. But we really need to move from these individual consumer-oriented changes to these collective citizen engagements.

I realised that each of us has two parts. We have a consumer part and a citizen part, a consumer muscle and a citizen muscle. The consumer muscle is what we use when we’re out there consuming. That consumer muscle is spoken to and validated and nurtured so much through these relentless advertisements we were talking about, and we’re called upon to exercise that consumer muscle many times during the day.

Just think about your day. You are presented with a huge number of opportunities to engage with the consumer and use that consumer muscle, so our consumer muscles are really well developed. We can really identify with that consumer muscle. So much that it often becomes our primary identity. The media often uses the words consumer and human being interchangeably as if that is the totality of who we are.

But we have this other part of ourselves, our citizen muscle that we are not called upon to use as much as our consumer muscle. That citizen muscle has atrophied and what worries me about that is that when we’re faced with problems as enormous as the disruption of the global climate, or babies being born pre-polluted with the 160 industrial chemicals already in their blood at the moment of birth, these are really big systemic problems – and the best we can think of is carrying our own bag to the grocery store?

What I say is of course do those responsible consumer things, but those are a good first step, a good place to start, not a good place to stop. What we really need to do is engage our citizen muscles. What that looks like is thinking about people beyond your household. Thinking about making change beyond your kitchen and into your broader community and into your country. It involves things like working together to change the rules of the games, rather than trying to perfect your day-to-day behaviour within a fundamentally unsustainable context, let’s change that context so that the more sustainable choice becomes the new default.

When I think of engaging our citizen muscles, it’s really about how we show up in our community. It can be anything from getting your neighbours together to turn a vacant lot into a garden, to getting folks together to change the law that allows community garden CSAs to sell their food. Anything that’s just about making change beyond your household but in your broader community. Talking to people. Networking to find people to get involved. It could be political lobbying, it could be protesting, it could be supporting those who do the protesting. There’s really an infinite number of ways how being a citizen can actually show up. But the point is we’ve got to start showing up in those ways if we want to implement bigger, bolder change than we can in our kitchens or in our supermarkets acting alone.

My last question is what does Annie Leonard buy her friends and loved ones for Christmas this year?

I’m so lucky that my friends and loved ones share these values. I know a lot of people who just can’t get their relatives to stop sending them all this schlop. In my community, we only do gift exchange for kids, and they have to be a used gift. For kids, they don’t care if the book or the game or the toy is new or used. That’s great, so in my community – I live with a bunch of neighbours and we’re all really good friends, all the kids draw a name from a hat, so they each have to give one gift and it has to be home made or used.

Within my family, we do the same thing. We draw names, so you only have to give one gift, and anything you want to give beyond that one gift has to be used or handmade, but there’s absolutely no pressure to do that whatsoever. We have a 25 dollar limit on purchased gifts. So when I look at all these people standing in line and stressing about their long lists, I just feel so sorry for them. What a chore! Holidays should be a time about relaxation and rejuvenation and if I had to go to the mall, it would be neither relaxing nor rejuvenating. We turn to gifts of experiences, used gifts, home made gifts, anything that allows us to participate in the joy rather than the frenzy of the holiday period.