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The Interview

Annie Leonard's got the right stuff Add to ...

There's a lot of stuff about Annie Leonard. Big Stuff. Like serious childhood influences. Sharp opinions. A need for purpose in the world. The 45-year-old even calls herself neurotic. (At least she laughs about it.) And she carries around an encyclopedia of knowledge in her head about the dangerous truth of consumerist culture. It spills out of her like water from a tap. (It's the one thing she's not willing to conserve.)

Which is what led to her 20-minute film, The Story of Stuff, that went viral in 2007. And that, in turn, led to her new same-titled book . In her work, she unpacks the hidden story behind all those things we buy (from H&M T-shirts to cellphones), and so, in the interest of making things straightforward, here she is - in parcels.

Her Childhood Stuff

She grew up in Seattle, where she fell in love with forests. But it was her single mother who was the greatest influence. "We grew up thinking that to waste was a stupid, loser thing to do." The experience was so intense, she acknowledges that it made one of her two siblings rebel against frugality. Her sister, a doctor who lives in New Jersey, is a "supershopper," Ms. Leonard says with a laugh. "But she's a very good person," she adds as though she usually considers the attributes mutually exclusive.

When Ms. Leonard was at Barnard College in New York, enrolled in environmental studies, she had a revelation. She began her own anthropological study by examining sidewalk garbage and quickly realized that her beloved trees were ending up as paper in people's trash.

Shortly thereafter, she went to the infamous, now-closed Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. As she stood on the edge of a stinking sea of rotting food, cardboard boxes, clothes, plastic bags and old appliances, she was both horrified and enthralled. "Who set up this system? How could those who knew about it allow it to continue?" she writes in her book. Those questions propelled her into a life of unravelling the interconnections of the consumer economy, working for a variety of environmental organizations, including Greenpeace.

"For 20 years, I've been going up to people and saying, 'Want to talk about garbage?'" she says with an expression of childlike curiosity.

It was a problem. She had a message few people wanted to hear. And not only that, she knew too much. She confesses to loving "intense, wonky, technical books" about esoteric subjects such as Thor chemicals and mercury exposure in Cato Ridge, South Africa. She easily overwhelmed listeners.

Until …

Her Film Stuff

In 2005, Ms. Leonard decided to take a year-long course at the Rockwood Leadership Institute with social and environmental activists in California. "You do this exercise where you get up and talk about your purpose in life," she says. "And I said that my purpose was to create a paradigm shift in our relationship to materials, and I was, like, parts per million, carbon sequestration, too much material, too many toxins," she says in rapid-fire delivery. "Well, everyone politely clapped, and one guy raised his hand and said, 'I have no idea what you just said.'"

Ms. Leonard produces a look of shock. "I explained that when I look at a chair, I don't see a chair. I look at it, and I see some wood, which could be mahogany or teak, which could have come from Indonesia or Malaysia, and then I wonder if people got kicked out of there, and then I see brominated flame retardants and PVC." She stops herself short, laughing.

At the next session, as a joke, she took out a large piece of paper and began to tell the story of the consumer society by drawing cartoons. "They loved it," she says, bugging her eyes, in disbelief still. "And there was a philanthropist in the audience who said, 'I'll give you money to make a film.' I said, 'No one will watch a movie about me talking about garbage.'"

She did the film. Few thought it would go viral. Even the film company thought the best distribution would be by DVD. In her funding proposal, she said that 50,000 people watching it would be a success. So far, they've had 10 million.

"It's the right message at the right time. In the U.S., there's a growing sense of dis-ease," she explains. "People just know something is wrong."

Her Mom Stuff

Ms. Leonard is a single mother of a 10-year-old girl, Dewi, born during her brief marriage to a Burmese refugee. She lives in Berkeley, Calif., although she hesitates to admit it. "People think Berkeley people are weird," she says with a sigh. "It undermines my credibility," she jokes. The only way she manages to work as a single mom is her reliance on her community. She lives in one of six attached townhouses where residents took down the fences in the backyards so the children - 14 in total - could play together. "It's not a commune," she clarifies quickly. But they help each other with pick-up from school, babysitting, hand-me-down clothes or assistance if they're sick.

Her daughter is opinionated too. "She told me the other day she wanted to go shopping in a store. I said, 'Oh, you have so many clothes it's obscene.' She said, 'I know. But the only place we've ever gone shopping is in the garage.'"

Her Pet-Peeve Stuff

Well, just one of them. "Americans work 300 hours more per year than the average European. We spend five hours a day watching TV. And we spend more time shopping than other people. And so between working, watching and shopping, we have less time for other things, and where does that time come from? It's coming from our engagement with the community."

Oh, and one more. Among other environmentally aware measures, her book is printed on a 100-per-cent post-consumer fibre paper that is processed chlorine free. And no, it wouldn't be more in keeping with her message if it were all electronic. "First of all, not everyone on the planet has high-speed Internet. Plus, it's not like servers are not plugged in. They take a lot of energy."

She pauses. "And there's such a thing as libraries."

She could have added a "duh" as she does often in her film - in a friendly way to make her message accessible - but in conversation, she restrains herself.

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