The Rotarian Conversation with Annie Leonard


What did you throw away today? Have you thought about it since? Annie Leonard has. Leonard spent more than a decade thinking about your trash and following it around the world. She has toured landfills and testified to the U.S. Congress regarding international waste trafficking. That work, plus a dozen more years studying environmental issues, inspired her to create a series of films about the things we use every day, yet wouldn’t think worthy of a film: our stuff.  

Since The Story of Stuff launched online in 2007, it has been viewed more than 50 million times online and millions more times in classrooms, churches, and conferences. It has been on national TV in at least three countries and translated into dozens of languages. Leonard has been contacted by college students who decided to study environmental issues after seeing The Story of Stuff in high school, and she has heard from newlyweds who included a link to the film on their wedding invitations to explain why they did not want any gifts. “It launched years ago, and still almost every day I get email and Facebook messages from people all over the world,” Leonard says. “The metrics show that it is the most watched online environmental film to date.”

Leonard’s film and book (of the same name) launched a movement that has the public rethinking their consumption. It continues today at storyofstuff.org with a million members – and several more films, including The Story of Bottled Water, The Story of Electronics, The Story of Citizens United v. FEC, among others. Leonard is now the executive director of Greenpeace USA – the same organization that sent her around the world to track our trash nearly two decades ago. She spoke with contributing editor Vanessa Glavinskas from her San Francisco office.

THE ROTARIAN: How did you get started in this work?

LEONARD: I grew up in Seattle, which is a very environmentally aware place, and I spent a lot of time camping with my family in national and state parks. I loved being in the forest when I was a kid. At the time, I didn’t know about the critical role that forests play in maintaining our global climate. There was just something about being in the forest that made me feel peaceful and connected. But I went to college in New York City, where there is garbage everywhere. I became mesmerized with the amount of garbage I passed every day as I would walk home from my classes. There would be piles of garbage as high as me. So I started looking in the bags, and I saw that it was almost all paper – paper made from those forests that I loved and wanted to protect. Then I took a trip to the local landfill to see what was happening to this waste, and that experience changed my life. I would suggest Rotary clubs organize a trip to a landfill to see the other side of our consumer society. Most landfills offer public tours. It is a stunning thing to see. I saw food and books, furniture and clothes and stuffed animals. I was totally flabbergasted. I didn’t realize until that moment that we had built our entire economic model on this massive amount of waste.

TR: When did you begin following waste around the world?

LEONARD: First I finished college and went to graduate school, all in New York, and then I got a job at Greenpeace. I started in 1988. This was at a time when a lot of people in the United States were getting concerned about waste and demanding an end to incinerators and landfills. Greenpeace was advocating for a redesign of packaging and processes to reduce waste. But some companies really wanted to keep doing business as usual, so they started putting their waste on ships and sending it around the world and paying, or sometimes lying or tricking or sneaking, to dump it on Third World countries. I spent the next eight years traveling around the world tracking our waste. I saw our trash in places such as South Africa, Haiti, Indonesia, China, and India.

TR: What startled you most about what you saw?

LEONARD: How unnecessary it all is. I think people look at pollution and think, well, pollution is the price of progress. Or, well, I’m not going to stop driving, so what right do I have to say anything? But we could transition our entire economy to safe materials and clean energy within 10 to 20 years, depending upon which plan you look at.

TR: How could we achieve that in 10 to 20 years? What would be the key steps to make it happen?

LEONARD: One of the first steps is to demand government leadership. Right now, because of the way that our elections are financed and some recent Supreme Court decisions, big corporations are allowed enormous influence in our democracy. So one of the things that we have to do is reduce that influence. A second thing we need to do is start transitioning to clean energy. It’s not fair to tell individuals to stop driving, because the way our communities are set up, we have to drive. But what we can say to our government is we want to see every possible effort put into clean energy. Other countries are leaving us in the dust, and I think people don’t realize this. On clean energy, we are rapidly becoming the global laggards.

TR: Much of this is at the government level. Is there anything individuals can do?

LEONARD: Right now we are consuming more things than the planet can replenish each year. We have a voracious demand for cellphones and clothing and disposable silverware. We simply have to slow down the amount of stuff that we use, and there are lots of opportunities to do that in this country for most people. Not everybody; there are still kids who go to bed hungry every night and people who don’t have heat. Some people do need to consume more – but many of us need to consume less. It’s not about being a martyr, but about asking yourself if you could use your old one a bit longer or borrow something from a neighbor instead of buying it new.

TR: We’re approaching the holidays. This is prime time for people to consume things they don’t need. How do you handle the holidays?

LEONARD: There is so much pressure to blindly consume in the holidays, and the truth is no one loves going to a crowded mall and buying something for someone because you feel obligated. In my family, we each pull one name at Thanksgiving, and that is the only person you buy a present for, except for the children. You can buy presents for the little kids. When I buy only one adult present, I have time to think about it and really put my mind to it. We also have a $25 limit.

TR: You talk about the idea of planned obsolescence in The Story of Stuff and items like cellphones. Even if you don’t want a new phone, you have to buy one to get the latest features.

LEONARD: It’s incredible. The average life of a cellphone right now is about 16 months. My mom had the same telephone my entire life, the same toaster. We know it’s possible to make stuff that lasts. I’ll give you a project idea to share with your members. All those old phones and tablets and computers, they call it e-waste, and it’s the fastest growing and most hazardous part of our municipal garbage stream. All of these phones and laptops have little bits of lead and cadmium and mercury and other toxic chemicals. People don’t know what to do with this stuff, so they often just store it in their garage. Or they put it in the garbage can or they give it to a recycler. The problem is a lot of recyclers send this stuff to Third World countries. The way to make sure that your recycler isn’t doing that is to make sure it is certified by e-Stewards (www.e-stewards.org), a program that follows strict standards of social and environmental responsibility. A great Rotary club project would be to host an e-waste recycling drive in your community and make sure it’s given to a recycler that is e-Steward certified to prevent it from getting in landfills, incinerators, or dumped overseas.

TR: Many people have good intentions. Yet, in reality, one person’s lifestyle change doesn’t solve the problem. How do you respond to that argument?

LEONARD: There’s another benefit to recycling, getting solar power, riding your bike – and that is how good it makes you feel to bring your values and your actions into alignment and demonstrate to other people that there is another way to live. It’s impossible to live eco-perfectly in today’s world. The better thing to do is get friends together and work to make changes so that it’s not so hard to live eco-perfectly. We have to change the context around us so that doing the right thing becomes the cheapest, easiest thing to do.

TR: What’s the most important eco-friendly thing you do in your day-to-day life?

LEONARD: I compost. Composting is important because all that organic material – your food scraps, your yard waste – if that goes into the regular garbage and into the landfill, it creates methane gas. So, composting your table scraps, which you can easily do in your backyard, does help to reduce greenhouse gases. The other thing is to advocate for a municipal composting program in your area. My city has compost pickup along with the garbage and recycling pickup. The city [of San Francisco] picks it up, composts it, and returns it to the soil.

TR: That makes it easy.

LEONARD: You know what gets people to recycle? Having a recycling program in their city. That’s it. It’s not nagging them all the time; it’s making it easy. So you could focus totally on your own individual actions and try to compost perfectly, even when it’s freezing cold. Or you could get a bunch of people together and write to the city and say we want a municipal composting program.

TR: Advocating for change is something Rotarians are very good at and have a lot of practice doing.

LEONARD: Also, Rotarians have a lot of credibility in the community. People know that they are good, upstanding, engaged citizens. So if you can bring that credibility that you have earned through decades of good work, if you can bring that to say we want our city to do more to promote solar energy, or we want our city to do more to combat waste, it would be an incredible asset.

TR: Rotarians support humanitarian projects all over the world. But given the dire ramifications of climate change, are other humanitarian efforts in vain?

LEONARD: I have two thoughts. One is that we all need to work on whatever excites us because we want to enjoy our lives. You have to find the right match between what the world needs and what your passion is. The other thing is that these things are all connected. Clean water and sanitation are absolutely connected to climate. So is basic education and literacy. Even your work in peace and conflict resolution; if you talk to military analysts today, they all say that one of the biggest sources of conflict looking forward is environmental – climate change, drought, wildfires, contaminated water. That forces migration and creates conflicts.

TR: Last year, a group of Rotarians formed an official environmental sustainability action group. Do you have any advice for them?

LEONARD: It’s important to remember to talk to people where they’re at. Often people who are concerned about the environment get so excited – and in our enthusiasm and urgency, we inadvertently push people away. Let me be clear, the data absolutely merit being urgent. But we have to remember that if we want people to join us in this work, we need to be inviting and inclusive. For example, some people will want to organize a protest at city hall, while other people would rather provide the child care for the people doing the protesting. Some people would rather do the scientific research. To build a movement, we have to welcome all kinds of people. Also, make sure it’s not all gloom and doom. It’s often hard with the environment – because so much of the information is so depressing – but many environmentalists have been gloom and doom for a long time, and people don’t want to work with us if we’re always like that.

TR: That’s an interesting point. You’ve worked in this area for decades. How do you stay enthusiastic?

LEONARD: When I go to a new place, I look for people doing something to promote a solution. There are chemists who are redesigning chemicals from the molecular level to design out the hazard. There are architects who are figuring out how to build buildings to be energy generators instead of consumers. Everywhere, there are people working on solutions, and that really feeds my hope that we will figure out how to have a sustainable, healthy, and fair society.

TR: Is there anything else you would like to tell Rotary members?

LEONARD: I know there are a lot of business leaders in Rotary. One of the greatest things they can do is join with other business leaders and CEOs to be a voice for positive change. There’s a great organization called the American Sustainable Business Council. It’s a group of businesses that realize that there is no business on a dead planet and that it’s in their interest to figure out how to run businesses in a healthy way. They’re doing all kinds of work to support the politicians who want to take action, such as Congress members who want to help transition to a clean energy economy. The American Sustainable Business Council provides a forum for businesspeople to learn and then take action together.

Greenpeace’s Greenwire platform connects volunteers from all over the country who want to collaborate on projects. Learn more at greenwire.greenpeace.org.

Channel your clean energy with ESRAG

Concerned about the environment? You’re not alone. In 2015, Rotary approved the formation of the Environmental Sustainability Rotarian Action Group (ESRAG).

Here’s how you can get involved:

1. Enlist logistical help

“Clubs and districts are the engines of Rotary,” says ESRAG’s chair, Paul Riehemann, a member of the Rotary Club of Madison, Wis. He encourages every club to designate a member to take the lead on environmental efforts. “Let us know what your club is planning, and we’ll assist.”  

2. Tell your story

Has your club done an environmental project? Let ESRAG know, and the action group will publicize it on its website. Fill out the project template under the “sustainability projects” tab at esrag.org.

3. Find inspiration

Go to esrag.org for project ideas and key contacts who can help you get a project started. “Our goal is to empower clubs and facilitate change,” says Karen Kendrick-Hands, also a member of the Madison club and the ESRAG projects coordinator.

4. Plan a program

Focus your next club program on the science of climate change and potential solutions. Download a presentation tailored for a Rotarian audience; find it under the “resources” tab at esrag.org.  

5. Join the action

Team up with 900 Rotary members worldwide, including experts like Elizabeth May, former executive director of the Sierra Club Canada and a member of the Rotary Club of Sidney by the Sea, B.C. The action group is open to anyone affiliated with Rotary. Learn more at esrag.org.



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