Annie Leonard, the founder of The Story of Stuff Project, is one of the most well-known environmental storytellers on the planet, launching online campaigns and releasing a series of videos (including the all-time favorite The Story of Stuff) that have received over 40 million views. This week, Greenpeace announced that Leonard will be taking on a new role as executive director of Greenpeace USA.
Leonard’s long history with Greenpeace began in 1998, while she was in her 20s. She took a job working with the environmental organization on a campaign to stop the exportation of hazardous waste from rich countries to poor countries.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a rush of international waste trafficking because of a growing awareness of the issues surrounding waste in wealthy countries like the US. “At Greenpeace, we were hoping that more local resistance would lead to more companies implementing waste prevention–to make it more politically unpopular and expensive to get rid of waste. Some definitely did, and that’s where a lot of curbside recycling programs came from,” she says. “But some companies set it out of site, out of mind, increasingly in third world countries.”
When Greenpeace asked for people to go investigate what companies were doing with their waste, Leonard volunteered. “I was 20-something with no child and no mortgage, and I said ‘I’ll go’. I spent a decade traveling around the world tracking our waste,” she says. At times, Leonard’s job investigating companies was dangerous, and she even received threats. But the work of Leonard and her fellow campaigners ultimately led to a major victory: the Basel Convention, an international agreement that cuts down on waste movement from rich countries to poor countries.
It also started Leonard, who went on to become cofounder of the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance in the 1990s, on the path that would eventually lead to The Story of Stuff Project, which examines the environmental and social effects of consumerism. “People ask me how long it took to make The Story of Stuff. I say that it took 20 years, going up and down the supply chain,” she explains.
Leonard had kicked around the idea of one day returning to Greenpeace. But she didn’t want to see The Story of Stuff Project–what she calls an experimental lab for online and offline organizing–die. So Greenpeace and Leonard hashed out a compromise: Leonard would be on the board of The Story of Stuff Project, and the two organizations would collaborate in a number of ways, from sharing each others’ work on social media to incorporating The Story of Stuff Project’s strategic work on consumption into Greenpeace campaigns.
Leonard actually hasn’t been involved in the day to day workings of The Story of Stuff Project for quite awhile. Michael O’Heaney serves as executive director, and Leonard acts as the public face of the organization.
Even though she built a globally recognized brand and managed to get people to watch 20-minute YouTube videos on environmental and social issues (no small feat), Leonard still never expected to be tapped for the executive director position. When someone on the board told her that they wanted to discuss the ED role, she put together a list of suggestions for candidates, not suspecting that the organization was interested in her.
While The Story of Stuff Project is small compared to Greenpeace USA, it’s easy to see why Leonard, who will work from Greenpeace’s San Francisco office, was chosen for her new gig. She’s already a galvanizing force for the environmental movement, and has the ability to break down complex, often dull issues into stories to which anyone can relate. “For years, I sort of scorned storytelling. I was data-driven, I studied environmental science. People who really understand the science are so moved by the data and the facts that it’s hard not to lead with that,” she admits. “I have learned that skilled storytelling is the way to weave facts together in a meaningful narrative that people can relate to.”
Leonard won’t reveal her immediate plans once she takes the Greenpeace helm in August, replacing Phil Radford. But she is already brainstorming ways to more deeply engage Greenpeace’s member base, which allows the organization to operate free of corporate and government funding. Leonard is also thinking about building more connections with other organizations.
“I just love working and building ties with unlikely partners–people who you wouldn’t think about being associated with environmental groups. Lets reach out to the medical community, to economists, to so many different people who know things can be better,” she says. “We find solutions or fail together.”