How a Viral Video Sparked a Major Environmental Movement - Public Goods Blog

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How a Viral Video Sparked a Major Environmental Movement

Do you remember that 2007 viral video where a woman casually explained what happens to all our “stuff”?

plastic bag flapping in the wind

Don’t let the cute animations, funny sound effects and funky intro music give you the wrong impression. The video had a dire message: If we don’t dramatically change our consumption habits and how we process our waste, our species might not make it through the next century, not in one piece anyway.

The creator of the short film, environmental activist Annie Leonard, had no idea “The Story of Stuff” would catalyze an entire movement and scale into an impactful organization. Originally the project was simply a video version of a speech she would regularly deliver to other activists and campaigners.

But then everyone started watching it. Thousands of teachers began showing it to their students, sometimes as part of a required assignment. Eventually the video became standard viewing in secondary education, sort of like a more grown up environmental version of “Schoolhouse Rock!”

The first time I saw “The Story of Stuff,” for example, was in my high school environmental science class during senior year. If you look at the comments on the YouTube page for the film, you’ll see many students joking about how everyone is watching it “because of school.”

Once Leonard received a wave of support and recognition, she decided to expand the humble project into a powerful nonprofit that could play a role in preventing the destruction of the planet. Because she is from Berkeley, California, she established an office in the city.

During the course of the next decade, a one-woman operation grew to a team of 10 and counting. Leonard also assembled a seven-person board of directors, all of whom are dedicated environmentalists.

drawing of environmental activists picketing in front of a pile of garbage
One of the cartoons from the original video.

Realizing there were so many other important topics that deserved increase awareness, Leonard and her team produced more short films. Below is a timeline of the videos:

2007: “The Story of Stuff” (also available in Spanish)
2009: “The Story of Cap and Trade
2010: “The Story of Water
2010: “The Story of Cosmetics
2011: “The Story of Electronics
2011: “The Story of Citizens United v. FEC
2011: “The Story of Broke
2012: “The Story of Change
2013: “The Story of Solutions
2015: “The Story of Microbeads
2015: “This Land is Our Land” (about the negative impact of Nestlé bottled water)
2016: “Our Water, Our Future” (about the negative impact of Nestlé bottled water)
2017: “The Story of Microfibers
2018: “A Tale of Two Cities” (about environmental problems in Evart and Flint, Michigan)

The nonprofit also developed campaigns and seminars related to the material the films were covering. On the Story of Stuff Project website there is a “TAKE ACTION” section that includes reducing bottled water, plastic pollution, junk mail and more. One strategy the organization employs is encouraging members to sign pledges to take certain actions such as contacting their representatives.

In 2014 the Story of Stuff Project launched its Citizen Muscle Bootcamp, a four-week online program for community members who want the skills to live sustainably and become effective environmental activists. The team also designed a “changemaker quiz” to help people figure out what type of activism is best suited to their personalities. Around the same time, Leonard became the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA.

The organization has had a visible impact on several environmental issues that have been newsworthy during recent years. The Story of Stuff Project has helped draft legislation, for instance, to protect public water in Flint and other areas of Michigan. In part because of pressure from Story of Stuff Project activists, Nestlé abandoned plans to build a water bottling plant in Spring Creek, Pennsylvania that would have sapped natural ground water sources.

Today the Story of Stuff Project is a global community with more than one million members. Their latest endeavor is “The Story of Plastic,” which will be their first feature-length film. If you are itching to dive into the subject, start with these teasers that explore specific cases:

  1. How Plastic Pollutes Small Towns
  2. The Indonesian Plastic Bag Diet
  3. Manila’s Zero Waste Neighborhoods
  4. Where Your Recycled Plastic Ends Up

The nonprofit is funded by donations from individuals, as well as charitable social impact organizations such as the Oak Foundation. If you want to be a part of their story, donate today or sign up for one of their initiatives.

Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.

From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.

Comments (1)

  • Believe it or not, it’s easy to get rid of your excess stuff with various methods. People who don’t mind mailing things all over like eBay when they have to get rid of one or two items and some people with a handful of valuable items go to a local auction house. When it comes to a large clearout though, some rely on MaxSold to empty a room or the whole house. Nothing like giving your “stuff” a second home!

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