The Right ‘Stuff’

Having finished her grad degree after a quarter-century gap, environmentalist Annie Leonard, MRP ’13, lands a job at Greenpeace.

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Environmentalists have a reputation for being earnest to the point of dour. And as longtime activist Annie Leonard, MRP ’13, readily admits, those with a scientific bent can be the worst offenders. “Too often, we are so whiny and wonky, so deep in the weeds of the data about the state of the planet,” she says, “that it’s easy to be a bummer.”

Annie Leonard, MRP ’13

Waste not: Annie Leonard, MRP ’13, on the Ag Quad.

Photo: Lindsay France/UP

Leonard has spent the past twenty-five years cultivating a persona that’s the antithesis of that stereotype. After two decades fighting the international hazardous waste trade and seven years at the helm of her own nonprofit, she recently landed the top job at Greenpeace USA—the nonprofit famous for its dramatic, media-savvy maneuvers to document such issues as international whaling and nuclear dumping. 

Leonard catapulted to prominence in 2007 with the animated film The Story of Stuff, a twenty-minute online video highlighting the environmental, social, and political costs of a throw-away attitude to material goods. Sporting a ponytail and a broad smile punctuated by dimples, she describes the issues to which she has devoted her career, whimsically illustrated by stick figures on a white screen behind her. Consider toxic chemicals in household products, exemplified by the brominated flame retardants common in computers, couches, and mattresses. “We take our pillows, we douse them in a neurotoxin, then we bring them home and put our heads on them for eight hours a night to sleep,” she says. “Now, I don’t know—but it seems to me that in this country, with so much potential, we could think of a better way to keep our heads from catching on fire at night.”

When The Story of Stuff went viral—the New York Times called it a “cheerful but brutal assessment of how much Americans waste”—Leonard followed up with a bestselling book of the same name, plus more videos on such topics as cosmetics, electronics, and bottled water. The films have been translated into fifteen languages and viewed more than 40 million times in 200 countries. Today, Story of Stuff is a nonprofit with 500,000 members that runs training programs to promote waste reduction, civic engagement, and public policy initiatives. “Put simply,” she writes in her book, “if we do not redirect our extraction and production systems and change the way we distribute, consume, and dispose of our Stuff—what I sometimes call the take-make-waste model—the economy as it is will kill the planet.”

As an environmental sciences major at Barnard in the Eighties, Leonard got her first look at the downside of human waste with studies of the anthropology of sidewalk garbage and a visit to Staten Island’s vast and putrid Fresh Kills landfill. “I stood at its edge in absolute awe,” she writes in The Story of Stuff’s introduction. “As far as I could see in every direction were trashed couches, appliances, cardboard boxes, apple cores, clothes, plastic bags, books, and tons of other Stuff. You know how a gory car crash scene makes you want to turn away and stare at the same time? That is what this dump was like.”

In 1988, determined to explore the systems that engender such consumption and waste, Leonard matriculated for a master’s in regional planning on the Hill. Even then, says vice provost and dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth, her passion was complemented by a knack for policy. “Annie always got how one makes cogent arguments to bring others to see your perspective,” says Knuth, Leonard’s professor for Environmental and Natural Resource Policy Processes, a course that features two weeks in Washington, D.C., during which students meet legislators, federal agency scientists and staff, and nonprofit and industry lobbyists. “She understood the politics, how one influences decision makers, and how to present an argument to be effective, based on evidence.”

Leonard was still a grad student when Greenpeace invited her to Bangladesh to monitor the international hazardous waste trade. She leapt at the opportunity—even though she still had two papers and a thesis to write. It was, after all, her dream job. “I was sneaking into factories,” she recalls, “interviewing workers, taking hair samples and soil samples to prove the environmental health harm.” The work culminated in the 1992 Basel Convention, an international treaty to prevent more developed countries from shipping their hazardous waste to less developed ones. In 1996, she helped found the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives in response to the flood of American medical waste that was being converted into toxic dioxin and mercury emissions in South Asian facilities. “It was all NIMBY—’Not In My Back Yard,’ ” she says. “We have to say NOPE: ‘Not on Planet Earth.’ “

All the while, she hung on to a box of five-inch floppy disks—drafts of her thesis with comments from Knuth and other advisers. Says Leonard: “I kept thinking, someday I’ll address their comments and hand it back in.” But it was criticism from another quarter—including a few jabs from conservative talk show host Glenn Beck—that ultimately propelled Leonard back to campus to burnish her bona fides. (As one Story of Stuff detractor had put it: “This is community college Marxism in a ponytail.”) Meanwhile, some online bios suggested that Leonard had actually completed her degree, which—although she herself made no such claims—put her at risk of résumé padding accusations.

So Leonard crafted a proposal to fulfill her graduate requirements; in May 2013, in time to honor her mother’s eightieth birthday, she received her master’s degree. A few months ago, just shy of her fiftieth birthday, she took the helm at Greenpeace. “Greenpeace is an incredibly important organization, nationally and environmentally—it’s a huge platform,” she says. “I was looking for the highest impact place I could be.”

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