Big Idea + People + Action = [The Story of] Change

Annie Leonard and The Story of Stuff project have released a new movie called The Story of Change. In past movies, Leonard has taken a current event or issue and dissected it, putting it into words and pictures her audience can understand. Leonard demystified topics like cap and trade, planned obsolescence, toxins in cosmetics, and Citizens United. This time, Leonard turns her attention to…us. Her audience. The Story of Change focuses on how individuals have been trying to affect change in our separate lives, but the key is to come together as a group to really turn things around.

Leonard begins by defining the “green story” as buying fairer and greener products and then recycling them at end of life, but that’s not the end of the story, or what people can do to be green. “Look, it is important to try to live green,” Leonard says in the film. “Living our values in small ways shows ourselves and others we care. So it is a great place to start. But it’s a terrible place to stop.”

In each of her previous films, Leonard lays out the problem and demonstrates that we need change, but The Story of Change is the first film that focuses on how to do it, and do it together. She examined periods in history where there has been large-scale change – the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the environmental victories in the U.S. in the 1970s – and found some parallels. Leonard believes that we need a systemic change, and the only way to accomplish that is to come together and act. Her three-step process starts with a big idea, and then needs participants who believe in it, and together they must take action to effect change.

The Story of Change process bears a lot of similarity to Leonard’s own activist path. While walking to school past piles of garbage, Leonard got a big idea. She took a field trip to the New York City dump, and as far as she could see, “there were shoes and appliances and books and food and everything you could imagine, literally as far as you could see. And I thought ‘My God, we have a real problem. We have built our economy on the unsustainable flow of materials from resources to waste.'” With this revelation, her twenty-year journey examining material product lifecycles from material to waste, began.

For a long time, Leonard worked to inspire change alone, through speeches to small groups. Her audience asked if she would make a film in order to reach more people and The Story of Stuff films and book were born. Now Leonard was reaching people in every country in the world except one (at the time of our talk) and her films have garnered more than 20 million views to date. But, the information was still a one-to-one exchange, where Leonard talks or the movie plays, and the audience watches it and takes away their own ideas of how to change individually. But individual effort isn’t enough.

Leonard said that they decide which topics to cover based on what users are most interested in. Last fall she said, “We have more ideas and requests than we can possibly do. We’re trying to provide the information that they need to engage in the conversation. One of the things we definitely want to look at in one of the next couple of films is solutions.” She was inspired to make The Story of Change because so many people asked her what they could do to change our system, and she wanted to present a solution.

In the film she says, “The millions of ordinary people who made these extraordinary changes didn’t try to do it alone. They didn’t just say, ‘I will be more responsible.’ They said, ‘We will work together until the problem is solved.'”

Through her work, she has gathered participants who believe in her and her big idea. And now it’s time for action. The Story of Change is the first time that Leonard calls on her audience to act after watching. She believes that everyone has something to contribute, based on personality type, so viewers are encouraged to take a quiz to determine what type of activist they are. And, for the first time, the site announced a call for ideas.

Leonard is a big advocate of community and sharing, so it’s no surprise that she is now turning her focus on people coming together. She believes in the power of the everyman. When I asked her who her real-life heroes are, she said, “For me, the real heroes are the everyday moms who are just trying to get dinner on the table and get their kids to do well in school, who are standing up and taking a stand against corporate polluters.” She described feeling hopeful when she watched the Tar Sands Pipeline protests, when regular people came out and spoke up – a rancher and a grandmother – not activists. She said, “It was just so inspiring to see regular folks saying, ‘I’ve just had enough, I’m ready to put my body on the line to have my concern for the climate be heard.'”

Will Leonard’s formula work? She has a big idea and thousands of like-minded viewers, now will people take action and drive change?

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at and @anewell3p on Twitter.

2 responses

  1. Just a small nitpick – in paragraph 4 Annie’s quote should read (taken from the original interview)

    “My God, we have a real problem. We have built our economy on the unsustainable flow of materials from resources to waste”

    The missing “un” changes things somewhat!

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