Annie Leonard
Key Player

Founder, “Story of Stuff”

Formerly an activist with Greenpeace and a co-creator of GAIA (the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), Annie Leonard has carved out an impressive – and profitable – niche for herself as an anti-consumerist activist.

The mind behind of “The Story of Stuff Project” has found that railing against consumption is a great way to make a living. Annie Leonard has turned her lecture on the “dangers” of consumerism into a veritable industry all on its own, producing both a DVD that is now in thousands of schools and a best-selling book based of The Story of Stuff. Her video series now includes The Story of Cosmetics, The Story of Bottled Water, and The Story of Cap and Trade.

Leonard’s major funder is The Tides Foundation, an organization that takes money from other philanthropies and then passes it through to third parties. In this way, a large public charity can indirectly fund projects that board members might be sympathetic to but the public at large – and the donors who fund those charities – might disapprove of. Leonard’s work is a prime example: When it was revealed that her videos were being shown to school children, the New York Times reported that “In January [2009], a school board in Missoula County, Mont., decided that screening the video treaded on academic freedom after a parent complained that its message was anticapitalist.”

Critiques of The Story of Stuff

Leonard’s work has its detractors. The website Jezebel, for instance, wrote that “Leonard’s "Stuff" is not exactly unbiased. At times, the video can come across as preachy and one-sided.”

Lee Doren of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has been especially dogged in his takedowns of Leonard’s work. His four-part critique of The Story of Stuff can be seen on YouTube here (part one, part two, part three, part four).

More recently, he dismantled the assertions that Leonard made in her most recent video, The Story of Cosmetics. Here is that video, in its entirety:

In his critique, Doren makes the point that Leonard is simply trying to scare people without providing data that they have good reason to be scared. “Throw up some scary words on the screen and let the audience think they may learn about the chemicals by the end. Unfortunately Annie does very little to provide information to the viewer in the Story of Cosmetics,” he says.

Leonard hypes the presence of “carcinogens” in cosmetics without discussing whether or not they exist in quantities need to actually cause cancer. “Saying something contains a carcinogen in and of itself is meaningless,” Doren points out. “Almost everything in the grocery store has carcinogens at the part per billion level; even one raw mushroom has more carcinogens than you can expect from water you can drink in a day. But vegetables are still good for you. Meaning, without providing more information Annie’s just scaring people.”

It’s a point that the Society of Toxicologists agrees with. In a recent survey, only six percent of toxicologists stated that “any” exposure to a harmful chemical is unacceptable. Three in four toxicologists say that cosmetics do not pose a significant health risk. Another of Leonard’s bugaboos is phthalates; only 11 percent of toxicologists think they are a “high risk” product.

Doren also points to Leonard’s repetition of a faulty study on lead in lipstick by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (which, like “The Story of Stuff Project,” receives money from the Tides Foundation). Leonard ignores that the FDA has published a peer-reviewed study showing that the lead level in lipsticks tested by the CSC are “within the range that would be expected from lipsticks formulated with permitted color additives and other ingredients that had been prepared under good manufacturing practice conditions.”

In other words, there’s no danger from lipstick. But acknowledging a product’s safety doesn’t sell books or DVDs, nor does it secure grants from fellow-travelers in the environmentalist movement. Hyperbole brings in the big bucks.

Leonard holds an undergraduate degree from Barnard and a graduate degree in city and regional planning from Cornell University. In addition to co-creating the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, she sits on the board of the International Forum for Globalization and the Environmental Health Fund, and has previously been involved with Health Care Without Harm, Essential Information, and Greenpeace International.