Annie Leonard on The Story of Stuff and Decentralized Ownership

Annie Leonard on The Story of Stuff and Decentralized Ownership

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I am here on day one of the TechSoup Global Contributors' Summit, and had the opportunity to hear Annie Leonard, the director of The Story of Stuff Project, talk to a full room of more than 200 social change makers from more than 40 countries.

A dynamic and downright funny speaker, Leonard talked about her organization's short film, The Story of Stuff; and in the process, told the story of her own experience in the nonprofit sector and how she's gravitated to what she calls a network-centric model. 

Annie has been organizing on environmental health and justice issues for nearly 20 years, sharing her message about the dangers of overconsumption.  "People are consuming stuff at an alarming pace," she said.  But in the past few years, two important technology shifts helped Annie to not only take her message to a broader audience than previously possible, but show them viable alternatives to individual consumption.  Technology is making it possible to share interesting information more easily and effectively.  Annie cited ZipCar as an example of what she called "collaborative consumption", which allows us to share resources we want access to but don't necessarily need to own, like a car.  Combined with the amplifying power of social networking tools, Annie capitalized on the opportunity to empower her network of supporters to spread the message of The Story of Stuff with a reach she simply could not achieve before the days of Twitter and Facebook.   

The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute film that summarizes the production, distribution, and disposal of consumer products, offering a simple, easy-to-understand warning of the environmental and social pitfalls of overconsumption. The Story of Stuff Project is a five-person nonprofit that organizes some 250,000 activists and partners with hundreds of like-minded environmental organizations. According to Leonard, the key to the film's success was that the organization behind it didn't impose its identity over every aspect of its production and distribution. She said that on the day the film launched, hundreds of organizations embedded the video on their homepages, leading to more hits on the first day of posting than they'd predicted for the whole project. Since these organizations had  been treated as equal collaborators on the film, they took ownership over the final product.  In Leonard's words, the film is a network-held resource: "The network is the hero, not me."

Leonard talked about her history in the nonprofit sector, working with organizations that were more too focused on controlling the identity and branding of their projects. "When you work in that kind of environment," she said, "you start to think other people's contributions are less valuable than your own."  Necessarily, a network-centric model means relinquishing some control over your organization's programs. But according to Leonard, the benefits far outweigh the costs. "If you like everyone in your network, then your network isn't big enough."

All day, I have been thinking about Annie's concept of collaborative consumption.  "We are getting to a point where we don't own our stuff, but our stuff owns us," Annie warned.  It intrigues me that her belief in decentralized ownership so closely mirrors her approach to running a nonprofit. What are we - as individuals and organizational leaders - capable of achieving when we try to control less, share more, and tap the collective power of our networks? That is what we will continue to discuss over the next two days at the TechSoup Global Contributors' Summit, and I look forward to the other great ideas that will emerge. 

Want to hear more? Watch my full conversation with Annie:

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