Spend mere minutes with Annie Leonard and you'll turn green with environmental frenzy.

The newly named head of Greenpeace USA doesn't squander a second, packing a day's worth of words into less time than it takes to plug in an electric car, covering topics from international waste trafficking and deforestation to climate change and polluted oceans.

But she does it in such a painless, enthusiastic, "Hey, let's talk about this" kind of way, Leonard could likely convert even the most conservative corporate shill into a planet-protecting activist.

"A lot of things in environmental activism come out really wonky and technical," says Leonard, 49, founder of The Story of Stuff Project in Berkeley, a nonprofit working for globe-wide sustainability. From her attic office, she jokes she keenly feels the effects of climate change through the old building's skylights, especially during the recent heat wave.

"Data about systems and products and consumption -- that's crucial, but people tune out on that stuff," she said. "Also, there's this sort of 'shame on you' approach,' and the, 'let's all carry our bags to the store and be vegans and it'll all be OK.'

"We have to look beyond that at the bigger, systemic picture," she said. "And there has to be a better way to express these issues and make it all relevant."


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Leonard found that way back in 2007 with her 20-minute Story of Stuff web video -- a fun, down-to-earth chat and simple cartoon animation explaining where our "stuff" comes from and where it goes when we throw it away. This plain language on complex policy issues surprisingly -- to Leonard as much as anyone -- became an overnight Internet hit, and a target for conservative pundits like Glenn Beck.

Only bolstered by such critics, Leonard went on to develop a series of videos such as The Story of Bottled Water and The Story of Electronics, plus a bestselling book and a successful nonprofit, garnering millions of supporters in an online community -- many of whom had never considered themselves the dreaded E-word: "environmentalists."

A natural link

This natural knack for reaching across many an aisle caught the attention of Greenpeace.

"Annie is a galvanizing influence," said Karen Topakian, Greenpeace Inc.'s board chair. "She brings a different constituency with her -- people who care about the issues, but who don't describe themselves as environmental activists. Plus she's incredibly smart and strategic and has an endearing quality that just makes you want to be in her presence," Topakian said.

The Greenpeace gig brings Leonard full circle. She worked there for a decade starting in 1988, traveling the globe, following the toxic-waste trail of American companies that were shipping trash to developing countries. In the late '90s, she left to co-found the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), and began giving talks on the life cycle of material goods, which would evolve into The Story of Stuff.

Waste not

Leonard's war against waste took root in childhood. She grew up in Seattle, attending the environmentally aware Lakeside School (another famous alum is Bill Gates). But she mainly attributes her values to her mom, a single mother who grew up financially strapped.

"She taught us not to waste stuff -- not because of bumping into ecological limits, but because it was the responsible thing to do," Leonard said. "So we used both sides of the paper, took our worn shoes to be fixed. I associate all that with dignity and responsibility, rather than hardship. And I still take my shoes to the cobbler."

The real impact of waste hit when Leonard arrived in New York City for her undergraduate work at Barnard College at Columbia University. Her dorm was six blocks from campus, and she daily passed by bags of trash on the sidewalks. "I thought, 'What the heck is all this stuff?' So I started opening it. I was flabbergasted at how much good stuff people were throwing away. I'd never seen such waste on that scale.

"I called my mom after that and said, 'Mom, I found my passion now. It's garbage!' "

Leonard officially starts her new job in August, replacing outgoing executive director Phil Radford. She'll work out of Greenpeace's San Francisco office so she and her 14-year-old daughter, Dewi, can stay in the Bay Area. She'll also remain on the board of The Story of Stuff Project.

"At Greenpeace, there's this sense of magic and determination and responsibility, taking on the biggest powers out there and not being the least bit daunted," Leonard said. "Greenpeace is the only big group I would have gone to."

Follow Angela Hill on Twitter @GiveEmHill.

East Bay Profile
Name: Annie Leonard
Age: 49
Hometown: Berkeley
Claim to fame: Newly appointed executive director of Greenpeace USA, and founder of The Story of Stuff Project.
Quote: "I want to help people move up the ladder of engagement in activism, more than just signing an online petition. Greenpeace has millions of members, and I'd like to see them getting more involved, building connections between other organizations."