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Jul 01

The Story of Stuff: An Interactive Review

In late 2007, Annie Leonard (short bio here) decided that the world needed to know more about our consumer driven culture here in the U.S. and how it is affecting those around us and those that will follow us in future generations.  To do so, she decided to create a 20 minute video titled The Story of Stuff to concisely document all the processes of the materials economy that we’ve created for ourselves.  And she does it quite well.  For someone intimately familiar with consumerism and product life cycles, the film could be considered overly simplistic, but for the average Joe (like me) who is just starting to become fully aware of the culture that he supports and its ill effects on our planet, The Story of Stuff presents a very complex problem in a comprehensive way that is both informative with all of the statistics cited and catchy with the presentation of the “bigger picture” issues that contribute to them.

After watching a few times to absorb it all (there’s a lot of info packed in 20 minutes!), I decided to go through and reflect on the scenes and passages that impacted me the most.  I thought this would be a great way to get myself thinking a bit more critically about the media that I consume.  Considering Annie’s overall message, I don’t think she would mind. Go ahead and watch it below. If you’ve got the time, you might even watch it twice to make sure you catch it all.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLBE5QAYXp8

The introduction

1:52 – “Well, let’s start with the government. Now my friends tell me I should use a tank to symbolize the government and that’s true in many countries and increasingly in our own, afterall more than 50% of our federal tax money is now going to the military…”

Ok Annie. Some of us may have expected that.  Lots of us probably agree but let’s stay on topic.  Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the converted.

2:23 – “The reason that the corporation looks bigger than the government is that the corportation is bigger than the government. Of the 100 largest economies on Earth now, 51 are corporations.”

Wow. I can certainly say that I had never considered that before.  Of course, I’ve always known that large corporations are extremely influential, but the idea that they are bigger than most governments is sort of a hard-hitting afterthought for me.

Extraction

3:07 – “In the past three decades alone, one third of the planet’s natural resource space has been consumed. Gone. We are cutting and mining and hauling and trashing the place so fast that we’re undermining the planet’s very ability for people to live here.”

There’s no doubt about it.  There’s definitely a growing concern among even the most skeptical that we can’t sustain ourselves on the path that we are on.  However, this statistic seems to imply that we will completely wipe ourselves out in 60 years or less if we don’t change the course we’re on. I don’t think I buy that. Even recognizing the severity of the problem we face, it seems very overstated.  Annie sites a book called Natural Capitalism as her source.  I’m going to have to check that out.

3:33 – “…our problem is not that we’re just using too much Stuff, but we’re using more than our share. We have 5% of the world’s population, but we’re using 30% of the world’s resources and creating 30% of the world’s waste.”

I believe it.  After traveling to Europe last year with my girlfriend, I saw first hand how much Stuff I had compared to everyone I met.  It was truly eye opening, and I don’t even have all that much. Most of the people I know have quite a lot more!

4:30 – “And what about the people who live here [in the third world]? Well, according to these guys [government and corporations], they don’t own these resources even if they’ve been living there for generations. They don’t own the means of production and they’re not buying a lot of Stuff.  And in this system, if you don’t own or buy a lot of Stuff, you don’t have value.”

I’m not sure how I feel about this.  I know that I completely disagree with the use of sweat shops to exploit human capital and highly polluting tactics that degrade the environments of the nations that we operate in.  We are supposed to be above this.  Just because there are no laws in these countries to prevent us from doing these things does not mean that we should.  The argument that I hear all the time on the other side of the coin is that our involvement in these third world countries provides technology where it couldn’t have been obtained before and helps to build these places into more developed nations. But do we really want that?  Do they really want that?  The evidence in this video pretty clearly points out that we’re not helping anyone by doing that. And will we still care about these impoverished nations once we’ve depleted their resources?  I sort of doubt it.

Production

4:50 – “We use energy to mix toxic chemicals in with the natural resources to make toxin contaminated products.”

We all seem to know it, but nobody seems to care that much. I mean, look at what we do with Botox today.  People shoot poison into their face just to fit in with today’s “younger is better” mentality.

6:37 – “Breast is Best.”

No argument there.

7:28 – “…it’s not just resources that are wasted along this system, but people too.”

This quote is regarding the toxic work that people of the third world are forced into as a result of the degradation of their environment for our benefit.  It struck a chord in me.

8:00 – “So what do they do? Move the dirty factories overseas. Pollute someone else’s land. But surprise, a lot of that pollution is coming right back at us carried by wind currents.”

Another testament to the fact that nothing about our global eco-system works independently.  We can work to reduce pollution here at home all we want, but in the long run, it won’t make a difference if we don’t address it globally.  Even if you don’t care about what’s going on overseas, know that mother nature is making sure that you’re still affected by it.

Distribution

8:35 – “It’s all about externalizing the costs. What that means is that the real costs of making Stuff aren’t captured in the price. In other words, we’re not paying for the Stuff we buy.”

I think about this kind of thing all the time when I see some product that catches my eye because it costs so much less than I would expect to pay for it.  I start thinking of all the resources, energy, labor, and transportation that went into creating this object and I am at a loss for how they can sell it to me so cheaply.  Now, I understand the theory behind economies of scale and God knows I love to get a great product for a great price, but if I’m not paying for the actual cost of producing it, who is?

10:37 – “We have become a nation of consumers…The primary way that our value is measured and demonstrated is by how much we contribute to this [golden] arrow [of consumption]”

Annie’s right and we all know it. People judge us by the Stuff we have.  If you’re frugal like me, you probably don’t have a lot of Stuff.  But what do most people think when they see someone that doesn’t have a lot of things? They think that she’s poor and can’t partake in the pleasures that they can. It’s hard to tell the difference between someone who’s poor and can’t afford the things they want and someone who chooses to live a simpler life  just by looking at them. And what’s so inherently wrong with being poor?  In the system we’ve created, the poor are who we depend on to manufacture and sell us our Stuff.

11:03 – “Guess what percentage of total material flow through this system is still in product or use six months after their date of sale in North America. 50%? 20? No, one percent. One. In other words, 99% of the Stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport – 99% of the Stuff we run through this system is trashed within 6 months!”

Frightening. It seems impossible that this could be factually correct, but after you consider the first half of film and all the waste generated in the steps a product goes through to get to you, it becomes more obvious where this number comes from.  You don’t throw away 99% of the Stuff you buy.  Someone else does it for you.  Not very frugally green if you ask me.

Consumption

12:40 – “Planned obsolescence is another word for ‘designed for the dump.’ It means they actually make Stuff that is designed to be useless as quickly as possible so we will chuck it and go buy a new one. It’s obvious with Stuff like plastic bags and coffee cups, but now it’s even big Stuff: mops, DVDs, cameras, barbeques even, everything!”

If this concept isn’t something you’re familiar with, you should really look into it.  Planned obsolescence infuriates me. The fact that some companies will spend their research dollars figuring out how to make your gadget break faster rather than on providing you with the best value they can is nearly theft in my frugal opinion. This is why I never judge a product by it’s packaging no matter how warm and fuzzy it makes me feel. This article has a good example of how to identify high quality products.

13:50 – “But Stuff can not break fast enough to keep this arrow afloat, so there’s also ‘perceived obsolescence.’ Now perceived obsolescence convinces us to throw away Stuff that is still perfectly useful. How do they do that? Well, they change the way the Stuff looks so if you bought your Stuff a couple years ago, everyone can tell that you haven’t contributed to this [consumerism] arrow recently and since the way we demonstrate our value is by contributing to this arrow, it can be embarrassing.”

I am a walking anti-billboard for this concept.  The computer I’m writing this post on is over 6 years old, I drive a little 20-year-old pickup, and 90% of my clothing comes from thrift stores. Now, I have respect for myself and keep clean and well-groomed, but if you saw me briefly on the street, walking to the auto parts store on Saturday, you might take me for a hobo!  But I don’t care.  I have more meaningful goals for my money.  I say that, but I still struggle with this from time to time, worrying what others might think of my appearance. There’s a lot of truth to first impressions, but there’s a lot wrong with them too.

15:45 – “So, in the U.S. we have more Stuff than ever before, but polls show that our national happiness is actually declining. Our national happiness peaked sometime in the 1950s, the same time as this consumption mania exploded. Hmmm. Interesting coincidence.”

Interesting indeed.  Though I’m a firm believer in hard work, it seems that it’s more and more common these days to feel like we owe ourselves fleeting pleasures for all of our hard work. There’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself for a job well done, but the problem is that it can become so habit forming. If you find yourself trading away all your resources for things that aren’t going to bring you true, lasting joy, it’s time for a cold, hard look at your spending habits. Maybe even your working habits! Check out this article if you’re interested in learning how to want what you already have.

Disposal

17:42 – “Dioxin is the most toxic man made substance known to science. And incinerators are the number one source of dioxin. That means that we could stop the number one source of the most toxic man-made substance known just by stopping burning the trash. We could stop it today.”

Could we?  I mean, that sounds great and we could, literally, just stop burning trash today.  But where would we put it?  The reason we burn trash is to make it fit into a smaller space.  Unless we fervently tackle production and consumption first, the only alternative to burning trash is to create bigger landfills.  Burning trash sucks, but so do bigger landfills!

Another way

19:28 – “But the good thing about such an all pervasive problem is that there are so many points of intervention. There are people working here on saving forests and here on clean production. People working on labor rights and fair trade and conscious consuming and blocking landfills and incinerators and, very importantly, on taking back our government so it really is by the people, for the people.”

This is a breath of fresh air after what seemed like a bottomless pit of despair.  There certainly does seem to be a heightened awareness around these issues now and there are all sorts of bright people trying to figure out how to fix them.  However, Annie’s last comment about taking back the government rubbed me just a little bit, umm, not wrong, but…funny.  Early on in the film, Annie mentioned that corporations have become larger than government, insinuating that it’s the will of the corporation that manifests itself on society.

It’s all true, but I take issue with the popular notion that big business is to blame for all of our problems.  To me, this is a cop out for personal reflection and change.  Big business responds to what we as a collective people demand. If our environment is being destroyed by these massive companies, we need to look at ourselves and realize that we are the problem and corporations are the symptom. It’s easy to spread blame.  It’s much harder to take responsibility. But this is exactly what we must do by demanding the change we desire!

Final words

All in all, Annie really excels at taking a multifaceted, complex issue and breaking it down into interesting, digestible pieces for someone like me, who might get lost in a text book trying to understand it all.  Though she makes some statements that cause me to raise my eyebrow a bit, I feel the overall content is genuine and well intentioned. By looking a bit deeper at the concepts that she presents, it’s easy to make the connections between frugality and sustainability.

This reflection process has proven very helpful to me.  Too often I see a video, read an article, or hear a program and simply accept the content or completely dismiss it. It’s a reaction to this fast paced world that often leaves me with sensory overload. It’s so important, though, to slow down and think critically about the information that we consume. It’s through self-awareness that we can come together to solve these kinds of “larger than life” problems.  As Annie mentions at the end, the problems we face today were created by people.  There is no reason to believe that people can’t solve them.

What did you think of the Story of Stuff?  Any strong reactions to it?  Did anything in particular ring true?  Did you find yourself disagreeing with any parts of it?

1 comment

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  1. RP

    I had been wanting to see someone to do what Annie Leonard did. One of the most important points for me was in the production section… I really hope people don’t ignore it:

    “There are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commerce today. Only a handful of these have even been tested for human health impacts and NONE of them have been tested for synergistic health impacts, that means when they interact with all the other chemicals we’re exposed to every day. So, we don’t know the full impact of these toxics on our health and environment of all these toxic chemicals. But we do know one thing: Toxics in, Toxics Out. As long as we keep putting toxics into our production system, we are going to keep getting toxics in the stuff that we bring into our homes, our workplaces, and schools. And, duh, our bodies.”

    I know that my body has definitely been impacted by this.

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