Annie Leonard’s ‘The Story of Stuff’

A late post for World Environment Day

Do you have a mobile phone? Perhaps you have one or two or even more. Have you ever wondered where all these stuff come from? You might simply read “Made in China” at the bottom but this doesn’t tell you all the processes involved before it arrived in your hands.

Much of the things discussed here were taken from the documentary, “The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard.” The video takes a closer look at the different stages in material economy namely extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal.

First, there’s extraction which according to Leonard is a fancy word for natural resource exploitation, which is a fancy word for trashing the planet. And we’re good with that. Cutting down trees, destroying mountains so that we could mine precious minerals, using up all the water, and driving animal species to extinction. In the past three decades, one-third of the planet’s natural resources base has been consumed.

Next, the materials move to production where energy is used to mix toxic chemicals with the natural resources to make toxic contaminated products. There are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commerce today. It sounds kind of stupid but we actually choose to use toxic contaminated products – the clothes we’re wearing, the gadgets we work with, things around us; it’s practically everywhere. We may not be aware of the chemicals they use in the production process and we might even reason out that it’s in small quantities that it could never affect us. But we know better. I believe this is one reason why cancer is so common now and why there are a lot of diseases emerging.

Now after production comes distribution which means selling all these toxic contaminated junk as quickly as possible. So the goal is to keep the prices down, keep the people buying, and keep the inventory moving. How do they keep the prices down? By externalizing the costs where the real cost of making stuff aren’t captured in the price.

And who really pays for it? The people who lost their natural resources. The people affected by pollution caused by the production process. The workers exposed to toxic chemicals but are not properly compensated or not covered by insurance and health care. They are the ones who pay for it.

We go now to the heart of the system, the engine that drives it – consumption. We live in a society where value is measured by how much we consume. And we have become voracious consumers. We have this insatiable appetite to keep on buying stuff. And 99 percent of the stuff we buy will be trashed within six months.

That’s because of two things – planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is stuff designed to be useless as quickly as possible. Industrial designers actually discuss how fast they can make stuff break and still leaves the consumer with enough faith in the product to go buy another one. Thus the birth of everything disposable – cups, underwear, camera, etc.

Perceived obsolescence, on the other hand, convinces us to throw away stuff that is still perfectly useful. How do they do that? They change the way the stuff looks. In fashion, for instance, women’s shoe heels go from fat the previous year to skinny this year and from skinny to fat the following year. Ladies who wear fat heeled shoes in a skinny heel year is an embarrassment as it means they haven’t contributed to the consumption system.

Advertisements play a major part in promoting this idea telling us that everything about us is wrong and it can be made right if we just go shopping. Ironically, happiness level is declining. We have more stuff but we have less time for the things that really make us happy – family, friends, leisure time.

Then what happens to all the stuff which becomes useless or we have decided not to use anymore? They become garbage. We are quite aware with the disposal stage but it’s something we always try to ignore despite the stink. Out of sight, out of mind.

The waste is dumped in landfills or worse, burned in an incinerator and then dumped in a landfill. Other countries export disposal too sometimes in the guise of donations. Rich countries giving away their refuse to grateful poor countries.

How about recycling, does it help? It does but it’s not enough. For every one can of garbage, there’s an equivalent of 70 garbage cans produced as it went through the production process. So even if you recycle a hundred percent of your waste, it’s just the tip of the iceberg and couldn’t address the root cause. Also, much of the garbage can’t be recycled since it contains too many toxics or it is actually designed not to be recyclable in the first place.

The future looks grim and the situation seemingly hopeless but a lot of people are becoming aware of the truth behind material economy. Practices grounded on sustainability and equity are now being followed such as green chemistry, zero waste, closed loop production, renewable energy, and local living economies.

Some would say it’s unrealistic and too idealistic that it cannot possibly happen. But we were the ones who created the problem and it’s up to us to make changes.

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Author: Ryan Bestre

Environmentalist. Teacher. Writer.

4 thoughts on “Annie Leonard’s ‘The Story of Stuff’”

  1. I don’t think we have a choice, it is a necessity that we will awaken to, eventually…if we are not all covered in trash from the useless and mindless amount of “stuff” we use. Leaders have to stop with pettiness, and wake up now, and create solutions for the problems we created.

    I explored this depressing topic after seeing a post on 5Gyres a few years ago http://lolako.com/on-the-burden-of-civilizations-excess-and-5gyres-org/

    Liked by 1 person

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