The Story of Stuff

Cross-posted at AngryBrownButch.

Every morning I seem to find some distraction on the Internet that leads to me running out the door far later than I should have left or starting my work day woefully off schedule. Usually the distraction is something like Scramble on Facebook, but this morning’s distraction was enriching and enlightening enough that I don’t feel so bad about running late (and running even later in order to share it with you folks.) A friend of mine (thanks, Eli!) linked to The Story of Stuff, a short documentary on the insidious processes that go into consumption as we know it. The video has been online since December 2007 and has apparently had 2 million viewers so I risk recommending it to a bunch of folks who’ve already seen it, but I hadn’t and I thought it important to share.

Annie Leonard, a scholar who has done many years of research on consumerism, development, sustainability, and environmental health, guides us through the linear process that drives the material economy – extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal – exposing the many moments in the process that are often left out of the big picture but which are often most telling of the damage occurs within each of these steps. I’ve seen and read many things about consumption and its effects on our world, but this movie broke things down in a clearer, more complete and more urgent way than I’ve seen before. Leonard does a good job of bringing to light the environmental, health, labor, globalization and other social justice problems inherent to the system of consumption.

Some of the facts that Leonard cites are truly frightening. One fact that I’d never heard before and found particularly shocking: when talking about the countless toxic chemicals used in production and therefore brought into our homes and our bodies, Leonard says:

Do you know what is the food at the top of the food chain with the highest levels of many toxic contaminants? Human breast milk. That means that we’ve reached a point where the smallest members of our societies – our babies – are getting the highest lifetime dose of toxic chemicals from breast feeding from their mothers. Is that not an incredible violation?

I appreciated that Leonard called this a “violation,” because that’s precisely what it is. We have allowed corporations and complicit governments to violate our very bodies, as well as our environment and countless cultures and communities, simply in order to give us cheaper, more consumable products.* Leonard thankfully goes on to stress that “breast feeding is still best,” but as someone who plans to probably give birth and subsequently breast feed, that fact about the toxicity of breast milk is frightening and enraging. It really does feel like a violation – corporations and the government have allowed this shit to get into me.

Of course, there’s a large degree of agency here – we, primarily meaning Americans and other westerners, have a tremendous responsibility to reject the system of capitalism and consumption that got us into this mess. We need to wake up to the realities of what cheap, easy, and disposable all really mean in the long run – as Leonard says, someone, or more accurately many someones, are paying the real price for all of that cheap crap that many of us in the U.S. can buy easily thanks to our huge privilege relative to the rest of the world. Sometimes the people paying the price are far away and look nothing like (some of) us, but sometimes, as with toxic breast milk, we’re also paying directly and dearly. And whether we pay or someone else pays the immediate and direct costs, when it comes to the destruction of the earth, we’re all most definitely going to pay up sooner rather than later. And therefore we who live in the countries that use and abuse and benefit from the system of consumption the most have an urgent responsibility to do something about it.

Unfortunately, that responsibility and our agency to act on it are both so limited by our lack of information. The true costs of American-style production and consumption were never covered in my schooling, nor are they something that make it into the mainstream media with any depth or sufficiency. It’s easy to go through life just not knowing or even questioning how our actions and our consumption are part of a much larger system with far-reaching effects, and the profiteering corporations are more than happy to keep it that way. In such a dearth of information and truth, resources like this movie are vital and can go a long way towards providing the knowledge people need in order to understand what this culture of consumption is doing to them as individuals, to their communities, to other people, and to the environment.

Of course, it’s hard to figure out what the hell to do after looking at a video like that. I appreciate that the Story of Stuff site provides “10 Little and Big Things You Can Do”, along with a resources page that includes recommended reading and links to NGOs working on these issues.

* Note that for the most part this doesn’t mean “better” products in terms of durability and sustainability; Leonard also states that only 1% of consumer products are still actually in use just six months from the date of purchase, which boggles the mind.


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23 comments for “The Story of Stuff

  1. Fisher
    May 5, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Our consumption of disposable goods, the waste in producing them, and the hidden costs to us all are truly staggering, I agree. But statement like this:

    Do you know what is the food at the top of the food chain with the highest levels of many toxic contaminants? Human breast milk.

    as a former breastfeeding mom, I’d really like to see the original cites, or get one of the Science Blogger’s take on it.

  2. exholt
    May 5, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Saw the video a while back. Agree with the message, but I also wonder what are the alternatives….especially when some extreme environmentalists with a great degree of socio-economic privilege see fit to use such messages as another means to take a swipe at the “lower orders”.

    Moreover, I grew up with parents and older relatives who remembered Taiwan in the 1950’s when many were struggling to get enough to eat…..and where radios were so rare that there would be one per neighborhood or region. Growing up in such an environment, there are many people I know in Taiwan and China who are suspicious of the environmental movement and anti-consumerist campaigns. They tend to see them as an attempt by privileged individuals from Western countries to hypocritically prevent them from realizing the same economic prosperity that industrialization brought to the West.

  3. May 5, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    @Fisher: You’re right; original citations are important and I often forget to look for them when I’m reading stuff that I generally agree with. I googled a bit and found that the website actually includes a a referenced and footnoted script of the movie. Leonard cites the Making Our Milk Safe website, amongst other sources.

  4. May 5, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    @exholt: Good questions and good points. I agree that socio-economic privilege and prejudice has definitely been a problem for the environmental movement, and I hear you on the dubiousness and hypocrisy of Westerners scolding developing nations on environmental issues, especially when it’s the Western countries that benefit the most from cheap labor and production in those countries.

    I do think, though, that there are many alternatives that we can all take, especially Americans and other folks with relative privilege living in Western countries. I’ve been trying to think more about my own patterns of consumption and waste. I try to bring reusable shopping bags to the grocery store and am thinking about starting to use reusable mesh bags for produce instead of the plastic bags there. I’m more aware of leaving the water running, the lights on, and appliances and chargers plugged in. I bought a reusable bottle and avoid buying bottled water (which actually winds up being way cheaper for me.) I’m a total gadget geek but am trying to temper my purchases in a holistic way: I think about the financial damage I’m doing to myself when I spend beyond my means, but also about the often significant environmental impact of buying electronics and the social and economic justice concerns about buying stuff made by underpaid workers in dangerous, unhealthy conditions. It’s true that these are all small steps, but they’re relatively easy and financially accessible for many people. And if we all work to start taking small steps like these, they’ll really add up.

  5. exholt
    May 5, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    I’m a total gadget geek but am trying to temper my purchases in a holistic way: I think about the financial damage I’m doing to myself when I spend beyond my means, but also about the often significant environmental impact of buying electronics and the social and economic justice concerns about buying stuff made by underpaid workers in dangerous, unhealthy conditions.

    I am also a gadget geek and have used my interest/knowledge of computers to rescue and recycle many desktop computers that have been dumped in my area. As a grew up too poor to buy a computer of my own, I still feel tossing a functional computer to be quite wasteful.

    So far, I’ve seen neighbors throw away perfectly functional machines ranging from early 90’s era 486/Pentium classic PCs to G3 based Macs and Pentium 4 PCs. Thanks to this abundance and a willingness to use machines until they literally fail, I’ve actually made extra money while learning a lot about how these machines work.

    As for everything else, I tend to buy only what I absolutely need and attempt to avoid the “gotta have it now” consumerist attitude that got many socio-economically privileged former co-workers into financial trouble even as they berated me for not conforming to their lifestyle by accusing me of being “cheap”. I can do better with electronic appliances, plastic bags, and many other areas though.

  6. May 5, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    Following Annie Leonard’s links doesn’t actually lead me to any studies that back up the

    highest levels of many toxic contaminants

    line. There are toxic chemicals everywhere, that doesn’t mean that the levels are a danger.

  7. May 5, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    The thing that really depresses me is how little there is that I can do. Not only because I don’t have the money to buy well-made stuff that will last, but also because there’s not much any of us consumer cogs can do. What needs to change is the mindset that’s driving the system, and I can’t see it changing as long as it continues to be profitable.

    …it makes me want to smash things sometimes.

  8. SoE
    May 5, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Well, the Making our milk safer website didn’t really claim that breast milk is the most contaminated food out there (or maybe I just missed that). And since there are probably few foods that are tested against all sorts of chemicals regularly, comparisons can only be spotty.

    Anyway, levels of most chemicals have dropped throughout the nineties, while new ones were detected for the first time. Interestingly vegetarians have lower levels of contamination and the longer a woman nurses (and the more kids) the more the levels drop [link].

  9. May 5, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Can I marry Annie?

  10. CTD
    May 5, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    Her suggestions about recycling are pure hogwash. Aside from certain specific products, recycling almost always consumes more money and resources than making something new. (People tend to forget that recycling is an energy-intensive manufacturing process.) This is why you have to pay people to recycle stuff for you. It’s also why she urges us to get local government to “support” recycling (i.e. “massively subsidize”) programs. If it made sense to do it, you wouldn’t need to do that.

  11. exholt
    May 5, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Her suggestions about recycling are pure hogwash. Aside from certain specific products, recycling almost always consumes more money and resources than making something new. (People tend to forget that recycling is an energy-intensive manufacturing process.)

    It takes more energy and resources to reuse already processed materials than to extract and process raw materials into various items??? That would be news to friends working in the material sciences field. They work with many different types of materials…..especially metals….and would strongly disagree.

  12. CTD
    May 5, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    It takes more energy and resources to reuse already processed materials than to extract and process raw materials into various items???

    Generally speaking, yes. This is why newly-made items are most often less expensive than their recycled counterparts. It also accounts for why we usually have to pay people to recycle waste for us. If it made sense to recycle it, they’d come to you and ask if they could haul it away for free, or even pay you for it. Which leads me to…

    They work with many different types of materials…..especially metals

    Note that I said that there are exceptions. Scrap metal is one of them. There’s good money to be made in the scrap business precisely because recycling some metal makes sense. You’ll never need to pay a scrap dealer to take away your old steel or aluminum, though.

  13. May 5, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    @CTD:

    If it made sense to recycle it, they’d come to you and ask if they could haul it away for free, or even pay you for it.

    But there’s different ways to judge whether something makes sense or not, right? In terms of recycling using more energy than extracting and processing raw materials, that may be true; however, if one used renewable or sustainable energy sources, doesn’t it seem like the benefits of recycling materials instead of depleting finite materials would outweigh the costs?

    Purely in terms of financial cost, it may be true that recycling is more expensive than using new raw materials. However, it seems that again that there’s many different costs that must be weighed together. It seems like many of the environmental & social justice messes we get into are due to people trying to get things as cheaply monetarily as possible while ignoring the other costs. If recycling costs more money but helps to preserve the environment and its finite resources, isn’t that worth it?

  14. JenLovesPonies
    May 5, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    If it made sense to recycle it, they’d come to you and ask if they could haul it away for free, or even pay you for it. Which leads me to…

    Where I work, we get paid per bail of cardboard we send off to whereever bails of cardboard go. They first started in the 1970s, and back then they got a ton of money for each. Now, most businesses that can, do, and the amount per bail is much smaller.

    I am not sure that the fact that they don’t pay us for recycling means we shouldn’t do it, or that it doesn’t make sense. The fact of the matter is, I want my cream cheese*, the store only sells it in new containers, it is better to reuse the containers than recycle, yes, but I only need so many containers, so I recycle them because we don’t have unlimited landfills nor unlimited amounts of plastic. It may be more expensive now, but think about how much better the earth is not to be full of old cream cheese containers, and that we aren’t creating a need for more plastic.

    *Note: cream cheese is actually gross. This is merely an example.

  15. Elaine
    May 6, 2008 at 10:26 am

    By the way, vegetarian and vegan mothers have far fewer toxic contaminants in their breast milk. There are various reasons for this, including causes not directly related to veg*nism, (because vegetarians and vegans tend to be more health-conscious in may other areas of their lives other than diet) but veg*nism provides some automatic protections. For example,

    Most of the “avoid” or “limit” foods for pregnant women, such as mercury-containing fish, soft cheeses, sushi, undercooked meats, cold cuts, certain meats, and unpasteurized milk products, are automatically excluded on a vegan diet.

    says Today’s Dietitian.
    Also, regular, sweat-inducing exercise also helps rid the body (including breast milk) of toxins.

    That said, no matter what diet the mother eats, breast milk is virtually always better than formula. Formula, in fact, may be more likely to contain toxic contaminants, particularly if it’s mixed with polluted water and/or contains a dairy base.

  16. magikmama
    May 6, 2008 at 11:03 am

    I think one of the best things an INDIVIDUAL can do is to buy things with little to no packaging in the first place.
    I realize this can be a challenge – but here’s an example from my real life.

    My parents live in their own house. They both eat oatmeal every morning for breakfast. My mom buys those little packets of oatmeal, and they each use 2 of them every morning. In a week, they generate 14 plastic-lined paper packets (not really recyclable) and a cardboard box (recyclable) just from BREAKFAST.

    I live in a house with 11 people (myself, my husband, our two sons, my in-laws, my brother-in-law and his wife, and their 3 kids.) We all eat oatmeal everyday for breakfast. But I buy unprocessed oats in bulk. I get a big barrel full (about 150 lbs) of oatmeal every three months. We generate no trash from our breakfast, because we simply wash out the barrel, and bring it back to the farm store and they refill it. It’s still convenient, b/c I simply put it in the crockpot before bed everynight, and every one has hot, healthy whole oats every morning.

    All the recycling in the world won’t save us – we have to REDUCE.

    Some ways to REDUCE – buy in bulk when sensible. If you are single, or in a small family, split with a neighbor or friend. Reuse single-use packaging: those plastic produce bags can be reused. So can paper bags they wrap around glass bottles. I just throw them in my canvas grocery bags and take them back with me.

    For those who have the ability, buy dairy from a dairy directly. Many will reuse the glass containers they sell their milk in. Ours also reuses the containers that other fresh dairy products are sold in (sour cream, cottage cheese, etc). Additionally, our cheese comes in beeswax coated rounds. The wax can be eaten, but we don’t. We scrape it off, and I save it for art projects etc. Again, zero packaging.

    In general, don’t buy processed foods. They are bad for you, and the amount of packaging is often ludicrous. Of course, not every one has the time, or the capacity to homecook from scratch every meal, but as much as you can do makes a big difference. We’ve gone from putting out 2 40 gallon containers of trash and 4 40 gallon containers of recycling every week, to putting out just 1 20 gallon container of trash every 2 weeks, and 1 40 gallon container of recycling every week. That’s tons (literally) of trash not tossed this year alone, just from 1 house.

    Yes, we must seek systemic changes to enable every one to live more sustainably, but while seeking that, we must be the very change we seek. We have to show people that it is possible and ENJOYABLE to live sustainably. When my neighbors come over for dinner and eat our local produce and dairy, they don’t care that it is less of an impact on the earth, what they notice is how much better it tastes than the dried out, processed crap they’ve been buying. The old “honey is better than vinegar” trope is true.

  17. magikmama
    May 6, 2008 at 11:07 am

    And Elaine – very good point on the vegan diet. We are not vegans, but we have very much reduced our animal product intake, eating no meat or eggs, and only rennet-free cheeses. It has significantly improved all of our health. And cut our grocery bills way, way down.

  18. Swimmer
    May 6, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    We have to show people that it is possible and ENJOYABLE to live sustainably.

    Amen, amen to that. I jokingly asked some friends if there’s any verifiable link between environmentalism and depression, and got a variety of scowls and huffs in response.

    This should be a joyful process.

  19. exholt
    May 6, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    Amen, amen to that. I jokingly asked some friends if there’s any verifiable link between environmentalism and depression, and got a variety of scowls and huffs in response.

    This should be a joyful process.

    It certainly be a joyful process!! There is a great high to be had from finding new resourceful ways of using junk tossed out on the streets. Better if one can share the fruits of such resourcefulness with others. :)

  20. May 6, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    It’s my feeling that being a vegetarian / vegan is itself an indicator (perhaps imperfect) of economic privilege. Store-bought organic products – even at co-ops – cost way more than their conventional equivalents, farm markets are few and far between in urban areas, and there are very few supermarkets or vendors of even halfway decent conventional food in poor urban areas. So a single mother has the choice of dragging her kids along while taking three buses to get to a supermarket, or eating at McDonalds. And she’s the one who will have no choice but to have higher levels of toxics wind up in her breast milk.

    There’s no way that such a person can even think of moving to a vegetarian diet, or even buying fluorescent light bulbs – how can someone raising a family on a couple of minimum-wage jobs possibly lay out the money for fluorescent bulbs when she’s got to use that money to buy food for the family? It doesn’t do any good to explain that she’ll save money in the end, if that means laying out food / rent money up front.

    For that matter, how can we expect that same person to buy “quality, long lasting goods” when said goods are priced out of her reach, and she can barely afford Walmart?

    I’ve rarely seen this point addressed on these “help the environment, buy organic, buy expensive quality goods that’ll last” kind of threads.

  21. May 6, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    @GallingGalla: I absolutely agree that some classic environmentally-conscious suggestions like buying organic are often cost-prohibitive and inaccessible for many people. But I certainly don’t think that the point of this thread is that people should “buy organic, buy expensive quality goods.” My point was that we should all take a look at our consumption and how we can do little things to reduce the damage we do to the environment and to other people. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s “little steps” need to be the same, since not everyone has the same resources (time, money, access) at their disposal. Things like turning off the lights, unplugging appliances and chargers, using reusable shopping bags, trying to shop in ways that consume less packaging – these things are often either very inexpensive, free, or even money-saving.

  22. magikmama
    May 7, 2008 at 11:22 am

    Did you not notice that I live in a house with 11 people? Believe me, it’s not cause we are dripping with money.

    We do have enough, which puts us way above alot of people, and I am fully aware of that. I’ve been alot less well off for most of my life.

    However, that being said, there ARE things you can do. I don’t spend more being a vegetarian – I spend ALOT less. How? Well, the basis of my diet is dried beans and lentils. These are not things that require a specialized market – heck, you can even buy them in most inner city corner marts. And they are about the cheapest food you can buy. Rich in protein, fiber and vitamins, and if you have crockpot, super-convenient and don’t even require a fully functioning kitchen.

    If you can’t get dried ones, you can definitely get canned ones, and canned beans are still pretty cheap and healthy, and they are EVEN more convenient. You don’t even have to cook them!

    On a normal day, i eat a bowl of whole oats cooked overnight in the crockpot with some frozen or fresh fruit, depends on the season, for breakfast. I’ll have a couple of cups of coffee – just regular old coffee. A yogurt and a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and dinner is usually lentils and rice or potatoes. I feed 11 people, and our grocery bills are usually around $200 a week. Which is a little under $20 per person, per week. All the adults in my house work full time, and my husband and I are both in college full time as well.

    I am priveleged in living in a urban area, and having a car which allows me to drive the 15 miles to the farm I buy our dairy and oats from. But honestly, the above is nothing special you can’t get at a regular store. It’s not a “fun” diet – no exotic veggies or special sauces, but it is healthy, convenient, cheap and vegetarian.

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