Circular File: The Right Stuff?

Considering Annie Leonard's "The Story of Stuff."

Annie Leonard grew up in Seattle, enthralled by the forests of the North Cascade mountains. Over the years, however, she noticed they were slowly giving way to shopping centers and housing. As a college student, she discovered that her beloved trees were being turned into paper that was then thrown away. In response, she joined Greenpeace, becoming an international activist against waste.

Last year, her 20-minute animated video, “The Story of Stuff,” went viral on the Internet. She has now turned it into a book, “The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health - And A Vision for Change.” The book focuses on a number of consumer products, including paper, cotton T-shirts and computers. Separate chapters describe the raw material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, consumption and disposal involved with these products. She does not paint a pretty picture.

“Consumerism,” or buying more goods and services than we need, is the problem at the heart of “Stuff.” Leonard argues that wanting too much Stuff (she always capitalizes stuff) is not part of human nature. Instead, our consumer culture was created by two events. The first was the technological cleverness of the Industrial Revolution, which allowed us to make Stuff more efficiently. The second was a post-World War II decision by industry executives and their “minions” (including union leaders) that a strong economy meant that Americans needed to work as much as possible in order to make as much Stuff as possible. Planned obsolescence and advertising were their main strategies in making consumerism the dominant factor in our culture.

Nonetheless, history shows that wanting too much Stuff is part of human nature. Since the time of the Pharaohs, people with means have purchased more than they need in order to let their neighbors know who was top dog. As Leonard notes, sages and religious leaders, including the Buddha, Confucius and Christ, warned against materialism more than 2,000 years ago.

My biggest disappointment with “Stuff,” however, is Leonard's failure to think outside of the book. She expanded her 20-minute video into a 318-page book in order to get her message out to more people. And she doesn't pull her punches about the environmental impact of making and distributing books. To her credit, she details on the last page how “Stuff's” environmental footprint was minimized.

But what is the buyer supposed to do with the book when he is finished with it? Leonard believes that the people who design, produce and profit from Stuff should be responsible for dealing with it at the end of its life. Yet nowhere in “Stuff” could I find any mention of a takeback program or any acceptance of extended producer responsibility by the author or publisher. Yes, that last page says that any unused inventory or returned books will be recycled, but provides no return process. “Stuff” misses a great opportunity to show how producer responsibility can work.

Leonard's solutions for overcoming consumerism include redefining progress away from more material goods, outlawing war, having Stuff show its true costs, and learning to value time over Stuff. These are all valid goals that will make a better and happier world if they are achieved.

Eventually “Stuff” will be out-of-date. What will happen then?

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations.E-mail the author at [email protected].

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