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Annie Leonard: We Should Not Buy Artifacts of Indulgence and Disposability: How About Well-Made, and Doesn't Trash the Planet?

The way we make and use stuff is harming the world—and ourselves.

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Cotton is the world's dirtiest crop. It uses more dangerous insecticides than any other major commodity and is very water intensive. Cotton growing wouldn’t even be possible in areas like California's Central Valley if big cotton plantations didn't receive millions of dollars in federal water subsidies—even as some of the poverty-stricken farmworker towns in the Valley have no fresh water.

Dyeing and bleaching raw cotton into cloth uses large amounts of toxic chemicals. Many of these chemicals—including known carcinogens such as formaldehyde and heavy metals—poison groundwater near cotton mills, and residues remain in the finished products we put next to our skin.

Well-made cotton clothing—like my 30-year-old Grateful Dead T-shirt—can last a long time, providing years of service for multiple wearers before being recycled into new clothes or other products. But most retailers are so intent on selling a never-ending stream of new clothes to their targeted demographic that they quickly throw away clothing in last season's style.

And here’s one more problem with stuff: we're not sharing it well. While some of us have way too much stuff—we’re actually stressed out by the clutter in our households and have to rent off-site storage units—others desperately need more.

For those of us in the overconsuming parts of the world, it's increasingly clear that more stuff doesn’t make us more happy, but for the millions of people who need housing, clothes, and food, more stuff would actually lead to healthier, happier people. If you have only one T-shirt, getting a second one is a big deal. But if you have a drawer stuffed with them, as I do, a new one doesn’t improve my life. It just increases my clutter. Call it stuff inequity. One billion people on the planet are chronically hungry while another billion are obese.

Citizens, not consumers
 

The problems surrounding the trip from the cotton field to the sweatshop are just a smattering of the ills that not only result from the take-make-waste economy but make it possible. That’s why striving to make responsible choices at the individual consumer level, while good, is just not enough. Change on the scale required by the severity of today's planetary and social crises requires a broader vision and a plan for addressing the root causes of the problem.

To do that we must stop thinking of ourselves primarily as consumers and start thinking and acting like citizens. That's because the most important decisions about stuff are not those made in the supermarket or department store aisles. They are made in the halls of government and business, where decisions are made about what to make, what materials to use, and what standards to uphold.

Consumerism, even when it tries to embrace "sustainable" products, is a set of values that teaches us to define ourselves, communicate our identity, and seek meaning through acquisition of stuff, rather than through our values and activities and our community. Today we're so steeped in consumer culture that we head to the mall even when our houses and garages are full. We suffer angst over the adequacy of our belongings and amass crushing credit card debt to, as the author Dave Ramsey says, buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have, to impress people we don't like.

Citizenship, on the other hand, is about what Eric Liu, in The Gardens of Democracy, calls "how you show up in the world." It’s taking seriously our responsibility to work for broad, deep change that doesn’t tinker around the margins of the system but achieves (forgive the activist-speak) a paradigm shift. Even "ethical consumerism" is generally limited to choosing the most responsible item on the menu, which often leaves us choosing between the lesser of two evils. Citizenship means working to change what’s on the menu, and stuff that trashes the planet or harms people just doesn’t belong. Citizenship means stepping beyond the comfort zones of everyday life and working with other committed citizens to make big, lasting change.

 
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