Environment

Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities and Our Health

A new book questioning our consumerism says we spend more on shoes and jewelry than higher education; more on ocean cruises than providing drinking water for all.

This following is an excerpt fromThe Story Of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing The Planet, Our Communities, And Our Health – And A Vision For Changeby Annie Leonard. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.Copyright © 2010 by Annie Leonard. 

Consumption

So here we are. All sorts of stuff is lining the real or virtual shelves of stores, ready to slip into our shopping carts or be assembled and shipped according to our desires. Enter the consumer. Stage left, stage right, storming stores and online shopping portals, armed with credit cards and freshly cashed paychecks. This stage of the game is What It's All For -- at least that's what we're told. For a moment, as the almighty consumer makes her selection from a long menu of choices, the entire world revolves around her. She experiences a surge of power as she trades her hard-earned money for a piece of stuff and becomes its owner, either meeting a need, indulging a whim, shifting a bad mood -- or maybe all three at once. "When things get tough, the tough go shopping," as the bumper stickers used to say.

Lots of our favorite characters and cultural icons surround themselves with signature cool Stuff. Where would 007 be without his latest gadget, his perfectly tailored suit, or his (insert your favorite model of future car here)? What would the Oscars be without the gowns? How could we love Carrie Bradshaw without her outrageous brimmed hats and designer shades and glossy shopping bags full of ruffled dresses and sky-high heels? Would we recognize Holly Golightly without her infatuation with Tiffany's? We're attached to these characters' possessions and obsessions as much as to their personalities; it's all part of our national mythology. It only makes sense that we'd get attached to our own Stuff.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I'm not against allconsumption. One irate viewer of The Story of Stuff film e-mailed me and said, "If you're against consumption, where did you get that shirt you're wearing?" Duh. Of course everyone needs to consume to live. We need food to eat, a roof over our head, medicine when we're sick, and clothes to keep us warm and dry. And beyond those survival needs, there's a level of additional consumption that makes life sweeter. I enjoy listening to music, sharing a bottle of wine with friends, and occasionally donning a nice new dress as much as the next person.

What I question is not consumption in the abstract but consumerism and overconsumption. While consumption means acquiring and using goods and services to meet one's needs, consumerism is the particular relationship to consumption in which we seek to meet our emotional and social needs through shopping, and we define and demonstrate our self-worth through the Stuff we own. And overconsumption is when we take far more resources than we need and than the planet can sustain, as is the case in most of the United States as well as a growing number of other countries. Consumerism is about excess, about losing sight of what's important in the quest for Stuff.

Do you remember Jdimytai Damour? In November 2008, on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, the holiday shopping season kicked off. Across the country, people left their Thanksgiving dinners early to sleep in their cars in store parking lots hours before scheduled store openings, which in many places were moved up to 5:00 a.m. Shoppers began gathering in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York, at 9:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening. By 5:00 a.m., when the store was scheduled to open, a crowd of more than two thousand people had gathered.

When the doors opened, a thirty-four-year-old temporary worker from Haiti named Jdimytai Damour -- his friends called him Jimbo -- was overwhelmed by the surging crowd. He was knocked down, and witnesses said people just walked over his body to get to the holiday bargains. Emergency medical technicians who arrived to help were also jostled and stepped on by the shoppers. Damour was pronounced dead just after 6:00 a.m. He died of asphyxiation; he was trampled to death. An employee in the electronics department, who was in the store during the stampede, reportedly commented, "It was crazy . . . The deals weren't even that good."

And this took place in a recession year, against a background of growing economic insecurity, rising gas prices, mounting consumer debt, collapsing mortgages, and increasing unemployment. Retailers had been worried that Black Friday revenues would suffer. Instead, Damour suffered the ultimate loss, and America kept on shopping. We are a society of consumers, we're told. We shrug and nod and accept this as a fundamental truth. It's just human nature, is more or less what we tell ourselves.

And boy do we shop. Globally, personal consumption expenditures (the amount spent on goods and services at the household level) topped $24 trillion in 2005, up from $4.8 trillion (in 1995 dollars) in 1960. In 2004-'05, Americans spent two-thirds of our $11 trillion economy on consumer goods, with more paid for shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion combined) than for higher education ($99 billion). According to the United Nations, in 2003 people worldwide spent $18 billion on cosmetics, while reproductive health care for all women would have come to $12 billion. While eliminating hunger and malnutrition would have cost $19 billion, people spent $17 billion on pet food in the United States and Europe combined. And our tab for ocean cruises came to $14 billion, although it would have cost just $10 billion to provide clean drinking water for everyone.

In 2000, teenagers alone (twelve to nineteen years old) spent $115 billion; the same group controlled $169 billion in 2004. The hundred-acre Mall of America -- the size of seven Yankee Stadiums -- is one of the top visitor attractions in the United States. The average American has 6.5 credit cards. The average U.S. supermarket contains thirty thousand items. As of 2003, the United States had more private cars than licensed drivers.

In the average middle- to upper-middle-class American's 2,000-somesquare-foot home, you'll find: several couches and beds, numerous chairs, tables, and rugs, at least two TVs, at least one computer, printer, and stereo, and countless books, magazines, photos, and CDs (although these last, like vinyl and tapes before them, are a dying species now, destined for the dump); in the kitchen there will be an oven, a stove, a refrigerator, a freezer, a microwave, a coffeemaker, a blender, a toaster, a food processor, and endless utensils, dishes, storage containers, glassware, and linens (or at least paper napkins); in the bathroom, a hairdryer, a razor, combs and brushes, a scale, towels, medicines and ointments, and bottles and tubes of personal care products galore; in the closets, dresses, sweaters, T-shirts, suits, pants, coats, hats, boots, and shoes and everything in between. (In 2002, the average American acquired fifty-two additional pieces of clothing, while the average household was throwing away 1.3 pounds of textiles every week.)

The average house also contains a washer and dryer, bicycles, skis, other sporting equipment, luggage, garden tools, jewelry, knickknacks, and drawer upon drawer of crap both relatively useful (like staplers, Scotch tape, aluminum foil, candles, and pens) and entirely pointless (like novelty key chains, gift wrap, expired gift cards, and retired cell phones). We've got so much Stuff that, according to builders, families often buy a home with a three-car garage so that one-third of that space can be dedicated to storage.

Even so, our homes are overflowing, inspiring a massive increase in personal self-storage facilities. Between 1985 and 2008, the self-storage industry in the United States grew three times faster than the population, with per-capita square feet of storage space increasing 633 percent. And somehow despite this amazing abundance, we find ourselves drawn into stores like moths to flames, on the quest for yet more.

The Sanctity of Shopping

Shopping is a nearly sacred rite in the United States -- in fact, in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, President George W. Bush included shopping in the daily activities that he said were the "ultimate repudiation of terrorism." When our country was in shock and no one was quite sure what would happen next, Bush told us to hang our "America is open for business" signs in the windows and keep shopping.

Not to buy means to fail our workers and stifle the economy, say most economists and politicians; shopping is our duty. Those who dare challenge the ethic of consumerism have been declared unpatriotic or just plain loony. After The Story of Stuff film was highlighted in the New York Times in early 2009 many teachers were using it in classrooms to spark discussion about consumerism and environmental issues, and conservative commentators accused me of threatening the American way of life, terrorizing children, and called me "Marx in a ponytail."

When Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, got press for the year-long project in which he reduced his New York City family's consumption to a bare minimum, he received hate mail, including an anonymous death threat! Henry David Thoreau, who in the mid-1800s wrote of living simply and in harmony with nature in Walden, was variously described by critics as "unmanly," "very wicked and heathenish," and an "unsocial being, a troglodyte of sorts."

Even many of the nonprofits and advocacy groups that work on issues related to consumption don't question it on a fundamental level. There are many excellent groups that focus on the quality of the goods we consume—fighting for fair trade chocolate over slavery chocolate, for example, or organic cotton clothing over conventional toxic cotton or PVC-free kids toys. But few look at the issue of quantity and ask that tough question: aren't we consuming too much? That's the question that gets to the heart of the system. I am learning it is not a popular question.

Once upon a time the factors that contributed to our national economic growth included a broader set of activities, especially in extraction of natural resources and production of goods. After World War II, however, the focus shifted to consumption. In the 1950s, the chairman of President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisers stated, "The American economy's ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods." Really?

Rather than to provide health care, safe communities, solid education for our youngsters, or a good quality of life, the main purpose of our economy is to produce Stuff? By the 1970s, consumption had taken a lead role both culturally and economically. Most of us alive today have been raised on the assumption that a consumption-driven economy is inevitable, sensible, and good. We are supposed to participate in this economic model without question. Nevertheless, it's been questioned and continues to be, by a growing number of people. Myself definitely included.

In the same holiday season as Damour's tragic death, the credit card Discover launched a new ad campaign. On top of the serene soundtrack of a simple tune being plucked out on a guitar, the voiceover says: "We are a nation of consumers. And there's nothing wrong with that. After all, there's a lot of cool stuff out there. The trouble is, there's so much cool stuff, it's easy to get a little carried away. If that happens, this material world of ours can stop being wonderful and start getting stressful. But what if a credit card company recognized that? What if they admitted there was a time to spend and a time to save? . . . We could have less debt and more fun. And this material world could get a whole lot brighter."

A credit card company challenging consumerism—I'd be thrilled if it weren't so obvious a ploy to win more customers during a time when people were anxious about spending and debt. But what really intrigues me about this commercial is the image sequence at the end: a father and son in the middle of a vast green field, then a couple with a dog on a wide-open beach, then a couple flirting on a park bench, and finally, a gaggle of giggling girlfriends pressing into the back of a cab together. What this tells me is that Discover Card, on some level, is perfectly aware of the actual truth: that it's not Stuff (even "cool Stuff") that makes us happy. It's time with our families, partners, and friends and the experience of the beautiful natural world that makes us happy.

Annie Leonard is an expert in international sustainability and environmental health issues, with more than 20 years of experience investigating factories and dumps around the world.