Consumer Treadmill Pause

Part 6 – “The Story of Stuff” Series

The last five articles I have been talking about Stuff, sharing many aspects discussed in “The Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard.  While I found reading this book was depressing, especially since I read it during the frenzied holiday shopping season, I regrouped and remain hopeful. Progress is being made all around us.

Although many news sources minimize the damage caused by our consumer-driven economy with scare tactics and spins that make me dizzy, the main-stream media is more frequently encouraging conservative practices, exposing industry damaging practices, and reporting environmental scientific facts people are taking to heart.

The news reports an increasing number of communities and countries banning harmful practices such as Fracking, Tar-Sands, and GMO production. Countries are collaborating about Climate Change issues, although the United States continues to impede progress with limited commitments.  Our voice is becoming louder, exposing Big Business’s attempt to ignore, deny, and censor scientific facts.

Some businesses are already changing production processes as they realize its sound business practice to reuse materials and water instead of disposing them as toxic byproducts.  They are proving a healthy economy doesn’t mean choosing between pollution and progress.  With great strides being made in the renewable energy fields, we are gradually weaning ourselves from harmful carbon-based industries.

Environmental organizations are growing and becoming more influential as our citizens speak up. States and communities are taking a stand banning toxic disposables such as single-use Styrofoam, plastic water bottles and bags.  Some states and cities have managed to hold onto single-use beverage deposit laws, although simply refilling glass bottles makes more sense. While I’d prefer to see more momentum with reducing and reusing, it is encouraging more of our resources are now being captured at recycling facilities and more products made from recycled materials are available.

There has been a resurgence of second hand stores all over the United States filled with shoppers no longer self-conscious buying those goods. Craig’s List and EBay thrive and more people are sharing and borrowing Stuff.  I’ve noticed more communities encouraging their citizens to “Shop Local, Play Local”.  I see more people checking labels, at least attempting to avoid the invasive “Made in China” products.  Each election, more GMO labeling initiatives are on ballots.  More States and cities are adopting smoke-free ordinance, prioritizing our health curtailing second-hand smoke.

To live is to naturally progress, so momentum is on our side.

The Story of Stuff Series

Part I – “My Beloved Stuff”

Part 2 – “The Costs of Stuff”

Part 3 – “Bring on the Stuff”

Part 4 – “Stuff Build-Up”

Part 5 – “Stuff Becomes Trash”

Part 6 – “Consumer Treadmill Pause”

Part 7 – “Healthier Consumer Practices”

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Stuff Becomes Trash

Part 5 – “The Story of Stuff” series

“As soon as Stuff enters our homes, it begins the transformation.  We get something and it starts out prominently displayed, then gets moved into a cupboard or onto a shelf, then stuffed in a closet, then thrown in a box in the garage and held there until it becomes garbage.” Annie Leonard “The Story of Stuff”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generated an average of 4.6 pounds of trash per person per day, our municipal waste totaling 254 million tons. The EPA estimates one third of the trash is recycled resulting in Co2 reduction equivalent to removing 35 million vehicles from the road. According to United Nations statistics, our waste far surpasses the average – Canadian (1.79 pounds per day), Norwegian (2.3), Japanese (2.58), Australian (2.7 ) and  China only .7 pounds per day!

And this is just part of the story – Compared to 254 million tons of municipal waste, the EPA reports industrial waste is generating 7.6 billion tons a year – waste generated to create our Stuff!

While many of us put a lot of thought in the way we purchase and handle our Stuff, placing a small bag of trash on the curb each week, we still generate a lot of recyclables.  Certainly recycling saves natural resources and energy, but most of our recyclables are downcycled, and lose value.  While recycling is emphasized in our current system, our efforts should be on wasting less from the beginning.

Imagine all the jobs we would create if repairing was prioritized over tossing, then dismantling and reusing components after something is used up. Training and jobs in the science and technology fields would lead the way.  World-wide researchers are already developing solutions introducing Zero Waste initiatives.

Other countries practice “Extended Producer Responsibility” where the company that makes the product or packaging has to deal with it at the end of its lifecycle.  When the responsibility is placed on the producer, their design and marketing approaches reduce the products environmental impact.  They produce better, longer-lasting, less toxic Stuff.

As Annie says “The main waste of resources is the garbage itself.  Behind every piece of garbage is the long history, of extraction in mines, harvesting in forests or fields, production in factories, and extensive ferrying along supply chains.  How ridiculous is it to lock up all those resources underground after spending all that effort to extract and make and distribute them in the first place!”

Although I do still spend time shuffling and cleaning all my stuff, on a good day I don’t acquire more.  On those good days, I have more time to read, enjoy nature, help with various causes true to my heart, write and spend time with my friends and family – Enjoying Life!

The Story of Stuff Series

Part I – “My Beloved Stuff”

Part 2 – “The Costs of Stuff”

Part 3 – “Bring on the Stuff”

Part 4 – “Stuff Build-Up”

Part 5 – “Stuff Becomes Trash”

Part 6 – “Consumer Treadmill Pause”

Part 7 – “Healthier Consumer Practices”

Stuff Build-Up

Part 4 – “The Story of Stuff” Series

Estimates are each US citizen is bombarded with up to three thousand commercial messages a day given all the TV ads (interrupting our shows at a piercing decibel level), billboards, product placement on shows, packaging, computer ads (search engines, newsfeeds, Facebook), radio ads and more.  The average American child sees 110 TV commercials a day.  Some say viewing five additional hours of TV per week will result in spending another thousand a year.

As encouraged, we tend to buy and accumulate Stuff.  Accumulating more Stuff means we need to work more, leaving less time to spend with family and friends. This cycle can lead to feelings of isolation, depression and exhaustion making it easy to decompress in front of the TV where commercials tell people to go shopping, so they do, a vicious cycle Annie Leonard (“Story of Stuff”) calls the “work-watch-spend treadmill”.

Why are advertisements so powerful?  In the 1960s, advertisers enlisted psychologists and neuroscientists to determine the best way to influence shoppers.  They strive to convince consumers they are lacking something so they will buy something to feel better.  More frequently, in lieu of describing the product, they associate it with a desirable image, lifestyle or social status.

During the 1920s and 1930s more consumption was generated by planned obsolescence.  This is when the buyer is convinced to own something a little newer, better, or sooner than necessary.  The quicker products are thrown away and replaced, the better.  Appliances and electronics were priced in such a way they were cheaper to replace.  With instant obsolescence comes disposable goods and with perceived obsolescence comes changing fashions and styles.

Seductive advertising, easy credit, obsolescence, keeping the public ignorant about the hazards of thousands of chemicals in the interest of “progress”, and keeping people watching TV and so busy working they don’t notice what’s going on all contributes to the accumulation of Stuff.

In the United States our standard measure of success is the gross domestic product, or GDP.  Our goal is simply growth, above all else, with no concern about unequal or unfair distribution of wealth or if our citizens are happy and satisfied.  Annie Leonard reports North American and Western Europe, 12% of the population, consume 60% of the goods, whereas one third of the world population consumes only 3.2 percent. Developing countries strive to consume just like us, whereas poorer countries “need” to consume more.  Global Footprint Network calculates we are already annually consuming 1.4 times what the earth generates in a year.  That means we are using up Stuff future generations will need!

The Story of Stuff Series

Part I – “My Beloved Stuff”

Part 2 – “The Costs of Stuff”

Part 3 – “Bring on the Stuff”

Part 4 – “Stuff Build-Up”

Part 5 – “Stuff Becomes Trash”

Part 6 – “Consumer Treadmill Pause”

Part 7 – “Healthier Consumer Practices”

Bring on the Stuff

Part 3 – “The Story of Stuff” series

Shopping is enticing.  In best case practices, we pay as we go for items we “need”.  Unfortunately, abundant enticing credit cards encourage impulsive purchases. Hopes are most purchases are conscious decisions but if marketers have been successful, our subconscious is involved as well.   Here are more of Annie Leonard’s thoughts as written in “The Story of Stuff”.  After products are produced from extracted materials, it’s time to distribute the Stuff so it can be placed on shelves and to get people shopping!

Distribution – Our country consumes the bulk of the world-wide goods so the practices and damages caused by the constant churning of extraction and production spills all across the world. Many businesses are shipping more jobs overseas, seeking more lax or non-existent labor and environmental laws, and lower wage costs.  Leaving many of the toxins behind, now all this Stuff needs to get to the United States.  The bulk of that Stuff is shipped in huge carbon spewing ships, many longer than three football fields, from China, India and other places in Asia.  Once here, most of that Stuff is loaded into carbon spewing trucks powering down the highways headed to our stores.

Consumption – Once here, to keep this system working, we need to buy – not just some Stuff, lots of Stuff!  How did we get to this point?

Before the Industrial Revolution there was a limit to how many resources we could collect and produce by hand.  Then by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, steam engines made it possible for machines to replace people and crank out the goods. Soon we had more Stuff than we needed. Then during the early middle twentieth century, scientists developed a new set of chemical compounds which led to synthetic petro-chemicals replacing naturally occurring materials.  As Annie Leonard states “chemists combine molecules to create polymers, which make things harder, stretchier, softer, stickier, glossier, more absorbent, longer lasting, or flame or pest or water resistant.” While we have benefited greatly from the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of so much stuff is excessive.

Now that we have all this Stuff and the ability to make much more, we need consumers to buy more. We are now being told Consuming is Patriotic!  Advertising and built-in obsolescence makes sure that Stuff stays in motion.

The Story of Stuff Series

Part I – “My Beloved Stuff”

Part 2 – “The Costs of Stuff”

Part 3 – “Bring on the Stuff”

Part 4 – “Stuff Build-Up”

Part 5 – “Stuff Becomes Trash”

Part 6 – “Consumer Treadmill Pause”

Part 7 – “Healthier Consumer Practices”

The Cost of Stuff

Part 2 – “The Story of Stuff” Series

While shopping, we constantly weigh our options, checking the price-tag. After reading “The Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard, I now realize that price-tag figure is only part of the cost.  Annie has spent a lifetime researching garbage.  She has traveled all around the world researching, participated in community organizing missions and lived with families in various impoverished countries.  Through her studies she has learned about toxics, chemistry, environmental health and racism, international trade agreements and the influence of corporations on governmental regulations, planned obsolescence, and advertising that promote consumerism.  She is a systems thinker, everything exists as part of a larger system; everything is connected.

Annie goes into great detail discussing all the processes needed to keep our store shelves filled so our ingrained insatiable appetites for “cheap” Stuff are quickly met.  When we baby boomers pause a bit, we recall a less consumer driven, more simple life.  As for the younger generation, over-consuming with access to ample credit cards is the norm.

Extraction – There is a great environmental cost to mining virgin materials to create our stuff.  Our rainforests, forests, wildlife and water sources have taken a major hit.  It is energy and water intensive to extract goods, leaving toxic byproducts behind. Many wars are fueled by the fight for natural resources including gold and diamonds to make jewelry, coltan to produce all our electronics, and petroleum to make plastics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, tires, household cleaners, and oil.

Our natural resources and Earth is finite, with only a specific amount of land, water, air, minerals and resources available. The world population is at 7.3 billion now with projections to grow another one billion over the next twelve years, and there are many impoverished countries that “need” more Stuff.  If we continue this trajectory, we will hit the Wall.

Production – Turning these raw materials into products is also energy and water intensive and leaves toxic byproducts damaging the environment and health of surrounding neighborhoods. It takes 700 gallons of water to make just one new t-shirt!  Now thousands of unevaluated, potentially toxic chemicals are used to produce synthetic materials. Production workers and surrounding neighborhoods take the brunt of the risk as we have very limited understanding of the health implications.

Forward thinking companies have seen the economic value of more environmentally friendly processes.  If extraction and production practices don’t produce toxic water, they can reuse it and recycling materials into products costs less than harvesting new materials.  If manufacturers were held accountable for the associated environmental, social and health costs, more sound practices would naturally fall into place.  They have the ability to produce products more durable (last longer), repairable (producing jobs), recyclable (degrade less quickly), and adaptable (easily updated).

The Story of Stuff Series

Part I – “My Beloved Stuff”

Part 2 – “The Costs of Stuff”

Part 3 – “Bring on the Stuff”

Part 4 – “Stuff Build-Up”

Part 5 – “Stuff Becomes Trash”

Part 6 – “Consumer Treadmill Pause”

Part 7 – “Healthier Consumer Practices”

My Beloved Stuff

Part 1 – “The Story of Stuff” Series

I was so impacted when I read the”Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard, both fascinated and horrified, I wrote a 7 part series about all it entails.  First materials are extracted to make the product, then it is produced, then marketed, then delivered, then it enters our homes taking a prominent position, then shifted around the house, and is eventually thrown into the garbage.  At least some of us change that trajectory a bit when we Reduce, Reuse and Recycle!    Here is the first article –

Seems I always call myself a minimalist but as I look around I realize, who do I think I am kidding?  My stuff is everywhere – tons of it!  We even have our “box room” where we store excess stuff, stuff we just might need someday. And it seems we are always busy taking care of our stuff.

I’m fortunate, since I have very few “wants”, I can more easily buy what I “need”.  My box room, closets and drawers are stuffed with stuff.  Although I imagine the assault of advertisers influences me more than I realize, I focus my spending on things I truly value – healthy food and travel.  I certainly don’t want more stuff to clean, sort, fix and shuffle around. It takes way too much time!

I still have my weaknesses.  When I feel crowded with stuff, I donate boxes of stuff to a worthy cause.  Once there, since it’s a good cause, I end up exploring and buying more stuff, stuff I don’t “need”.  Then when my closet feels crowded, I donate again.  Yeah, I have a revolving closet!  Don’t let my love of hoodies fool you – I have lots of clothes.

I recently read “The Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard and now see stuff in an entirely new way.  The author goes into great detail about the natural resources, energy and social costs associated with our stuff – Extraction, Production, Distribution, Consumption and Disposing – our Stuff’s Lifespan. Fortunately a lot of my stuff is second –hand so it isn’t made from virgin materials, but has become quite obvious, I’m still over-indulgent.

Annie Leonard wrote about the constant motion and expansion of “Jumbo” ships, many longer than three football fields, coming from China, India and other places in Asia.  These ships consume millions of tons of fuel per year spewing huge amounts of carbon.  In search of the buck, US businesses more frequently outsource manufacturing jobs overseas due to cheap labor costs, with minimal or no labor and environmental regulations. To add to the insult, many times US businesses ship components across the ocean to make gadgets that are then shipped back to us!  I’ve found if I’m not shopping at a small local store, almost all product labels say “Made in China”. Seems the advertisers cry to buy “Made in the USA” has dropped from their vocabulary.

How did we get so crowded with Stuff?  More to come.

The Story of Stuff Series

Part I – “My Beloved Stuff”

Part 2 – “The Costs of Stuff”

Part 3 – “Bring on the Stuff”

Part 4 – “Stuff Build-Up”

Part 5 – “Stuff Becomes Trash”

Part 6 – “Consumer Treadmill Pause”

Part 7 – “Healthier Consumer Practices”

Imagine Zero Waste

Seems we are always encouraged to consume.   Things wear out quicker, styles constantly change and single use and disposable items are heavily marketed.   As I see our population increase and hungrily consume at such a rapid pace, I wonder what will be left for future generations.  Capitalism is based on consumption, so how can we keep consuming without running out of resources?  How about consuming waste?  We have plenty of that!  Imagine Zero Waste.

Zero waste isn’t a new concept.  The movement gained momentum 1998-2002. Visionaries are busy researching how to put theory into action.  This concept is thoroughly explored by William McDonough & Michael Braungart in “Cradle to Cradle” and “The Upcycle”.  They say “waste is simply poor design”.

While Industry has improved our lives making it cleaner and more convenient, its infrastructure is linear – they make the product, get it to us as quickly & cheaply as possible, rely on an endless supply of resources, rely on us consuming; then waste pollutes our environment, goes into landfills and their potential is lost.

When we are “eco-efficient”, we consume less and recycle.  While these strategies save our natural resources, the mindset is based on scarcity and guilt with the environment and industry pitted against each other.  With an “eco-effective” model, industry and the environment work together and eliminate waste by design.  We become a world of abundance!

For this to work, first we need to eliminate some synthetics that are too toxic to reuse.  Then we can use and reuse biological and technical products. Biological – Imagine if packaging (50% of our solid waste) was designed as a nutrient that enhanced the soil and factory water byproducts were clean enough to drink.  Technical cycle – Imagine instead of buying products, we purchased the service of a product.  When finished, the manufacturer would replace it, and reuse the material from the old product.  We can indulge guilt-free, industry saves money by reusing valuable materials and uses less raw materials.  These same concepts can be applied to urban planning, buildings, food production, energy and transportation systems.

The authors see the first critical steps as rebuilding our soil, converting to renewable energy, and to stop introducing unknown chemicals and materials.  We have the technology and intellectual capacity to accomplish this!  With visionaries like these, ecological and economic sustainability is possible.  That’s encouraging!  But for now, we’ll Reduce, Reuse & Recycle!