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The Story of Stuff April 11, 2011

Posted by dellahuff in Design Thinking, Systems Thinking.

The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard

Review by Della Huff

In The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard walks us through the materials economy step by gory step: the extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of consumer goods, or as Leonard calls it, “Stuff”. In each chapter, Leonard delves into the processes and materials involved in creating our Stuff, illustrates the environmental and social costs created (through a lot of scary data points), and, thankfully, also offers reasons to hope and describes areas which are improving – or at least aren’t worsening – and provides some viable alternatives for our current systems. One thing is for sure: after reading The Story of Stuff, it’s impossible to look at your ‘Stuff’ the same way again.

The book is meant to be a wake-up call, because as Leonard says in the book and in her documentary of the same name, “you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely”. If we want Earth to remain habitable, we cannot keep extracting its key resources at an accelerating rate and transforming them into disposable Stuff. She shares scary statistics like these:

  • We lose 50,000 acres of trees a day globally to deforestation for the making of our paper, furniture, houses etc.
  • In the U.S., each person uses 200 gallons of water on their lawns per day during the growing season.
  • It takes 256 gallons of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt.
  • The average gold wedding ring creates about 20 tons of hazardous waste.

The book is a intentionally controversial, polarizing, and a shocking. It’s been called “an anti-consumerism diatribe” and even “community college Marxism in a ponytail.” This is because she asks a question that is very unpopular if you are involved with the making, selling, and consumption of Stuff: “Are we consuming too much?” Leonard posits that the world’s economy, ever focused on growth, now depends on consumption at an ever accelerating rate. Because of this, Stuff is made to break, to be thrown away, to pile up in landfills so that companies can sell more Stuff.

To some, this sounds like a conspiracy theory. To others, it sounds like a truth that’s just hard to hear. Many detractors have tried to discredit Leonard’s facts and figures in the Story of Stuff (you’ll find as many detractors as supporters if you google “The Story of Stuff”), but it is very difficult to discredit her basic premise that we are consuming resources at an unsustainable rate.

My biggest takeaway from book was Leonard’s overall approach to the issue of sustainability. Leonard is a systems theorist. While many activists focus on a small part of the consumer goods lifecycle (e.g. fighting strip mining, hazardous waste disposal, or wasteful transportation of goods), Leonard believes that one much understand the entire lifecycle of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal in order to contextualize each step within the process, and to understand the incentives up and down the value chain that influence each step. Solutions must address each step of this value chain in order to succeed. This spoke to me as a business school student, and I found this to be especially relevant to our study of design: no object, system, or business model can stand alone; each is part of a greater system which must be carefully considered in order to maximize the design’s usability, efficiency, and sustainability. Therefore, the design thinker ignores systems thinking at his/her peril. To ignore the broader ecosystem leads quickly to the design graveyard.

It can be easy to quickly become depressed while reading The Story of Stuff. The data she shares on declining animal species, toxic chemicals in our food, air, and water, formaldehyde in our clothing, and toxins in cosmetics is terrifying. Luckily, it is not all depressing news. At the end of the book, Leonard presents a vision for a better world. So, while The Story of Stuff outlines everything we’re doing wrong, Leonard does her best to show that it is a fixable problem, and that there are alternatives to the consumption cycle that we have developed. She tries to show that we  all have choices in how and what we consume, and that these choices don’t require completely relinquishing our Stuff, but rather adjusting our thinking around it.

As Leonard says, “It’s not like gravity that we just gotta live with. People created it, and we’re people too. So let’s create something new.”

If you’re interested in watching the 20 minute documentary, which has reached over 10,000,000 viewers in over 200 countries, you can watch it on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/storyofstuffproject#p/u/22/9GorqroigqM

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