The Story of Stuff is an engaging, well-paced, and amusing commentary on our patterns of consumption, and the consequences for global environmental and social systems. And Anna Leonard doesn’t pull any punches in her assessment – laying a good chunk of the blame at the feet of corporate interests and complicit governments. And her optimism for the power of good governance coupled with an educated, active populace is a refreshing alternative to the gloom-and-doom ending.
Apart from the very approachable format and Leonard’s charming storytelling, we aren’t confronted with any revolutionary ideas. Most of us understand that our level of consumption as Americans is unsustainable, particularly if extended globally. We recognize that much of what we consume is disposable, and that extraction, manufacturing, and waste disposal has human and environmental health consequences affecting poor folks first, but ultimately all of us.
The Outdoor Industry has been in the lead in touting the importance of greening up shop and moving towards sustainable business models. But it begs the question: Can a for-profit business or institution remain financially solvent and still meet the requisite level of environmental sustainability? Can the model really change so that these ideals are prioritized over 20% growth? Can we move to a system where we strive for making a good, relevant product, sell it, and be content with that? Can we refrain from the urge to push upgrades to the new color or hot new accessories in a year or two?
I don’t think we can with the way we practice capitalism now, yet I do not think we necessarily need a new system. As Leonard notes, our current business practices externalize many of the costs of doing business along with the real cost of getting a product into the hands of the consumer. Does that $4.99 pricetag for a radio really reflect the actual costs? No, of course not, but we ultimately still pay those costs: Government-subsidized healthcare for kids with asthma exacerbated by emissions, degradation of natural systems which provide essential services like carbon sequestration and flood control, governmental institutions dedicated to managing our waste. I contend that all of these external costs be built into the price of a product or service, only then can we make truly educated decisions about the real societal, environmental, and health costs of our consumption.
But what do we do now? Leonard makes some good (if generic) recommendations. She is right in that there is no silver bullet, but rather multiple levels on which we can enact reform. As an industry and as consumers in the outdoor market, we might reassess our values; let’s concentrate on delivering products to market that are of impeccable quality and durability (ie – not disposable nor quickly obsolete) while we critically evaluate our materials and manufacturing to move towards sustainability. And most importantly, let’s begin a dialogue within the industry and with consumers, addressing these issues with sincerity.
Watch the film (storyofstuff.com). And let’s start the dialogue right here.