The story of Stuff

Every time I write about Stuff, readers point me to The Story of Stuff, a 20-minute video about where Stuff comes from and where it goes. Until today, however, I'd never taken time to watch it. According to the website:

From its extraction through sale, use and disposal, all the stuff in our lives affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns.

The Story of Stuff is an interesting short film, particularly in its last half. Writer and narrator Annie Leonard explains that the “golden arrow of consumption” is the heart of the modern economic system, a system that's really only existed since the 1950s.

After World War II, planned obsolescence was incorporated into the production of consumer goods. Whereas quality and long life had once been a selling point, now things were intentionally designed with shorter lifespans. Obviously, this increased the rate of consumption.

Even more powerful, however, is the notion of perceived obsolescence. Perceived obsolescence is most obvious with regards to fashion. I suspect most Get Rich Slowly readers try to divorce their purchase decisions from the clutch of fashion because they understand just how insidious it can be. Who wants to be seen wearing clothing from 1993?

But perceived obsolescence goes beyond just fashion. How many of you geeks still have your first iPod? Why did you move to a new one? Was anything wrong with the old one? Or were you, on some unconscious level, unwilling to be seen carrying around that brick anymore? (I'm guilty of having upgraded my iPod because my old one seemed out-of-date, so don't think I'm condemning anyone.)

What is the cost of all this? Leonard says that 99% of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport, and consume is trash within six months. Only 1% of the materials used to produce consumer goods (including the goods themselves) are still used six months after the date of sale.

Here's the best part of The Story of Stuff chapter five,

This excerpt is brilliant. I've watched it four or five times this afternoon and could watch it again right now. Thanks to the dozens of Get Rich Slowly readers who have been recommending this video for the past year. I should have watched it sooner.

Addendum #1: There is now a book, The Story of Stuff.

Addendum #2: Every once in a while you folks really disagree with me. This is one of those times. Lots of negative responses in the comments. (Which I don't consider a bad thing, by the way, as long as discourse remains civil and on topic.)

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Bill
Bill
12 years ago

I’m sorry, but I coudn’t get through even the first part given the tone she chose.

I got the distinct feeling she wants us to don hairshirts and live off locusts and honey in the wilderness.

Red
Red
12 years ago

@Bill: She also wants us to not feel the need to work our entire lives.

Hairshirts might come into fashion, never know.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

I had to look up hairshirt. It’s not a term I’ve ever heard before.

I’m not convinced she wants us to primitive. I think she wants us to be conscious of the implications of our consumer society.

It’s funny. Writing this blog and interacting with the readers gives me a skewed view of what the world is like. Sometimes I actually believe consumerism has been licked. Then I’ll have to spend ten minutes sitting on a bench outside a mall or listening to teenagers talk on a bus and then it becomes clear that consumerism is alive and well…

Artdogs
Artdogs
12 years ago

@JD — are those same teenagers wearing Che Guevara T-shirts as they listen to their iPods and drink Starbucks coffee? I think teens and 20-somethings love their stuff and their freedom, but don’t have enough gratitude for an economic system that ALLOWS them all this stuff….

Steve S
Steve S
12 years ago

The only scary part for me is that this may be taken seriously as an educational piece for children. I almost lost it when she pulled out her “declining happiness vs. consumerism” graph. The happiness of a country is not tied to any one factor as she so patronizingly puts it…watch, it’s easy. Since the 1950’s, government intrusion into our lives (social welfare & nanny state laws) have increased exponentially, leading Americans with a feeling of hopelessness that only government can solve their problems instead of themselves, which leads to an increase in lawmaking, which leads to more unhappiness, which… Read more »

J
J
12 years ago

“Leonard says that 99% of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport, and consume is trash within six months. Only 1% of the materials used to produce consumer goods (including the goods themselves) are still used six months after the date of sale.”

I’m gonna need a reference on that statistic before I believe it.

Until then, I’m calling bullshit.

anabelle
anabelle
5 years ago
Reply to  J

She has sources on her website. She’s not only talking about the consumer goods that we buy, but all the waste that was created to produce the consumer goods. For example, every standard size garbage full of waste that you bring to the curb, about 70 garbage cans of that size were produced to produce that garbage. It’s just the stuff that we can’t see.

Ray
Ray
12 years ago

Yes, we have become a nation of consumers. The video pointed out our flaws, but really didn’t give any solutions. If you don’t have a solution, don’t bother to show me the problem.

Andrea >> Become a consultant
Andrea >> Become a consultant
12 years ago

Funny, I have been thinking all day about putting my 1993 t-shirt into the trash. It’s got holes upon holes, but I love the shirt. It’s from No Fear, but my mom just bought it because of the “Fear: The Thief of Dreams” slogan.

Apparently, I don’t mind being seen in fashion from 1993. However, the holes are what’s doing me in.

J
J
12 years ago

Good grief … her explanation of why computers become “obsolete” is ridiculous.

This video is impetuous, condescending garbage.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Ouch! You guys are harsh. 🙂 I think you bring up some valid points, but I still believe that the Big Picture presented here is correct. I have no doubt that we are a nation of consumers. I have no doubt that this is a product of advertising and planned obsolescence. I have no doubt that this is not a good thing. I agree that it’s important to be grateful for an economic system that grants us the freedom to buy what we want, but I think things have gone too far. I think balance is required. I think that… Read more »

Stephanie PTY
Stephanie PTY
12 years ago

I love the Story of Stuff! It may be over-simplified at times, but her message is very powerful and I think it needs to be heard and talked about more.

Lunesse
Lunesse
12 years ago

I have my first ipod and it’s still the only one I have. It was a bday gift and engraved on the back is the year…2003. =)

Shanel Yang
Shanel Yang
12 years ago

I liked her voice. Sort of like a nice mom or elementary school teacher. (I know that might sound sarcastic, but I mean it.) The message is simple, but when all the big books are out there and the public is not getting the message, this is exactly the type of simplified medium we need to combat the far more overly simplified messages pushed on all of us from TV commercials, billboards, radio commercials about how much the insurance companies, oil companies, automobile companies, banking institutions, and other giant corporations really care about us and the environment. Steve, I don’t… Read more »

Shawn Petriw
Shawn Petriw
12 years ago

The intention of this series may be noble, but to manipulate the truth to such a degree is uncalled for. I’m all for less stuff, less clutter, and conservation, but this 20 minute video is brutal. Every thirty seconds or so a “fact” is presented that is a narrow perspective, a slick definition or an outright untruth. “Linear system” and “finite resources”? – wtf? – the sun will rise tomorrow and bask the earth with enough energy to run everything, if only we were better at capturing it. 99% is tossed after 6 months? Bullsh*t. Last time I looked we’re… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

One quibble, Shawn: she’s not saying that we dispose of everything within six months. She’s saying that only 1% is used after six months. I’d like to know where she got the stat, too.

jessica
jessica
12 years ago

Hey folks, if you’re doubting the authenticity of Annie’s research, the website provides an annotated script with references! Instead of just crying “bullshit!” you can go to her sources and make your own judgments.
For example “one percent of the total North American materials flow ends up in, and is still being used within, products six months after their sale” is a quote from Paul Hawken, Natural Capitalism, (1999) p. 81.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Here’s the annotated script to which Jessica referred. I’ll append it to the post.

Atomic Bombshell
Atomic Bombshell
12 years ago

Hooray! I knew you’d dig it once you got past the first couple minutes!

L
L
12 years ago

I tried to watch it as I’m sure she has some interesting things to say but I got about 2 minutes in before I couldn’t take it any longer.
I feel like I stumbled across a Sesame St episode. I have to agree with J it’s incredibly condescending.

Julia
Julia
12 years ago

J.D. – I don’t know how you could watch this so many times. I find it depressing. Maybe I should spend the same amount of time I just spent watching the whole show to working on a garden so that I start a small cycle that doesn’t go much further than my property line. Too bad it’s midnight! 😀 Tomorrow, perhaps.

jrh
jrh
12 years ago

The message of less Stuff is fantabulous!!

But I think this video goes at it the entirely wrong way. There is an undercurrent of “them” and “they” and “the man” that I find rather ridiculous.

We all have choices. We can choose not to be bombarded and brainwashed. Turn the TV off, cancel your dish subscription. It’s our choice to live the way we do.

Instead of blaming it on some corporate conspiracy, let’s instead demand a different product. Companies only give us what we choose. Make it profitable for companies to make things LAST.

Ben
Ben
12 years ago

Nice illustration of what often makes me really sad in the rare occasion that I find myself in a large shopping center/mall. However, I have to take issue with the specific example of planned obsolescence with regard to PC hardware. Anybody with a moderate amount of knowledge about PC hardware would find it laughable to think that the only thing different about various CPU architecture is the *shape*. Sure, the external case appearance might change to make a product more enticing but the innards will remain the same as long as is technically possible. It’s called standards, and if anything… Read more »

Mike Bahr
Mike Bahr
12 years ago

Paul Hawken is an anti-capitalist environmental extremist. I’ve been green since before it was trendy (I used to teach Wilderness Survival as a boy scout camp counselor almost two decades ago) and I can tell you that there is junk science environmentalism and real science environmentalism, and Hawken’s politics are from among the former group. Anything sourced on his published works is of suspect validity. 99% of everything? Fifty families would have to be incinerating their every worldly possession annually just to balance out the average from one pack-rat like me who never throws anything away because I had “Waste… Read more »

Jordan
Jordan
12 years ago

Wow this clip was terrible. The part about why computers become obsolete is absolutely ridiculous. The fact that J.D. thinks this is brilliant makes me feel that his opinion isn’t worth as much as I had thought.

Ramesh | The Geek Stuff
Ramesh | The Geek Stuff
12 years ago

It was a very interesting video and I really enjoyed watching it. I also agree with other readers that the comment about “computer” was so silly. Whether we agree with her view point or not, it was without any question a very interesting presentation.

I enjoyed it.

JD, Thanks for sharing it with us.

Ramesh.

Robert
Robert
12 years ago

Reading the critical comments, especially those of people who didn’t even bother to watch the whole thing before claiming it is BS, makes me despair. Are you really so incapable of accepting facts? If you think the facts she quotes are wrong, prove it. If you can’t disprove her facts, acknowledge the reality and think about what you can do to deal with the serious environmental and economic problems we all face.

Mike
Mike
12 years ago

Interesting here…. “Where I live, in the United States, we have less than 4% of our original forests left.11 Forty percent of waterways have become undrinkable.12 And our problem is not just that we’re using too much stuff, but we’re using more than our share.” Where I live is such a twist on this statistic. She states that in the US we are down to 4% of our original forests! Who know where she is from and under what circumstances the forests were destroyed. And what does “original” mean anyway! Sure in 1800 there might have been an original forest,… Read more »

Joel
Joel
12 years ago

There are many things I disagree with in this video, but it took me at least a dozen tries to get myself past the first 2 minutes. I kept finding myself turning it off when she so emphatically says

“It’s the goverment’s job to watch out for us, to take care of us. That’s their JOB!”

So much for personal responsibility, I guess I’ll just quit my job tomorrow and let the goverment take care of me, after all, that’s their JOB!

SP
SP
12 years ago

Thanks JD, this is a great little video. Simple, but insightful.

It wasn’t that mind blowing to me, but it was interesting

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

One of the great things about this community is the diversity of opinions. For months, people have been sending me links to The Story of Stuff, telling me how great it is. I watched it and thought it was good, and that the second half (a portion of which is shown in the video above) was especially good. Obviously, many of you disagree! 🙂 I still think that clip I posted is great stuff — politicizing and computer goofiness aside. Again, I’m looking at the Big Picture, and I think this video does a good job of explaining our consumerist… Read more »

Rich
Rich
12 years ago

<quote>Anybody with a moderate amount of knowledge about PC hardware would find it laughable to think that the only thing different about various CPU architecture is the *shape*.</quote> Yeah, I got up to about that point too then she lost whatever credibility she may have still had. The chip pinouts are different because the chips are different. Different cache sizes, different power requirements, more cores, different pipelines, additional optimizations, multimedia streamlining etc. These aren’t tortilla chips that can be plugged into whatever dip you want. You have to give the right voltages and speak the right hardware language to the… Read more »

SB
SB
12 years ago

The Paradox of Choice is a fantastic, well-researched book combining psychological, sociological, and consumer research. It notes the depression caused by excessive consumer choice in late capitalism. Rated a top business book.

Mike Bahr
Mike Bahr
12 years ago

J.D — Though I think you’ve mentioned it before, the movie “Fight Club” is a real eye-opener. A recurring theme (at times explicitly set forth) in the story is that people don’t need their consumer goods to “survive” in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word, yet people slave away at jobs they hate to buy things they don’t need. As the narrator notes after cutting himself free of all those tethers, “That stuff WAS my LIFE.” A remarkable amount of the dialogue in Fight Club would seem perfectly at home here on GRS. Not all, but quite a bit of… Read more »

Dan
Dan
12 years ago

JD- Check out Ivan Illich “Towards a History of Needs”. It’s a book…which means reading, not watching. But it’s great stuff.

Also, google “The Social Ideology of the Motorcar”. More good reading.

And I’ll recommend again “Manufactured Landscapes”.

Hell, even parts of “I HEART Huckabees” would be good for most of Amerika to watch.

“Why would God give us oil if he didn’t want us to use it?” LOL.

Dan
Dan
12 years ago

Mike :: “Fight Club” the book is much better at getting that message across…it’s a little hard to take Tyler seriously when he’s Brad Pitt talking about Calvin Klein ads not being a realistic portrayl of man… Pot meet kettle. I tend to laugh at a lot of this happiness talk though. Happiness does not come from the presence or the absence of “stuff”. It comes from letting go of the idea that one or the other is “right”. It could be argued though that as we move to a more leisure and consumption oriented society, we have more time… Read more »

Lars
Lars
12 years ago

Excellent video. It’s hard to explain the big picture in 20 minutes, so I forgive her the occasional oversimplification. I mean, who cares if a figure is 5 or 10% off. Deep down, we all know that this is the truth, that this is how it works. My life revolves around computers, so I’ve been frustrated half a dozen times when I had to build a new computer because another new socket design came out. I understand that it’s because of architecture improvements, but couldn’t there be a better way? Like Pentax cameras, you can put the same old lenses… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Probably no surprise to anyone, but I love Fight Club, both book and movie. I haven’t read (or seen) it in years. Maybe I should do a review.

Bart
Bart
12 years ago

Even though there may be flaws in the movie, the point of where the resources come from is very real. It would be much better if stuff (such as food) would be grown more locally.

Or the Cradle to cradle approach, which says you can consume as much as you like, as long as you build stuff the right way: http://www.mcdonough.com/cradle_to_cradle.htm
(another interesting book JD).

Justin
Justin
12 years ago

Someone may have already said this but it sounds like she’s talking about 1% in terms of raw materials.

My guess is that in terms of value, it’s over half. I mean your car will still be in use after 6 months, how big a chunk of your purchasing is that one item alone?

Lily
Lily
12 years ago

Buy quality stuff… less and better stuff. And make it last with good maintenance if you can.

Hey, I still had my 2003 iPod mini till I accidentally dropped it in the toilet on Christmas day… true. 🙁

Dee
Dee
12 years ago

A real eye opener for me was the documentary Century of the Self. It does not look at the production side but the role the media and psychology has in the progress of the American economy since the end of WWII, as a tool to ‘tame’ the American public. Specifically the marked change from quality to quantity based production that drives the modern consumerist economy.

Derek
Derek
12 years ago

You Americans! In marketing we are taught to get the message over at fifth grade level so everyone understands. Clearly this presenter has been a bit too literal but she is bang on message. As individuals we all USE too much “stuff”. As individuals we replace perfectly good usable “stuff” simply because the new one is faster, better, cooler, uber! The key thing she misses is we all have a choice in this. Yes big business tries to brainwash YOU into their way of thinking using every trick in the book but YOU have a choice whether to subscribe to… Read more »

Shari
Shari
12 years ago

The defensiveness in the comments is pretty interesting. It’s one thing to objectively disagree, it’s another to post in a clearly condescending and abusive fashion. It seems people often just want to feel their way is the right way and not consider other perspectives or possibilities. Any information that does not conform to their mindset of an ideal life is vigorously (and often rudely) rejected. There’s too much of an emotional investment in maintaining your lifestyle if you get worked up about things like this video. I’ve watched it once and I think it’s intentionally over-simplified to get people to… Read more »

Robert
Robert
12 years ago

I always thought going to the mall has already successfully replaced catholic religion in Spain, but now I’m told in the youtube video except that in the US you’re spending even 3 times as much as here buying stuff… Really impressive!

yp
yp
12 years ago

Good post JD. One person said they thought less of your opinion because you liked a part of the movie so much. However you grew in my eyes as you posted something that was controversial and relished the debate that ensured.

With the limitations of oil and our current reliance on it, I think movies of this intent (if not execution) and the movement behind it will become more prevalent.

Luke
Luke
12 years ago

Damn. I hope people don’t actually watch this; my investments will tank. Far from getting rich slowly, I won’t get rich at all!

JerichoHill
JerichoHill
12 years ago

Now, as an economist and a frugalist, I can sympathize with both sides of the consumption line, but, where she loses credibility with me is that she states that MORE choice = LESS happiness.

That is absurd.

First, just how does one quantify happiness? Does a 1-10 rating really capture anything? Further, I could rattle off about 10 hypotheses with more validity as to the “hypothetical” decline in real happiness.

Helen
Helen
12 years ago

When I first saw this video last year, I felt judged and defensive, like “Who is she and why is she so perfect?” That is about me and my own choices. I got over it and got to thinking about why it bothered me so much, and that’s how change happens: on the scale you can handle at the time. You may not agree with everything, but conceptually, some things do stand out. There actually are studies out there that show that more choice = less happiness. Penelope Trunk has discussed them in the last month or two at least… Read more »

Chad @ Sentient Money
Chad @ Sentient Money
12 years ago

Great post and I have really enjoyed the dicussion. It seems to me the subject of consumption gets the same treatment as any subject worth debating in our society…which is a shame. The extremists put forth their views. In this case, the companies (advertising) being the extreme consumption side and whoever is behind this video being on the extreme non-consumption side. Both sides are very liberal with “facts” and try to paint the other side as “evil.” (This is blatantly obvious in our political system.) In turn, this creates two issues: 1) What information is good information? 1% is used… Read more »

Avlor
Avlor
12 years ago

I think the overall points that buying more and more stuff isn’t making us happy and we go through stuff really fast is important.

I wasn’t a big fan for the presentation style either. But at least the creators tried. I’m not sure what style would appeal though. Will be interesting to see who can do better for a wide audience.

The solutions for individuals are pretty obvious: THINK and evaluate what you really need and how long it will last or be useful before you buy. Buying stuff doesn’t = happiness.

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