The story of stuff

After publishing a brief article on consumption statistics a few days back, a few Green Living Tips readers have pointed me to a “must see” video – Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff. After having viewed it, I can certainly understand their enthusiasm.

I think The Story of Stuff raises awareness about consumption with the same effectiveness as An Inconvenient Truth did in putting global warming on people’s radar; but packed into only 20 minutes and in a much simpler way. It’s fast paced, full of interesting, if somewhat disturbing, facts and statistics, but not in a way that requires a degree to understand. It drives the point home well and I feel it would also be a great presentation to show high school students and those who really haven’t thought too much about their consumption patterns.

And here it is:

I remember asking my dad many years ago why life was so complex and why we have so much stuff. He explained it using the modern refrigerator as an example.

Back “in the day” (in the 50’s), ice was brought to the door which went into special cabinets for keeping food cool. The cabinets were simple, but effective. Then came the household refrigerator, touted to be a labor saving device of convenience and efficiency. The problem was, they were expensive to buy; which meant people had to work harder and longer to get them. They became a standard item, so if you didn’t have one; you were “behind the times”.

The refrigerator would then invariably break down, then people would need to work more to get them fixed (but these days we just chuck them out). So, there really was no labor saving or real convenience at all and additionally, we could now fill this monstrosity will all types of foods we really didn’t need and would often get wasted. The “thrift” and planning went out of food purchasing, storage and handling . As The Story of Stuff reveals, this sort of scenario didn’t occur by accident, it was by design and all about stimulating the economy and lining the pockets of corporations rather than in the best interests of the people or the environment.

A mind blowing part of The Story of Stuff was in regards to tracing back to the 50’s when consumption really took off and why it happened. From the transcript:

“Shortly after the World War 2, these guys were figuring out how to ramp up the [U.S.] economy. Retailing analyst Victor Lebow articulated the solution that has become the norm for the whole system. He said: “Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption . . . we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”


“President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors Chairman said that “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.”

The Story of Stuff has many veil-dropping moments. For example, the videos mentions that 99% of all products made are trashed within 6 months due mainly to very nasty strategies called planned obsolescence (intentional poor quality) and perceived obsolescence (fashion). Annie Leonard says she had perused industrial design journals from the 1950s where it was openly discussed how fast designers could make stuff break and still leave the consumer with enough faith in the product to go buy another one.

It’s been a not so subtle brainwashing of us all over the last 6 decades – the latest fashions, gadgets and gizmos; all encouraging us to buy more, dump more rather than create a product right in the first place that can be sustainably produced, be long lasting and satisfy us.

This only scratches the surface of the amazing information in The Story of Stuff. If you can spare 20 minutes, I highly recommend watching it. You can also download an annotated transcript and fact sheet (both PDF).