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Earth Day Lessons In The "Story Of Stuff"

Earth Day Lessons In The "Story Of Stuff"
As we approach Earth Day 2011, it's time once again to consider how our actions are affecting the environment. And, there's no better way to do that than to evaluate our part in the "Story of Stuff." Author Annie Leonard is here to make her case that overconsumption and toxic manufacturing is hurting people and the world we all live in.

As we approach Earth Day 2011, it's time once again to consider how our actions are affecting the environment. And, there's no better way to do that than to evaluate our part in the "Story of Stuff." Author Annie Leonard is here to make her case that overconsumption and toxic manufacturing is hurting people and the world we all live in.


Annie Leonard, author of THE STORY OF STUFF: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-And How We Can Make It Better


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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: It's amazing how much stuff most of us accumulate over a lifetime. Sometimes it peoples almost like a full time job just staying on top of clutter and letting go of things to make room for more. We live in a consumer society, the economy seems to depend on us buying more, and yet, is this really sustainable? Our guest this hour, Annie Leonard, has a different vision. She is the author of the book, the story of stuff, the impact of over consumption on the planet, our communities and our health. How we can make it better. So Annie, thanks so much for joining us.

LEONARD: Thanks for having me.

ST. JOHN: So the story of stuff, of course, has been a smash hit already has a YouTube video, which has been seen by I hear more than 13 million people worldwide already. Why do you think it's so popular?

LEONARD: Well, it was a real surprise to me it was so popular. It's a 20-minute film that runs through the life cycle of all our stuff, where it comes from, where it goes, and the hidden social and environmental and health impacts of it. I think one of the reasons it was so popular is because a lot of people realize that not just are we stressing the planet, not just are we building up our own body burden of toxic chemical, but we're not having that much fun. This obsession with stuff is really costing our communities issue our emotional well being, our families, and a lot of people are hungry for another way.

ST. JOHN: You know, it's a very compelling little video, I watched it again last night. I thought I'd just watch a little part, but I watched all of it. It's in a cartoon form, and it sort of traces the chain of stuff. Can you describe that for us?


LEONARD: Right, and I actually did this in person for a number of years of I travelled around the world to electric at the factories where our stuff is made, and the dumps where our stuff is dumped. I visited 40 countries over a decade, really intensely researching where all our stuff comes from, and where it goes. And so this went minute cartoon film quickly goes through extraction, then production where we take the natural resources and turn them into products and then distribution where we use this vast America to ship the stuff all over the world. And I mean, literally all over the entire planet. And then consumption, the brief period of time in which we own and appreciate and want the stuff, and then disposal which comes increasingly fast as we check it out and then run out and buy a new one. The film zips through it in 20 minutes, and it's a very fact filled but very funny look at all our stuff. But I got so many e-mails after that film came out, I got about a quarter of a million e-mails asking for more information. And at first, I tried to answer them, then I realized there was no way I could. And that's why I wrote the book. It has a lot more detail on all of these issues, plus a lot more solutions and how to do things better.

ST. JOHN: We're talking with Annie less than Leonard, author of the video, and book now, the story of stuff, and if you'd like to ask her a question, or make a comment on her philosophies, it's 1-888-895-5727. Once again, 1-888-895-5727. So Annie, one of the most compelling things about this chain is how deeply we're committed to consumption. And write about how that came about am tell us how it all started.

LEONARD: That's right. Well, first I'd like it say I'm not against consumption totally. Of course we need to consume to live. What I'm against is over consumption, this sort of hyper consumption frenzied pace at which we are buying and destroying stuff as quickly as possible. I'm concerned about that partly because of the planet, and partly because we're looking at consumption and stuff to meet nonstuff needs like emotional needs, social needs. Buying stuff is not the way to do it. And really did not just happen organically, people are not just inherently greedy and wanting to buy stuff. But there was a real effort after World War II to ramp up the economy through consumption. And we're seeing some shadows of that happening again today, where both government and business really pushed consumerism as a way to keep that war time economy really vibrant. And at the time it seemed good, but it's resulted in a wide range of environmental, social, and even economic problems, and we simply have to figure out way to have a health economy that doesn't cost the planet so much.

ST. JOHN: Well, what about the fact that certain places, consumerism is being considered patriotic.

LEONARD: I know, isn't that crazy? And some people have said to me that I'm anti-American because I'm saying that we should consume less. I think that's pro America. If you look at a lot of indicators from our country from the standards of our public education to childhood obesity, to the environment, to fisheries, to marine resources, to enforcement across the whole spectrum of issues, we are not doing well. And to just say don't worry about it and keep shopping, that is anti-American of the real way to honor our country is it say we could do better. Let's work together to have the best schools we can have, the best healthcare we can have, a thriving, healthy economy that provides healthy environment, healthy people, healthy children, and much more equity than we're having now of that's the true nationalist way to approach this issue of let's try to aim higher.

ST. JOHN: But it does seem that this chain of stuff that you describe has worked for many western societies for at least a couple of generations. Why shouldn't that just continue?

LEONARD: Well, it's true that this increase in consumption do for a while, and in many places in the world, it actually is still needed more. That's important for us to remember. Half the world's population is living on less than $2 a day, and actually needs to consume more. So when you look at the data, you'll see a correlation between increased economic growth, increased consumption and increased well being. For a while they both grow together. But once you reach a certain point, once people's basic needs are met, they actually begin to diverge. So increased consumption, increased economic activity after a point begins to under mine well being, and it pollutes the environment, it trashes the land, it depletes the soils, it contaminates our bodies, and it actually erodes social well being. So for a while, great, we need more consumption. I often think back to little house on the prairie days when Laura Ingles Wilder got a penny and a piece of candy for Christmas. Fair enough. It's like for a while, we needed more stuff, and now we're at the point, though, where the obsession with stuff is actually under mining our well being.

ST. JOHN: We're speaking with Annie Leonard, author of the story of stuff, our numb is enemy numb. And Lorena is calling from Chula Vista. Lorena, go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thank you for taking a call. Have a question/theory. I've noticed especially with electronic devices, they don't have a very long life span. And I came up with thinking that they are deliberately programmed that way to not last Hong just so people could go around and purchase them again after they die. Especially like cellphones, DVDs, and what not. And people just throw them away as if nothing, instead of getting them if I canned. And I'm wondering if in her research there's any truth to this, or if it's just a matter of the product being very cheap.

ST. JOHN: Annie?

LEONARD: There is so much proof on this. It's fascinating. The theory or the title for this is called planned obsolescence. And that means that companies are actually designing stuff to break as quickly as possible. And it's very well documented. I read a bunch of industrial design journals from where this planned obsolescence really got started. And it was so interesting about how articulate and intentional they are, they're very cheer about it. Where they discussed how to make sure that two pieces of the device break at the same time so that the person can't repair it? How long should they make it last before it breaks so that we have enough faith in the product that we go out and buy another? It's very intentional, and electronics is the worst example of it, partly because of how fast we buy them and chuck them. The average length of a cell phone in this country now is less than 12-month, and when you think about the energy, the materials, the efforts, the toxic chemicals that are going into these electronics, it is insane to be replacing them every year. And on our demand to the manufacturers and make them safe, and make them last. We have a part in resisting the upgrade, in not upgrading unless actually it honestly is broken, or actually there honestly is a technological invasion. But if you're just upgrading for style or fashion, don't do it. Our part is to resist the upgrade, but the manufacturer's part it to make them safe and make them last.

ST. JOHN: Speaking of resisting the upgrade, we've got a call from Jan in Clairemont who I think has a point to make here. Go ahead, Jan.

NEW SPEAKER: Well, I am just ready to hoot out against the commercials, that first of all, the subject is interesting, but I would like to just ditch the beginning of the subject of what's happened before, what am I interested in is the media. They're -- human beings are creating their commercials. What is their philosophy, and why are they so wild? I mean, why don't you even know what the product is? That's my problem.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So the commercials, I mean, I guess the whole thing about commercials is it's based on this idea that we need to consume more stuff in order to create jobs. And that has a question, especially at a time like this, wouldn't people lose jobs if we stopped buying stuff, Annie?

LEONARD: Well, you know, we could also rethink how we structure our jobs. Right now we have a situation in our kitchen where a portion of the workers are desperately over worked. We work longer hours than any other industrialized country. Half of the people in this country don't even get two weeks of vacation a year. We work about 300 to 400 hours longer than our counterparts in Europe. So far one group of people is just exhausted, often holding down more than one job. Another group of people, which is a growing group, is unemployed. What if we structured it so that we had more job sharing, so that we encouraged more part time work? There's a lot of things we could do to restructure the economy so that there's more healthy, dignified, fair jobs rather than some people being absolutely over worked and exhausted, and then other people unemployed.

ST. JOHN: Now, we have had a controversy here in San Diego about allowing big box stores to locate here. Of they do offer cheap stuff. But what's your take on how these contribute to the consumption phenomenon?

LEONARD: Well, big box stores can be a real problem because of what we call externalizing the costs. Which means that the true costs of making these products are not reflected in the price, which leads us all to think they're really, really cheap when in fact they're not cheap, it's just that someone else is paying the price. Just as an example, there's a target right near high house, and you can go in there and buy a cotton T-shirt for $2.99. And that seems really, really cheap until you look at the whole lifestyle of that T-shirt, when you think about the incredible amount of water that go into growing cotton. Some people call cotton material virtual water, because there is so much water. So when you think about the water stress that so many communities are under on the planet, the pesticides, the labor, the shipping of getting that cotton from Turkey to China to be sewn and from Chian to here, the whole life cycle of that shirt is so intensive, but those costs are not captured in the price tag. So when you really look at the big picture, it's often not worth buying a 14 or 15 T-shirt. So one of the problems with big box stores and how they encourage the externalization of costs. On the other hand, they offer stuff cheap and a lot of people are on really tight bottoms and need those low prices, but I'd say the solution is not continuing to externalize the costs but promoting greater income equity so that people aren't supposed to only buy the $2.99 toxic T-shirt.

ST. JOHN: I understand in your book you do say that under your system, stuff, consumer items would become more expensive. So you're talking really about a complete paradigm shift, right?

LEONARD: They would become more expensive. But we also would realize that we need less of them. Wouldn't you rather have three pairs of well made long lasting shoes than 47 pairs of the PVC ones that fall apart in a couple days? We all -- not all of us, actually, many people don't have enough stuff. But many of us in the U.S. have too much stuff. We are stuff saturated. Our homes are full, our garages are full, our mini storage sites are full. There's lots of ways that we can meet our needs and actually enhance our lives with less stuff. This is one quick example, where I live, our public library system has a tool lending library and it is so cool. Anybody with a library card can go rent a wheel barrow or a jack hammer or a power drill. You only use those thing ace couple of times a year if that. There is no reason for every single household in if America to have their own glue gun and power drill and lard and jackhammer, and cup kick pan and bunt cake pan. If we shared more, we could all have all the things that we need with a lot less toll on the planet and a lot less money leaking out of our pocks.

ST. JOHN: A tool library, I love that idea. So Kinston is calling us from downtown, and i think he relates what you were saying, or she. Kinston, go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. I was gonna state that I'm 42, and for the majority of my adult life from about 19 years old until about five years ago, I had -- I've always had a storage unit. And from a ten by ten to a ten by 20, and collected stuff just like -- stuff that I somehow convinced myself that I would use one day or when I get a house, I'll put it here or I'll put in a library or I'll use this ottoman, and after build upon after build up, one of the reasons why it took me so long to down size was because I knew how much time it was going to take me to sift through everything that I truly did want from pictures and, I mean, cards birthday cards, Christmas cards from loved ones or loved ones who aren't with us anymore.

ST. JOHN: So you've been dealing with -- you've been dealing with an over abundance of stuff that was kind of getting in your way, Kinston.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, no. And I finally put in the time to go through everything, and honestly it took me two weeks at about five hours a day to sift through everything, and donate, and I donated so much stuff to women's shelter and goodwill and cerebral palsy, and any organization that would take things that were good. It wasn't like junk or magazines issue they were good things of just things that I thought that I would at one point in my life end up utilizing.

ST. JOHN: Did you manage to close your storage unit, Kinston?


ST. JOHN: Well, I gotta hand it to you, that's an example, I think. Good for you. And Annie, I mean, this is -- what Kinston is it talking about, it's so something, I was just seeing last night by chance another book called just stuff, by Randy Ofrost, which is about hoarding. And I guess there's a sort of a continuum going on there, isn't there? It sort of is at its extreme state goes almost pathological as consumerism.

LEONARD: Right, and then there's a lot of social validation for that, because everywhere you look there's an ad telling you will be happier or love loved or more successful if you get more stuff. But the last part of it is very important, all this stuff has an environmental cost, only, because these are all resources that we're taking from the world. But it also has a community cost. The way that we are so focused on stuff, we are putting more and more time and energy into our stuff. And that time and energy used to go into community. So we have more cooler televisions than we used to have, butt we know our neighbors less. We have more stuff, but we spend less time with our kids. We take less vacations 678 we have more stuff, but less fun. So it's really important to take a look at the big picture and think about, what kind of life do you want to lead, and what kind of purchasing habits will support that? And do you want to be spending the weekends at the mall and sorting through your storage stuff or do you want to spend it with your kids and neighbors building a healthier community?

ST. JOHN: Now, Kinston has really set us all a good example there, with his story. But [CHECK AUDIO] what defense would I make if I cut down on my consumption, how is that gonna change the world? In the it all a bit overwhelming?

LEONARD: Well, everybody a just one person of we all start with just one person, and starting at home is a great place to start. But if you want to do more, which we definitely need to do, and it's also more fun when we connect with others of there's lots of organizations to get involved with. Check the story of stuff website, which is story of And you can sign up there for our list, and we'll stay in touch with you, and we also list dozens of organizations working on these kinds of issues so you request find people in are your local community to get involved with. And it's much more fun doing this work when we're doing it with friends.

ST. JOHN: And in some ways, what you're talking about is challenging the underlying driving force of capitalism. You know, keeping consuming and the idea that markets will ultimately create a balanced system. How can you prove, convince to people, that going back as it were, would create a balance.

LEONARD: Well, I actually think it's going forward. Because I'm not talking about living in caves and walking around in sandals all year-round. Our economy has provided the best innovations and ideas, and making them even better as we go forward. You know, one of the things about capitalism is that it focuses on growth. And it doesn't distinguish gonna growth which helps the environment and the communities and growth which doesn't help. So if you just want to worship behind growth, that means every new car crash is good because that's more growth. Every oil spill, every new prison, every new garbage incinerate, every new case of cancer, all of those things are counted as a positive if the only method you're looking at is economic growth, So I say great, let's have growth, but let's have growth of clean air and water, growth of healthy children in good public school, let's look at growth which actually makes the society better rather than just adds to some abstract number tally.

ST. JOHN: Now, we've been talking about consumption, which is only one link in your chain of stuff, and of course the end of the chain is disposal. And you've spent years going around, rummaging around dumps. What has that taught you?

LEONARD: I find going to dumps absolutely fascinating, and I recommend all of your listeners do it. I think it should be required in this country before we get our first credit card to see where all of this stuff is gonna end up. Whenever I go to a new city, I love to go look at the dumps. It's very interesting how different they are in different places of it's kind of like reading a society's secret journal. And the most stunning -- two things that will stun you when you go to a dump, one is the scale. Some of these things are huge, as far as you can see in every direction, furniture and appliances and food and shoes and books issue it's just incredible the amount of waste that our economy produces. But the other thing which is so stunning is how much of it is not waste. [CHECK AUDIO] and we're wasting all of this perfectly good stuff. And again, I just think more highly of our society and our country. I think we can do a lot better.

ST. JOHN: Well, you're talking about our country, and I mean many countries I guess are like this, but you do mention in your book I noticed that you went to Wales, you went to Wales for a visit, and you noticed a surprisingly lack of advertising, which is something that we've just talked about. What did you feel about the way that they live in Wales? Is that closer to what you're talking about?

LEONARD: Wales is much closer it what I'm talking about, in a couple of issues. One is definitely the commercials. It's not just Wales, it's just that I happened to be in Wales when I was writing in that section. But if you have the good fortune to travel, and I'm very luck that I've been to over 40 countries now researching stuff. Most countries are not as commercial saturated as ours are. And the great thing about that is that it allows people to be something other than consumers. In our society where we are so commercial saturated, the main way this we are related to, the main identity that is cultivated is as consumers. And there's so many other identities that we have, you know, parents and educator, and artist, and citizen, that I would love to see us reclaim our mental and physical landscape from all of these relentless commercials so that we have the space to do other things and a primary place to start are the schools. They're now having advertising on the school buses at radio advertising being blasted to the kids on the school bus. There are some places that we as a society just need to say are off limits, commercial free zones, and schools must be a top priority among them.

ST. JOHN: So as we approach earth day, this Friday, what are some of the things that we can change just in our daily lives to cut down on all the stuff?

LEONARD: Well, there lots of sort of ten simple lists that you can do around the house that a lot of people know about. Get a clothes line, ride a bike, recycle, do all those kinds of things of but one of the most important things that we with can do is get engaged in the political process. Because even though those individual lifestyle things are important, they're not big enough to solve these problems. So I'd say think of an issue that excites you, whether it's community gardening or public transportation, or gets commercials out of our schools, or clean energy, or any of these issues that excite you, find an organization working on that and get involved. Not only will that create the political power to make our economy cleaner, safer and more fair, but it's also really fun.

ST. JOHN: So Annie Leonard, you've knot this book, the story of stuff, but there's also the YouTube video that I think many people have seen. But you've got some updates to that video, haven't you? You're actually expanding on it. What are some of the things you're really focus be on now.

LEONARD: That's right. The original film looked at the over all supply chain, and all of these films are available to watch free at story of And we got so many e-mails and letters asking for more information that we made a bunch of other films. We made one about bottled water, story of bottled water, that looks at manufactured demand, how companies got us to pay 2000 times as much to buy something we can get for pennies from the tap. We have the story of cosmics, which hooks at the prevalence of toxic chemicals in personal care products, and I think your listeners will be shocked when they find out how many toxic chemicals are in personal care products, and the complete lack of regulation, and labeling, it's just outrageous. And we also have the story of electronics, which is about planned obsolescence, which one of the previous callers talked about, why these things are loaded with toxic chemicals and then designed for the dump.

ST. JOHN: Well, Annie, that's a whole different vision that you're painting for us. Thank you so much for coming on this earth day, we really enjoyed the half-hour with you.

LEONARD: Well, thanks for having me, and please check out our website, story of

ST. JOHN: Okay. And Annie's book is called the story of stuff, the impact of overconsumption on the planet, our communities, and our health, and how we can make it better.