Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More Stuff About Stuff

Annie Leaonard, my new hero, has posted an essay on Gristmill that addresses our country's obsession with consuming massive amounts of "stuff". While it is basically a summary of what she covers in her short film, The Story of Stuff, its a good read. Check it out below:

It's that time of year again. The bells are jingling and the registers are ring-ting-tingling, too. Black Friday has come and gone, and Cyber Monday orders are in the mail. Now we're wasting time in parking-lot traffic jams and long checkout lines, all the while trying to maintain our holiday cheer.

The National Retail Federation predicts that Americans will spend $474.5 billion this holiday season. That's up 4 percent from last year's whopping $456.2 billion spent on clothes, video games, and hot tech toys.

Do we really need to repeat history? Recent tradition, supported by plenty of well-crafted holiday advertisements, says "Yes."

Our current state of consumer mania -- our manufactured wants, must-haves and can't-live-withouts -- was born during the post-World War II era, when our country was trying to rebuild its economy. The best strategy, according to retail analyst Victor Lebow, was to make consumption a way of life. And boy, have we ever!

What began as a strategy to improve the American economy, however, has become an American way of life. Our stuff demonstrates our self-worth, and shopping makes us feel good -- or so we think. We have to keep shopping to keep up with the trends or to replace our outdated stuff. From the limited life cycle of personal computers to rotating wardrobe styles, the products we buy are designed to break quickly or to go out of fashion, requiring speedy replacement either way.

This notion of planned and perceived obsolescence drives the machine of American consumerism year-round. Research shows that up to 80 percent of products in the U.S. are used once and then trashed. All of this shopping is taking its toll.

The cycle of buying stuff, tossing it, and buying new stuff at such a rapid pace is depleting the planet's natural resources, putting our health at risk, and harming communities around the globe. The cycle is also draining us of our time and the energy we need to enjoy the things we really value, like family, friends, and free time. Ironically, we're participating in a system focused on stuff that is designed to make us feel good, but we're not even happy. In fact, as a country, our happiness is actually declining.

Still, watching TV and shopping top our leisure-time activity list. We watch more TV now than ever before, and we shop at double the rate we did 50 years ago. It is an insidious cycle. We watch TV, and advertisements tell us what we need to buy. Then we go out and buy it. And by the time we get home, the TV is telling us that there is still more stuff we need to buy, especially during the holiday season.

It is time we found another way -- a more sustainable and healthy way -- to celebrate the holidays. Maybe we can spend more time together instead of spending so much money on more stuff to give each other. That would be a good start, but there is only so much we can do as individual consumers. To really make change, we need to challenge this system that encourages endless consumption and ask others to challenge it, too.

We need to work together to transform today's throwaway economy into one that prioritizes environmental sustainability and social justice over stuff. Creating that kind of change would really be something to celebrate.

So before you make your holiday shopping list, consider the consumer cycle we're stuck in. Consider the $474.5 billion that retailers and advertisers want us to spend this holiday season on stuff we really don't need. Consider giving a new gift: the gift of change.

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