Wondering about Consumerism: The Story of Stuff

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Why do we consume?

What image comes to mind when you think of shopping? For me, it’s the Galleria in Dallas, Texas – a large, four story, glass laden shopping center in the heart of downtown Dallas. While I did’t grow up in Dallas, my family used to vacation there at summer’s end during those dreadful “back to school” weeks.

I found myself back in the Galleria this past week with my own kids – ice skating of all things (my parents now live there). And though the mall scene seems to be dying in much of the country, the Galleria was, for the most part, the same. Still four stories. Still lots of glass. Still buy this, buy that.

As I awaited our turn on the rink, I witnessed a seemingly normal interaction between a mother and a young girl outside of Macy’s. Grabbing her mom’s shirt, the young girl pleaded to go ice skating while attempting to steer her away from the grand Macy’s entrance. The mom simply replied: “Not now. Not until we go buy some stuff first.”

Really? Some stuff? “Not until we go buy some stuff?”

I am not sure this oh-so-patriotic moment would have caught my attention had I not recently seen The Story of Stuff, a 20 minute animated web-short that looks at “the real costs of our culture’s use-it and lose-it approach to stuff.” Written and hosted by Annie Leonard, the ‘story’ takes you through the general life of a particular good (i.e. an iPod); its production and consumption patterns, or as Leonard would describe, the processes from “extraction” to “disposal.”

While difficult for me to get past the first few minutes the first time around – Leonard reminds me of my 3rd grade teacher – once I gave it some space, the story made its impact. I was not only second guessing my recent splurges, I was second guessing my recent disposals.

Though a few generalities seem a bit too simplified, The Story of Stuff nails one of the things we value most here at rednow – asking the questions. In this case, the questions revolve around consumption: What’s at stake? Where does it come from? Are we addicted, careless, or just oblivious?

The Story of Stuff earned a web-award for “Best Educational Website” at SXSW 2008. Watch the full documentary here.