Even before I started PathToLess, I knew that everything we produced and consumed had an impact on the environment, but it was more of a vague awareness that didn’t translate into any specific numbers or actions for me.
After I became more self-conscious about the environmental impact we have on the planet and the consequences we are facing, I still didn’t completely understand the intricacies of the evil of consumerism.
The Story of Stuff changed it all. The short video I found on YouTube (after one of my favorite YouTuber talked about the book of the same title) managed to explain every single dependency in the production chain and how it affects the world around us.
With Earth Overshoot Day happening not even two weeks ago, I’m more aware than ever how finite our planet’s resources are. After all, we are currently consuming resources that our planet can’t regenerate in a year. The point is driven even harder by a visual marker trashing the image of wildlife. The forests are disappearing and the waterways are becoming undrinkable. And not only in our own countries.
The majority of stuff is not produced locally. Corporations, whose sole purpose is to maximize profits, make their products in countries where the resources (human and material) are, and where they can access them with as little cost as possible. As a result, they are trashing their ecosystems as well.
We use enormous amounts of energy to produce everyday products, sometimes we mix toxic chemicals into those products. And we don’t really know what those chemicals can do to our health and to our environment in the long term.
The factory workers are even more exposed to various chemicals. Women from poor neighborhoods, often women of color, are working those assembly lines for ridiculously low wages. Often, if the company’s quest to lower the costs of productions, the factories are moved overseas, to third world countries with even lower safety standards. Countries that are already being robbed of their natural resources.
Natural resources that the Earth is unable to regenerate because the factories are also releasing toxic waste into the environment. A byproduct of the production, contaminates the waters and the soil, killing the animals and plants, unable to survive in their natural habitat.
Once a product is made, it needs to get into the hands of consumers. Transporting it in trucks, ships, and planes, so that it gets to the big supermarket down the street, where the product is sold for as low a price as possible to ensure as much of it disappears of the shelves. Maximizing profits for the producer while minimizing the costs like labor.
People employed along the line in production and distribution (factories and stores) get paid very poorly, in some countries they are left without health insurance, exposed to carcinogens. They are paid very little so that we can pay very little for the products. And because they are paid very little money, they can only afford the cheapest products, often ones with the most artificial additives containing toxic chemicals.
It’s a vicious circle.
According to data from 2014, the United States of America’s consumer market accounts for 29% of the world’s market. The USA is the number one country on the list, with Japan in second place, cornering 8,51% of the world’s market, and Germany in third place with 5,29% of the world’s market. My own country of Poland is in 20th place with 0,75% of the world’s market.
As a global population, we consume a lot. In fact, I feel confident saying we consume too much. More importantly, we consume in a very unsustainable manner. 99% of the things we consume are trashed within six months of the purchase.
Planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence are the real enemies here. Planned obsolescence results in products being designed to fail and malfunction. They keep going just long enough for the customers to keep their faith in the manufacturers, but they cannot be fixed because there are no parts for them. Or if you just want to upgrade one part of the products, the new versions don’t fit into the whole. Because they were designed like that. They were designed so consumers would purchase a brand new edition, instead of just one part of it.
And sometimes, when physical products don’t break fast enough, some companies will influence the user experience, to make the owners buy new products in frustration. Apple had to pay a settlement when it was proven in court they were deliberately slowing down the performance of their iPhone to make people buy new versions of their product.
I can speculate that somebody at that company felt they needed to take such steps because perceived obsolescence was not working well enough. Perceived obsolescence is the concept that’s responsible for changing fashion trends and society’s tendency to switch to a newer model of basically anything, even though the previous version of the product is still perfectly functional.
It’s Microsoft discontinuing support for Windows 7 so that we are forced to upgrade to the later edition of the software. It’s new electronics being released every year, even though it’s not nearly enough time for the previous version to stop function.
An average American produces 5,5 lbs of waste a day. According to research only 1,5lbs of that waste gets recycled. The rest ends up in a landfill or is burned, releasing the toxins it was produced with into the air. And while recycling is certainly a factor relieving the stress the waste puts on our environment it’s not nearly enough.
Some products are manufactured in such a way that makes it impossible to recycle them and it’s manufactured that way because it brings down the cost of the final product.
The Story of Stuff illustrates our current economic system as a straight line, from resources all the way to disposal. It’s the linear economy we need to move away from if we want any chance of saving our planet any time soon. The circular economy could help us with that immensely. I wrote about the circular economy before, and I still believe it should be our major goal. We should reuse and recycle as much of the stuff we own as possible. If we need something new, we should first try to obtain it second hand, so that we do not add to the strain our planet is under already.
We need to buy less, no matter the pressure society puts us under. And we need to embrace the idea that the things we already have, the stuff we already own are enough. We don’t need new products to be happy.