Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Story of Stuff

Annie Leonard's twenty minute film, The Story of Stuff, says what I've been trying to say but much more comprehensively and articulately than I ever could. One of the points she brought home quite well is that the true cost of an item is not paid by its purchaser.

I was thinking about this the other day. I was walking to work and I wanted to listen to the news so I popped into this Radio Shack to buy a radio. I found this cute little green radio for 4 dollars and 99 cents. I was standing there in line to buy this radio and I wondering how $4.99 could possibly capture the costs of making this radio and getting it to my hands. The metal was probably mined in South Africa, the petroleum was probably drilled in Iraq, the plastics were probably produced in China, and maybe the whole thing was assembled by some 15 year old in a maquiladora in Mexico. $4.99 wouldn’t even pay the rent for the shelf space it occupied until I came along, let alone part of the staff guy’s salary that helped me pick it out, or the multiple ocean cruises and truck rides pieces of this radio went on. That’s how I realized, I didn’t pay for the radio.

So, who did pay?

Well, these people paid with the loss of their natural resource base. These people paid with the loss of their clean air, with increasing asthma and cancer rates. Kids in the Congo paid with their future—30% of the kids in parts of the Congo now have had to drop out of school to mine coltan, a metal we need for our disposable electronics. These people even paid, by having to cover their own health insurance. All along this system, people pitched in so I could get this radio for $4.99. And none of these contributions are recorded in any accounts book. That is what I mean by the company owners externalize the true costs of production.

So how do we rectify this injustice? And if we do rectify this injustice, how would that affect our economy?

The second question is easier to answer than the first. If the price tags of goods on the shelf were to reflect their true cost to the earth, to the environment, and to the humans involved in their production, consumption would plummet. We would be forced to do as previous generations have done. We would have to plan and save and budget our hard-earned money before we made a major purchase. We wouldn't throw things away while they still had use in them. We would reuse, repair, and do without. We would take better care of our possessions and pass them down from generation to generation. We would be faced with 'hard times' and find that hard times weren't so hard after all.

The question remains -- how to get there. The public isn't going to clamour for higher prices. The government isn't going to force them upon unwilling voters. And corporations are the source of the inequity to begin with. Those who pay the real price -- the earth, the environment, the poor, the unborn generations -- are without voice.

I am but one person. I cannot change the world, but I can change myself. I can buy only that which I really need and when I do buy, buy that which is locally made whenever possible. I may not succeed in changing my bad habits overnight, but I can begin.

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