'The Story of Stuff': Cycle of consuming and dumping creates heavy baggage

Shoe horn: Mount Pleasant's Danny Oshtry is fond of the ceramic gift from his uncle.
Shoe horn: Mount Pleasant's Danny Oshtry is fond of the ceramic gift from his uncle. (Sarah L. Voisin - Washington Post)
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By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 2010

We are in a Stuff crisis.

We are either consuming it, acquiring it, complaining about it, cleaning it, moving it from store to car to house to garage to a Pod parked in the driveway. We are worried about it. Bored about it. Happy about it. Our stuff has become our baggage.

We used to be able to fit all our stuff in that Honda Civic we drove across the country. But now we have scary closets packed with stuff. Basements creeping with stuff. Attics weighed down with stuff. When our houses are full of stuff, we buy bigger houses and proceed to stuff the new houses with more stuff.

The stuff cycle is not without consequences.

Our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, says Annie Leonard, author of the recently released book "The Story of Stuff."

Leonard spent 10 years traveling to 40 countries, visiting hundreds of factories, tracking where our stuff is made and where it is dumped, "witnessing firsthand the horrendous impacts of both over- and under-consumption around the world," she says. She visited incinerators and garbage dumps, revealing the stories behind our stuff, explaining why it costs less to buy a new television than it does to repair the broken one.

She investigated "how the promotion of 'perceived obsolescence' encourages us to toss out everything from shoes to cellphones while they're still in perfect shape."

We are in constant acquisition of new stuff. And all the while, she says, this stuff is not making us happy. "We work so hard to buy stuff that we quickly throw out," she says. "There is only so much stuff the planet can hold."

Wrestling with stuff

Here in the Busboys and Poets on 14th Street NW, at the party for Leonard's book, stuff is the party chatter, nibbled at like cheese kebabs. There are people here who have thought about their stuff and are religious about not consuming more.

"I'm a great opponent of stuff," says Mary Harding, 78, a retired nurse who lives in Petworth. She is wearing other people's stuff. "This sweater, these pants. My shoes and my underwear are my own. I buy as much from a thrift store. I feel for people who believe they are what they wear, that having designer labels makes them special."

There are people wrestling with being happy with what they have and wanting more. "I feel our culture is overly concerned about material things," says Danny Oshtry, 50, a lawyer who lives in Mount Pleasant. "People's sense of meaning and life and fulfillment and happiness comes from things other than material things. I want to simplify my life. I don't want all this junk."

Across the room is Ralph Nader. He appears taller than he did on televised presidential debates. You ask him: "What is our relationship with our stuff?"

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