List at least five interesting ‘facts’ that you learned by watching ‘The Story of Stuff’. Which ones did you find the most shocking?
“The Story of Stuff” presents much in the way of compelling facts, but to name just five that I found particularly engaging, they are as follows:
1) At the outset of the film, the narrator describes the “materials economy”, consisting of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. What is intriguing about this notion is that the entire life-cycle of products may be reduced to a general theoretical concept: this yields an invaluable notion for theory, when thinking about how current consumer-based economies function in practice.
2) The film also stresses the point that the “materials economy” cannot be separated from its relationship to what is termed the “real world”, namely, what may be described as the environment or ecology. Accordingly, the materials economy is not endless, as the film points out, but rather has a finite precondition in the form of the environment. This has subsequent consequences for such economies: they cannot merely function as though they exist in a vacuum, without precise causes and effects upon which they are dependent. Hence, whereas the “materials economy” is on the one hand a finite and precise model of how such an economy functions, at the same time it is not a closed system, but rather an open system, since the materials economy’s preconditions exist outside of it, while it also has effects that register themselves outside of the materials economy itself.
3) The film also points out that the materials economy at the same time has an excess to its system: that of waste. Waste does not fit into the linear development of the materials economy, but rather is its side-effect. This once again re-iterates that the materials economy is not a self-contained linear system. There is therefore an interesting theoretical problem that emerges regarding the linearity of the model presented and the effects it produces outside of this same linearity. There is also an ethical dimension therefore added to the materials economy model: what is the effect of waste on the environment and societies that employ this economic model?
4) The film points out a little known fact about the materials economy: Victor LeBeau, an economist, noted that in order to sustain the materials economy, consumption must become the dominant way of life, so as to sustain the economy. This has had disastrous effects on the environment, as well as creating a culture of excessive consumerism and materialism. The materials economy becomes something of an end in itself: there is no questioning with the acceptance of this ideology about why this particular economy is being pursued. The film points out the compelling point that this has been the dominant model since the 1950s. It is only now that we can see some of the disastrous consequences of this way of thinking, for example, in the form of environmental damage.
5) The concepts of planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence are crucial notions that I was introduced to in the film. The idea of planned obsolescence is that goods are manufactured so as to perish quickly, whereas perceived obsolescence means that products are revised in terms of design to create social trends. Both of these concepts do not emphasize the quality of the product, but rather the desire to sell more product. These concepts are based on the prioritization of quantity over quality, which fits it with the aims of profit-based economies. Such concepts therefore represent direct attempts to exploit the consumer, as opposed to providing the consumer a valuable product or service.
What is most shocking about these facts is that the American economy is deliberately planned around waste, materialism, consumerism and the continuation of the materials cycle for the sake of the materials cycle itself. One is left with the image of American society as a vacant, empty inhumane process. An ethical crisis emerges from the film: is this the kind of economic model we want to live in? At the same time, it gives us an opportunity: there is no fait accompli that all business models must accept this mode. The film provides a challenge to young business leaders and students to think of alternative.
2. Are there any things that you disagree with in the ‘Story of Stuff’ video? Why?
I was surprised by the extent to which “The Story of Stuff” video convinced me in regards to its argumentation. Perhaps, this is because I was already inclined to view materialist and consumerist culture and economy with suspicion. The film provided robust arguments as to why such an economy and culture should be called into question. In this regard, I would not disagree with anything presented in the film, since I have no allegiances to the consumerist ideology which it is so thoroughly attacks. At the same time, as a student of business, I am of course interested in the topic: therefore, the film made me think about alternative business practices. As mentioned above, business does not necessarily have to function according to the materials economy model: for example, quality could be emphasized over quantity.
3a. Griseri and Seppala (2010) identify four approaches to addressing environmental issues – deep, dark, light, bright (see environmental ethics lecture slides). Which approach(es) do the videos promote? Why?
I think the film includes all four of the approaches that Griseri and Seppala outline in various forms. For example, the film mentions Victor LeBeau, citing him explicitly as stating that consumerism must become the spiritual foundation of American culture: this is a clear concern of the deep approach, as Griseri and Seppala mention, since the deep approach relates to what the authors term the “spiritual”, or in other words, our most profound ideas of who we are and how we relate to the world. The “dark” approach is also far-reaching, in so far as it challenges our fundamental social organization: the film accomplishes this by questioning the materials economy. The “light” and “bright” approaches are also presented in the film, for example, through bringing into view concepts such as planned and perceived obsolescence which deal with our everyday interactions with products. To take a light or bright approach in this view means that we have to re-think our consumerist habits. In the end, however, I think the film is above all a “deep” approach, since it opens fundamental questions about how we live and organize ourselves socially.
b. Who, according to ‘The Story of Change’ should take responsibility for addressing environmental issues (business, governments, consumers or citizens)? Do you agree with this view? Why/why not?
According to the “Story of Change”, environmental issues must be addressed by businesses, governments, consumers and citizens, to the extent that this is an issue that affects all of us: furthermore, all these institutions and individuals contribute to the issue. I think that this comment is especially relevant: what is at stake in environmental issues are fundamental questions about how we live and organize ourselves, what are our values, and how we behave on individual levels. Therefore, all these sides must interact and participate to affect the required change.
4. Outline at least three things that companies can do to address the issues raised in ‘The story of stuff’ (you may want to look up the suggestions made in the lecture). What are the limitations of these responses?
Companies may look at the material economy and similar concepts to affect change. For example, the materials economy produces waste which harms the environment: companies have to note that the materials economy does not exist in a vacuum. Furthermore, companies have to question their strategies of planned and perceived obsolescence. These strategies are just meant to perpetuate consumerism through means that as side-effects produce waste, damage the environment and create a vacant culture. In this regard, the most fundamental companies can do is ask themselves a difficult existential question: why do we exist as a company? Is it merely to turn a profit? Or is to provide a service that somehow improves the lives of others?
5. In the light of the information given in this video, how do you think environmental responsibility between developed and developing countries / emerging economies should be distributed?
According to the video, I believe that because developed countries have hegemony in the world order, they must fundamentally re-think their economic models so as to maintain environmental responsibility. Developing countries are dependent on developed countries: therefore, change has to lie with those who have power. But this will take a fundamental re-thinking of the very economic foundations of material based economies, which also means that companies will lose their power: because of the lust for power, it will be difficult to make this step. This is why new business leaders not concerned with only profit are so crucial at this time period, in my view, to make these positive revisions to the old culture of material economies.