DISTRIBUTION - The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and our Health—and a Vision for Change - Annie Leonard

The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and our Health—and a Vision for Change - Annie Leonard (2010)



Once upon a time it was simple: the only Stuff available to us was made locally or regionally. We picked it up in town, or it was transported to us in a horse-drawn wagon, often by the same person who made it. Unusual items—silks or spices, for example—occasionally arrived from faraway sources via one of three routes: returning armies loaded down with plundered loot, explorers returning from exotic lands, or the rare international traders who braved the dangers and shouldered the costs of overseas travel. By the fifteenth century, Europe had entered the Age of Exploration, and rich people were financing ventures specifically to acquire valuable Stuff like minerals (especially gold), textiles, spices, fruit, coffee, sugar. But even then, the elite consumers who could afford such treats had to exercise immense patience waiting while the goods made the voyage back and had to pay dearly for them once they arrived.1

Today nearly everyone on earth is able to consume Stuff made on the other side of the planet. Stuff travels at lightning speed around the world. We expect to have everything at our fingertips in the exact color and the exact style we want, and not just fast but immediately. In just a couple of generations, humankind has accelerated and complicated the distribution of goods at a mind-boggling rate. It’s kind of like our grandparents were playing checkers, able to move their simple round pieces one or two steps forward or diagonally. Then our parents were playing chess, with a whole new array of two-dimensional moves by sophisticated bishops, knights, and rooks, not to mention the queen. And in my generation? It’s like we’re moving Stuff in the three-dimensional space-age version of chess that Spock plays in Star Trek.

To look at this stage in the story of our Stuff we need to go way beyond investigating the modes of freight (via land, water, and air) or the routes Stuff takes around the globe, in and out of factories and containers and warehouses. Distribution includes vast information technology systems (Wal-Mart, for example, supposedly has a computer network that rivals the Pentagon’s, in order to keep tabs on the Stuff it moves). It encompasses the immense multinational retailers whose economies of scale are a key ingredient in making modern distribution systems feasible. And all of this activity happens against the backdrop of economic globalization, international trade policies, and international financial institutions, which set the larger context for how Stuff moves around the planet.

The Skinny on Supply Chains


To understand the path our products have taken to reach us, we need to understand their supply chains, which involve far more than merely getting something from point A (where it is made) to point B (where we buy it) but encompasses all the suppliers, component producers, workers, middlemen, financiers, warehouses, loading docks, ships, trains, trucks—basically every stop along the way from natural resource to retail outlet. In today’s globalized economy, a product’s supply chain can cover multiple continents and scores of businesses, each of which is trying to maximize its profit at that link in the chain. To that end, a whole complex science of supply chain management has evolved that fine-tunes every detail, to make and move things as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Probably no one has more knowledge about supply chains than Professor Dara O’Rourke. During the years I was visiting polluting factories and dumps around the world, O’Rourke was investigating garment and shoe factories—sweatshops—in Honduras, Indonesia, Vietnam, and China. He says that while much has changed since the Age of Exploration, even more radical change happened in just the last decade. O’Rourke boils the revolution of the last ten years down to two ideas: lean manufacturing and lean retail.2

O’Rourke points to Toyota as the prototype for lean manufacturing; the company is famous for reconfiguring work stations so that assembly line workers wouldn’t waste an extra second or use one ounce of extraneous energy in reaching for a part they needed. Toyota kept refining their assembly, shaving off seconds at each step along the way, until the process was airtight. An important breakthrough in their model was empowering any worker along the line to pull the “stop cord” if they detected a problem with the product. Immediately the root cause of the problem (faulty machine, sick worker, bad design) would be investigated and fixed; this kind of troubleshooting is way more cost-effective than waiting until an inspector at the tail end of the assembly line finds flaws in the finished products. This innovation is credited for giving workers a greater sense of responsibility and job satisfaction, although it led to some workers accusing one another of “speeding up the line” and negated many of the pro-worker concessions that the labor movement had won in prior generations’ struggles.3

Over the years, lean manufacturing has gotten uglier. Manufacturers analyzed assembly line production ad nauseam to figure out every possible way to cut any expense that didn’t add value to the end product. When that expense is toxic waste created by a particular technology, then its elimination is a good thing. However, when that expense is safety equipment or bathroom breaks for workers—as is often the case—then reworking factory operations to eliminate it is just plain scary.

And this efficiency-über-alles mentality spread beyond the factories. It was applied to the whole of the supply chain. How? Well, here’s the key revelation: most companies from which we buy Stuff are no longer actually making anything themselves but are simply buying and branding Stuff that other people made. Nike doesn’t make shoes. Apple doesn’t make computers. Gap doesn’t make clothes. These companies buy those shoes, computers, or clothes (and the parts to assemble them) from multiple factories all over the world. In fact, a given factory often makes goods for competing brands that only get differentiated once the label gets slapped on.4

What companies like Nike, Apple, and the Gap do produce are brands, and these brands are what shoppers are buying. Nike founder Phil Knight explained, “For years, we thought of ourselves as a production-oriented company, meaning we put all our emphasis on designing and manufacturing the product. But now we understand that the most important thing we do is market the product.”5 Companies spend billions on brand promotion, often not to advertise details of any actual product, but to maintain the image they want consumers to identify with their brand. As O’Rourke puts it, “When Apple sells you an iPod, it isn’t selling an MP3 player; it is selling a fashion statement.”6

Because the focus is on developing the brand, rather than on making any actual items, the place where Stuff is produced is increasingly irrelevant. In fact, the actual costs of making an item—the materials, the workers, running the factory—and then getting it to the store account for only a fraction of the price charged for that item. Most of the money goes to the brand, which means that the more costs are lowered along the supply chain, the more profit the brand holder makes.7

Because consumers play along and value the brand so highly, the balance of power along the supply chain has shifted from the manufacturers to the brands and retailers (who are sometimes but not always the same entity: at the Nike store, Nike is both brand and retailer, but if the Nike shoe is sold at Nordstrom’s, then they’re separate). It is they who now call the shots along the whole supply chain. They—not the actual manufacturers—decide what gets made, how fast, and for how much. If one manufacturer isn’t able to meet their demands, that’s fine, because there are plenty of other manufacturers ready to make the same product without complaint, often for a lower price.8 “This is the ‘treadmill’ that ensnares developing countries,” explains The Nation’s political correspondent William Greider. “If they attempt to boost wages or allow workers to organize unions or begin to deal with social concerns like health or the environment, the system punishes them. The factories move to some other country where those costs of production do not exist.”9 And David Korten writes in When Corporations Rule the World, “With each passing day it becomes more difficult [for factories] to obtain contracts from one of the mega-retailers without hiring child labor, cheating workers on overtime pay, imposing merciless quotas, and operating unsafe facilities.”10

Removing themselves from the actual production of Stuff also allows the big brand-name companies to claim a level of ignorance about conditions—they can shrug and say, “Hey, they aren’t our factories.” This frees them from the responsibility and challenges and costs inherent in running real factories that employ real workers around the world.

All of these developments led O’Rourke to call this the “mean lean” system.

And that’s only the half of the new leanness. The other half is lean retail. Like lean manufacturing, lean retail also seeks to cut costs at every turn. The ways to do this include all the obvious: lower workers’ salaries in stores and refuse to provide health care benefits; stifle union organizing; and build gigantic stores in the suburbs where real estate is cheap, rather than in city centers where shoppers could access the store via public transportation.

But the biggest way to cut costs associated with retail is to eliminate inventory. In the lean retail model, inventory is the ultimate waste. Traditionally, inventory was costly because it incurred storage expenses and consisted of materials temporarily not on the market. However, with today’s fast-changing fashions and speedy obsolescence, the wastefulness of inventory has taken on new proportions. It’s not just clothes that are in fashion one week and out of fashion the next—it’s now electronic gadgets, toys, even furnishings and cars.11 That means holding Stuff in warehouses for even a few days is a risky act that could waste a lot of money (and product).

Michael Dell once famously said that “inventory has the shelf life of lettuce.”12 His company has been an industry leader in reducing inventory time. Dell computers aren’t made en masse and stored as inventory until they are sold, as in the old distribution model. With complex computer tracking systems, any purchase or order from a customer is communicated back to the factory where the components are waiting. The specific kind, color, and style of computer that’s desired is assembled and shipped; production is now based on individual demand. (This model is often called just-in-time, or JIT, in business lingo.)13

The attempts to reduce superfluous production through more surgical, “small batch” production, “niche marketing,” and associated distribution all sound good, and from a business perspective they are, and even from an environmental perspective they might be, but the system is terrible for the workers. The combination of constantly changing styles plus consumers’ expectation of immediate gratification adds to the already sharp pressure on workers. Under these circumstances, a rising share of the workforce can pretty much forget any hope of safe, steady, sustainable work and instead end up in short-term or part-time contracts, or “casualized,” as political economists term it. This means reduced or completely eliminated benefits, lower wages, and less job security overall.14

The toy industry is among the worst examples. Most toys are sold during the Christmas season. Every retailer wants to stock plenty of whatever the hot toy is, but each year’s hot toy isn’t identified until just before Christmas. Manufacturers can’t keep workers occupied steadily throughout the year preparing for the Christmas season: they have to wait until the hot toy is declared. Workers in toy factories end up working grueling long hours in the weeks before Christmas—and with this kind of time crunch all kinds of corners are cut in terms of factory conditions and workers’ ages. There is built-in motivation for the workers not to complain since they don’t want to be among the one-half to two-thirds of the workforce that gets cut in the offseason.15


Lean doesn’t have to be mean, O’Rourke says. There could be a “green lean” instead of a “mean lean” system. In the same way that Toyota workers were empowered to pull the stop cord on their assembly lines, we could have an entirely transparent system of supply chains in which all the stakeholders are encouraged to identify flaws throughout the system and halt production until that problem has been taken care of. The stakeholders include not just workers but members of communities who live near factories. Under such a model, if they saw stinky brown gunk flowing into their fresh-water source, they could “pull the cord.” The stakeholders also include consumers who, if they found out that a product contained toxic ingredients, could cry foul and give their feedback. And until the problem had been dealt with, the supply chain for that product would come to a screeching halt (which would provide incentives for brand-name companies to respond quickly). “Imagine a system in which firms would be pressured to produce goods not as cheaply as possible, but in ways that optimize labor, social and environmental benefits,” O’Rourke says.16

That vision led him to take a sabbatical from his tenured Berkeley professorship to focus on realizing a long-term dream. For years, as O’Rourke visited factories and analyzed health and safety data on consumer products, he wondered what kind of information, delivered at what point in a purchase decision, could change a consumer’s action. He explored ways to deliver this information to people in an easily accessible way, preferably at the point of purchase. Now O’Rourke has created the GoodGuide, a free online searchable database that allows you to get current data on the environmental, social, and health impacts of more than 75,000 (and growing) everyday products and their parent companies.17 In late 2009, GoodGuide launched its iPhone application that allows shoppers to simply point their phone camera at a product’s bar code and immediately receive environmental and health data on the product, far beyond what any label will reveal. It may look like just another green shopping site, but it’s not. O’Rourke’s goal is “not to help consumers buy less toxic shampoo (although that would be good), but to send market signals up the supply chain to the people making the decisions about what is in these products and how they are made.”18 The GoodGuide has regularly updated information on the companies’ labor practices, corporate policies, energy use, climate impact, pollution track record, and even supply chain policies. It identifies ingredients in products and suggests less toxic or higher-scoring alternative products. Most important, it allows individuals to send messages to the companies behind the products.

When I first got onto the GoodGuide site, I looked up Pantene Pro-V hair conditioner, which I used for years until I found out about the crummy chemicals inside it. On GoodGuide, I read about other reasons not to love the parent company (Procter & Gamble), to whom I then sent a message: “Why does my hair conditioner have toxic chemicals? Why does your company have such a lousy air pollution score? I am not buying this anymore!” One message is easy to ignore, but not thousands. O’Rourke says that “send a message to the manufacturer” is the second-most-clicked button on GoodGuide and that a handful of companies have already switched away from toxic ingredients since receiving overwhelming consumer responses.19

O’Rourke’s project provides all of us massively increased access to information about the supply chains of the products we use, so we can make better choices—better choices for our families, the workers making this Stuff, and the global environment. Some people call this “voting with our dollar.”

While I am a big fan of GoodGuide and recommend we all make a habit of scouring its pages, I also want to add that what’s really needed is to vote with our votes, not just our consumer dollars. Informing and convincing every parent on the planet to use GoodGuide to learn how to avoid toxic chemicals in children’s shampoo is an impossible task, but uniting with a group of parents to lobby to change the laws that allow toxic chemicals in children’s shampoos is possible. That is why I see GoodGuide, and other efforts at promoting supply chain transparency, as great transitional tools. They educate. They inspire. They encourage healthy and fair products and companies over nasty ones. They allow us to send messages up the supply chain to decisions makers to, I hope, inspire change for the better. But ultimately, we must remember—as Allegheny College political science professor Michael Maniates says—the choices available to us as consumers are limited and predetermined by forces outside the shopping market. Those forces can best be changed through social and political activism.20

Trucks and Container Ships and Planes, Oh My!

Ships, trucks, roads, planes, and trains are needed to move Stuff along this globalized supply chain. The transportation infrastructure consumes enormous quantities of fossil fuels and spews out waste, but these are some of the most hidden of externalized costs in consumer goods, and most people are completely unaware of them. Even those shoppers who are aware of the source of the materials in products, the ones who know to ask whether diamonds fueled violence in Africa or whether the cotton fields in Turkey used pesticides, rarely know what to ask about how goods are transported.


For starters, most Stuff imported from Asia comes across the ocean in containers loaded on gigantic barges. Water carries 99 percent of American overseas trade by weight.21 Annual water freight was about 1.5 billion tons in 2004, worth nearly $1 trillion, and container traffic is expected to triple in the next twenty years, with most of that coming from China, India, and other places in Asia.22 The global shipping business consumes more than 140 million tons of fuel per year and contributed 30 percent of developed countries’ CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in 2005 (and 23 percent of the world’s emissions, including developing nations).23

“Ship Sulfur Emissions Found to Strongly Impact Worldwide Ocean and Coastal Pollution: Trade-carrying cargo ships powered by diesel engines are among the world’s highest polluting combustion sources per ton of fuel...”24 “Pollution from Marine Vessels Linked to Heart and Lung Disease: Marine shipping causes approximately 60,000 premature cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths around the world each year...”25 “Commercial ships emit almost half as much particulate pollutants into the air globally as the total amount released by the world’s cars...”26 “Large Cargo Ships Emit Double Amount of Soot Previously Estimated...”27 These are just a few of the headlines based on research by scientists at Carnegie Mellon and other prestigious institutions related to the damage that cargo ships cause.

I’ve boarded these ships a couple of times in New York and Manila, when I worked for Greenpeace tracking hazardous-waste cargo. The word “ship” doesn’t remotely convey the reality of these monsters. Think gigantic apartment building lying on its side. I remember the first time I boarded one. Our team was wearing hard hats and official-looking black jackets that said “Toxic Trade Patrol,” with a pair of handcuffs dangling from our belts just in case we had to lock ourselves to an anchor chain to prevent the ship from setting off with hazardous cargo. When we insisted there was toxic waste hidden aboard the enormous vessel, the crew led us to the captain. We had to take an elevator to the eleventh floor to meet him.

Ships were huge then and they’re actually getting bigger now. In order to accommodate ever-growing heaps of Stuff crossing the ocean, a whole new class of container ship has been developed: the jumbo vessel. Many of these are longer than three football fields and big enough to contain thousands of containers, each of which could hold all the contents of a three-bedroom house.28 One little hitch is that most of the ports around the world can’t actually accommodate these supersize ships, meaning that harbors will have to be dredged and enlarged. Plans have already been approved to expand the Panama Canal to allow these vessels to move through it.29

It’s not just our hemisphere that is expanding its Stuff-distribution infrastructure. Between 2005 and 2010, China is planning to spend $70 billion annually for roads, bridges, and tunnels; $18 billion per year for railways; and $6.4 billion per year for ports.30 Three of the four highest-volume container ports in the world are in China already; Shanghai is at the top of the list, moving more than 350 million tons in 2007.31Forty-three new airports were built there between 2001 and 2005, twenty-three of them in industry-heavy parts of western China.32 A primary goal of this new infrastructure is to lubricate the distribution of Stuff out of the country to international markets.


Once Stuff arrives in the United States, it generally moves around in trucks. In 2005, 77 percent of the total weight of freight moved within the United States was carried on trucks that racked up more than 160 billion miles, a number that, at least prior to the economic crisis, was expected to double in the next thirty years.33 Particularly around highway interchanges, in crowded sections of highways, and while waiting in line to enter or leave ports, those trucks often get caught in traffic and sit there, idling, for hours on end. In fact, a recent study found that American freight trucks spent 243 million hours per year stuck in congestion.34 Delays like these cost the shippers between $25 and $200 per hour.35 But what about the costs to air quality and the climate, not to mention the public health impacts on asthma rates and cancer? The Air Resources Board in California estimated the costs to public health (including treatment of asthma and lung diseases) from freight trucks at $20 billion annually36; in New Jersey, environmental groups say it’s $5 billion per year.37 Old brakes and tires and frequent overloading increase the likelihood that these vehicles will have accidents, creating further costs in highway patrol and emergency services, traffic delays, etc.

Finally, there’s air freight: this is the royal treatment in terms of consumer goods and is reserved for high-value and/or time-sensitive cargo, like designer clothes and some electronics. Although it doesn’t carry much of the total weight, 35 percent of the value of goods traded internationally travels by air, according to Giovanni Bisignani, the CEO of the International Air Transport Association.38 And that’s not all that’s disproportionate about air freight. A study in Europe showed that while planes carried just 3 percent of all European cargo’s weight, they contributed a whopping 80 percent of the total CO2 emissions from freight.39


With the recent spikes in oil prices and looming regulations and/or taxes on CO2, some businesses and governments have already begun to address the energy use and greenhouse gas production from shipping. The U.S. EPA operates a program called SmartWay Transport, through which it works with shippers to reduce emissions. That means combining more sustainable railroad transport with trucking, for example; ensuring that trucks are loaded to full capacity and not wasting any space; improving truck aerodynamics by making sure tarps aren’t flapping around and that loads are packed low and as streamlined as possible; monitoring and maintaining the air pressure of truck tires and replacing them with wider tires; training drivers in techniques like coasting when possible or limiting idling; and mandating slower speeds.40

Some companies that specialize in freight have taken steps to green themselves. United Parcel Service, or UPS, has launched trucks with hydraulic hybrid technology that are supposed to “increase fuel efficiency by 60-70% in urban use and lowers greenhouse gas emissions by 40%, compared to UPS’s conventional diesel delivery trucks.”41 Not to be outdone, FedEx has peppered its fleet with hybrid electric vehicles that decrease particulate emissions by 96 percent and go 57 percent farther on a gallon of fuel than a conventional FedEx truck, reducing fuel costs by more than one-third.42 DHL has launched its own version of carbon offsets, offering customers the ability to tack on a 3 percent extra fee that DHL promises to invest in “green projects like vehicle technology, solar panels and reforestation.”43

Nice as those efforts sound, they don’t get to the crux of the problem, which is this set of massive global supply chains (as long as ten thousand miles, according to some experts44), the consumer demand for more cheap Stuff delivered faster and faster, and the economic rules governing the whole show, which make it more profitable to make Stuff on the other side of the planet than close to home.

With all of the above in mind, let’s look at the retail distribution of the same three items we zeroed in on last chapter. Although these aren’t the retailers I bought my Stuff from, for the sake of discussion let’s say the white T-shirt was sold by the low-end Swedish fashion giant H&M, that the book was bought via Amazon.com, and the computer was purchased at Wal-Mart (although it wasn’t, I promise). Studying these three megavendors will shed some light on the role of retailers in global distribution.


In addition to little white T-shirts, the Swedish clothing giant H&M sells more than 500 million items every year, from more than 1,700 stores.45 It’s the world’s third-largest clothing retailer, after Gap Inc. and Spain’s Inditex group, netting more than $440 million even in the relatively sluggish year of 2008.46 H&M is best known for its speed and reaction time—its “fast fashion.” Its clothes can be designed, produced, and distributed (from the drawing board to the hanger) in just twenty days.47 They are not made to last. Trendiness, combined with ridiculously low prices, is the secret to H&M’s success.

Here’s lean manufacturing in play: like so many other well-known brand retailers, H&M contracts with the cheapest suppliers available, mostly in Asia and Eastern Europe, where it leverages its size to push wages ever lower and timelines ever shorter. It uses lots of suppliers simultaneously, which reduces the risk should one factory fall behind schedule and makes it easy to break off relations with one in favor of another without disturbing the flow of product. It’s constantly scouting for factories that undercut existing suppliers, prepared to jump without any sense of loyalty to the previous relationship.48 Trade protection laws, tariffs, and quotas also affect which suppliers and manufacturing locations H&M chooses. H&M’s speed and trendiness, meanwhile, has to do with its distribution machine. Many retailers of clothing (and increasingly also electronics, toys, and other items) reduce time in the supply chain by importing what are known as “greige goods.” These are partially prepped and assembled pieces produced overseas in the lowest-wage factories (think undyed fabric roughly precut for sleeves or torsos but not yet sewn together). Greige goods are shipped to factories close to the retail stores to be finalized, which could mean being given the neckline or sleeve length or specific color that consumers are snapping up that week.49

In the United States, greige goods are usually brought by ship from Asia and then trucked from ports to assembly and distribution centers, and from there to stores. To keep the whole supply chain running, an enormous information technology brain and nervous system keeps track of the various suppliers, inventories, orders, means and routes of transport, weather, traffic, labor available for shipping and handling, etc. This IT system is under constant refinement, which, although an expensive endeavor, pays off by making distribution swifter every day.50 Flip back to the section on the impacts of producing my one laptop computer to get an inkling of what the true costs of an IT system of this magnitude must be.

When consumer interest points to a certain trendy color or cut, H&M responds nearly instantaneously and floods their stores to meet the demand (that’s the lean retail piece). Dara O’Rourke, who tracks this so closely that he calls himself a “supply chain geek,” told me that trendy clothing stores used to have five distinct fashion seasons: each actual season (spring, winter, summer, fall), plus vacation. Now some retailers offer up to twenty-six distinct fashion “seasons,” which means that each “season” is just two weeks.51

Every H&M store is restocked daily, while high-volume stores can receive as many as three truckloads a day.52 It is a constant mad rush getting those clothes in the back door and out the front door, with each sale automatically sending data back to the factories as to what’s hot. Even reading about the speed of their business makes me feel anxious; it’s like retailers on crack. I mean, really, what is all the rush about? Don’t we get more joy out of things like reading a great book or enjoying a meal with friends than from spending our money on this week’s hottest clothes? Does wearing last month’s or (gasp) last year’s T-shirt really make such a difference? H&M and many consumers clearly believe it does.

H&M is an extreme example of the hypervelocity of today’s distribution systems. As fast-fashion consumers get addicted to the ever-changing offerings that blare at them from TV and movies, store windows and ads, H&M is only to happy to keep supplying the Stuff. We’ll see many of the same economic drivers with other products and retailers.


When Internet shopping was just beginning, a lot of people thought this development would be good for the environment and amazing for small, independent businesses. After all, suddenly you could open a business without needing a physical storefront—you didn’t even need inventory, because things could be produced when an e-mail came in from a customer, assuming you could fulfill the order in a reasonable amount of time. And of course that’s all true. But overwhelmingly online retail has wound up supporting the same huge, insensitive companies that dominate in the brick-and-mortar world. In spite of the new potential for smaller companies to reach prospective consumers directly, about one-third of the $70 billion that Americans spent online in 2003 (that number had already topped $100 billion by 200653) went to just the top twenty Web retailers, with twelve of those being major chains.54

Amazon.com is the undisputed emperor of this realm, priding itself on offering the world’s biggest selection of items, at prices below, or at least competitive with, what they cost elsewhere. To broaden inventory even further, it partners with other vendors (even large ones like Target) and provides them with warehousing and distribution. Technology is Amazon’s strongest suit and greatest investment (dwarfing H&M’s logistics system by umpteen degrees). Not only for the customer interface—the programs that create a personalized shopping experience and recommend products to users (as founder and CEO Jeff Bezos says, with so many items to choose from, they had to create ways to not only “enable customers to find products, but also enable products to find customers”55)—but also for the logistics of “fulfillment,” or processing an order and getting it to a customer. Imagine tracking a couple of million different products, as opposed to a couple of thousand. Amazon had to create its own “inventory optimization” software that Bezos compares to airline routing: complex algorithms create an optimal “pick path” through multi-million-square-foot warehouses so machines can find and fetch the specific items on order.56 It’s this enormous selection and the technological whiz-bang behind the personalized experience that the Amazon brand is all about.

For most people, it takes a will of steel to resist Amazon and instead choose a local bookstore, which charges the price that’s actually on the cover of the book and may well have to special-order a book because of its limited on-site inventory. Of course, as a result, the ranks of local, independently owned bookstores have been entirely decimated, which is a terrible loss.

However, there’s still lively, ongoing debate among environmentalists about whether online shopping has a lighter footprint than traditional retail. Retail stores consume resources in their building, lighting, cooling, heating, etc., and consumers usually have to climb into their cars to reach them. However, e-commerce uses more packaging and is more likely to rely on air freight for at least part of the product’s journey. An in-depth study done specifically on book sales compared the two forms of distribution. In the traditional model, books are trucked from the printer to a national warehouse, then to a regional warehouse, and from there to the retail outlets. The customer travels to the store to buy the book and brings it home. In the online model, the book is trucked from the printer to a central warehouse. After the customer orders it, it’s packaged, flown to a regional hub, and trucked to the customer’s door.

The study raises an interesting point in terms of unsold books (an average of 25 to 55 percent of what gets printed, depending on the genre57), which are usually either trashed, recycled, or sold to a discount bookstore—all of which at least means further transport, if not also waste. Because in the online model the central warehouse is a single inventory point, there are fewer unsold books, meaning less wasted paper and less transport. In the end, using average fuel consumption rates for the planes, trucks, and cars, average packaging for an average-sized book, and the average rate of books that go unsold, the study found that online shopping was more efficient and sustainable in terms of energy used, conventional air pollutants generated, waste generated, and greenhouse gas emissions.58 This efficiency might even increase as print-on-demand technology is more widely available—where a book with a small readership would not even be printed until a reader puts in an order, using the printing press closest to the consumer. Some industry observers predict that by 2010, half of the books sold around the world will be printed on demand at or near the place of sale.59

However, as the online environmental magazine TreeHugger points out, details matter when evaluating today’s online and in-person shopping options. If you take public transit, bike, or walk to your local bookstore, it’s definitely a better choice than online shopping. They recommend shopping online only if “you live in the suburbs, or are surrounded by Mega-Marts, have to drive more than six or eight miles each way to go shopping, are scrupulous about bundling online orders, and choose ground shipping rather than overnight air.”60

Then there’s the whole issue of the digitization of books and devices like Amazon’s Kindle. While there’s no question that paperless books will slow the destruction of forests, this technological development means yet another electronic gadget on the market. And as we’ve seen with every other kind of electronics out there—be it cell phones, computers, cameras, what have you—that will likely mean a new version every few years, with the attendant mining of minerals, toxics in and toxics out during production, and ever higher mountains of e-waste.

Myself, I’m a fan of the following model: Local bookstores that I can walk or ride my bike to, with a friendly face behind the counter who can personally recommend titles to me. Once I’m finished with a book, I lend it to everyone I know, if I can recommend it; otherwise I Freecycle it (Freecycle is a 7-million-strong online network of people who post Stuff—and get Stuff—for free, in order to reduce waste61) so it finds a second life with someone else. My ten-year-old daughter churns through books very quickly, so every so often, we invite her friends over for a “book swap brunch” to empty out our overflowing shelves, get some new ones for free, and keep building community. The leftovers from the brunch (the books, not the waffles) get donated to local schools. And then there are libraries—in every place I’ve lived, the library has been one of my favorite places to find books, as well as to meet neighbors, attend public seminars, weigh in on community issues, and sometimes even hear live music. Amazon may be easy and fast and impressive in its scale, but it just doesn’t provide those quality-of-life extras.


Almost 20 percent of the consumer electronics purchased in the United States is sold by Wal-Mart,62 so it’s not unreasonable to imagine that the laptop I described in the last chapter was distributed through the Godzilla of retail.

If H&M’s special powers are speed and trendiness (in addition to rockbottom prices), and Amazon’s is unlimited choice (and lower than cover prices), Wal-Mart’s is a combination of reach, breadth, and low prices. Wal-Mart is truly vast—in comparison, pretty much every other retailer in the world is a tiny pipsqueak. In fact, you could lump together Gap Inc., Target, Sears, Costco, JCPenney, Best Buy, Staples, Toys “R” Us, Nordstrom, Blockbuster, and Barnes & Noble, and all of them combined don’t add up to the scope of Wal-Mart,63 with its revenues of $401 billion in 2008.64 It’s one of the top economies in the world, bigger than the GDP of countries like Austria, Chile, and Israel and one of China’s top-ten trading partners, ahead of the United Kingdom or Germany.65

There are more than eight thousand Wal-Mart stores worldwide, over four thousand of them in the United States, each of which averages nearly three football fields in size.66 Stacy Mitchell, author of Big-Box Swindle, comments that “with 600 million square feet of floor space in the United States, Wal-Mart could fit every man, woman, and child in the country inside its stores.”67 The stores’ ubiquity in the United States means that virtually no one is ever farther than sixty miles from the nearest one, and the chain is constantly expanding, by about 50 million square feet every year.68


As for their breadth, what can’t you get at Wal-Mart? It’s now the number-one seller of groceries, clothing, home furnishings, toys, and music in the United States.69 Americans are buying many of their DVDs, cameras, home appliances, and common household items like toothpaste, shampoo, and diapers there too. It sells gas. It’s even opened health clinics. And it has been trying to overturn laws that keep it from offering banking services.70 Remember the corporation in the film WALL-E that basically owned the planet, providing every good and service on, and then beyond, earth? It’s really not that far-fetched; Wal-Mart seems to be headed in that very direction.

In contrast to Amazon, however, Wal-Mart offers at most only a couple of varieties of any given product. About 40 percent of products sold are its own private label brands, meaning they’re produced exclusively for Wal-Mart.71 Yet, even without the variety available at Amazon, the “always low prices, always” promised in these huge one-stop-shopping emporia are enough to keep people coming back again and again.

The funny thing about those “always low prices” is that they’re actually not always so low. Sam Walton’s whole shtick, starting with his very first store in Arkansas in 1962, was to stack popular items like shampoo and toothpaste at the front of the store, marked with ostentatious price tags that were well below cost. These are known as “loss leaders”: they lured customers into the store and away from competing vendors. Once inside, people would usually buy additional products that were priced to make a profit.72 A 2005 Consumer Reports analysis showed that big retailers like Wal-Mart rely on tricky pricing structures that make customers think their prices are lower, but that’s not always the case.73 Also, Wal-Mart often opens a new store in a new market with steep discounts to snuff out the competition and then raises its prices when there’s no place else to shop.74 That practice has earned Wal-Mart massive criticism from activists across the country, who blame the retail giant for undermining diverse local economies and communities.

And regardless what the price tag says, the true cost of every single product at Wal-Mart is actually much, much higher. The real costs start with raw materials that are often pillaged from poor countries or subsidized by the government and which leave behind a trail of tragic consequences for the earth’s water, animals, air, forests, and people. The costs continue with hot, poorly ventilated factories in Asia, where thousands of workers slave away for less than five dollars per day, often exposed to toxic chemicals without adequate protection or health care, forced to work unpaid overtime, with little hope of rising out of their dismal situations. And the costs culminate in the stores, where many employees earn so little that they fall underneath the federal poverty line. According to WakeUpWalmart.com, a U.S. campaign working to make the megastore improve its operations, the average full-time associate (as Wal-Mart workers are called) earned $10.84 an hour in 2008. The annual salary of $19,165 (for a thirty-four-hour work week) is $2,000 below the U.S. federal poverty line. By contrast, in 2007 Wal-Mart’s CEO, Lee Scott, earned $29.7 million, or 1,550 times the annual income of an average full-time Wal-Mart associate.75

Watchdog groups report that stores are regularly understaffed to save the corporation even more money, and managers have been caught secretly deleting hours, especially overtime, from time cards.76Employees are paid so little that most can’t afford the company health care program, resulting in about half of Wal-Mart’s 1.4 million U.S. employees not being covered by the plan.77 Often workers are outright encouraged by Wal-Mart management to get federal assistance like Medicaid, food stamps, and subsidized housing. In fact, according to the Washington, D.C., based organization Good Jobs First, in the twenty-one out of twenty-three states for which data is available, Wal-Mart forces more employees to rely on taxpayer-funded health care than any other employer.78

So instead of Wal-Mart providing many employees with health care coverage, the American taxpayer does. Nor does taxpayer support of the company end there. We unwitting taxpayers have heavily subsidized Wal-Mart’s success. Good Jobs First maintains a project called Wal-Mart Subsidy Watch that tracks and exposes how U.S. taxpayer money supports Wal-Mart’s operations, like the “more than $1.2 billion in tax breaks, free land, infrastructure assistance, low-cost financing and outright grants from state and local governments around the country.”79

And just try to put a dollar value on the social fabric of a community, which Wal-Mart megastores have repeatedly undermined. What’s the value of pedestrian-friendly town centers and neighborhoods, bustling with a diverse and locally-based retail mix, with storekeepers who know our names leaning over their counters to ask our kids how school is going or willing to let us pay tomorrow when we accidentally left our wallet at home? Priceless.

Not to mention the wetlands, farmland, and forests which are often cleared for the twelve-acre plots that an average big-box retailer plus its mandatory parking lot takes up.80 Wal-Mart also operates over 100 distribution centers in the United States, vast warehouses churning away 24/7, each with five miles of conveyor belts that pump nine thousand different tracks of Stuff into waiting trailers.81 Each of these distribution centers takes up 400,000 to 1 million square feet of space.82 To put that in perspective, 1 million square feet is about twenty football fields. Across the country, Wal-Mart has eviscerated thousands of small towns and natural landscapes; those losses are part of the true cost of the “always low prices” too.

And the costs don’t end there. What comes between the raw materials, factories, distribution centers, and stores? Those trucks, container barges, and airplanes I mentioned earlier. Not surprisingly, no company has more trucks on America’s roads than Wal-Mart, with more than eight thousand drivers racking up more than 850 million miles per year.83 Wal-Mart, like most major retailers, frequently deals with trucking brokers who sell their services as independent contractors. This means Wal-Mart doesn’t have to buy or maintain the trucks, pay for fuel, or provide benefits for these contracted drivers—no health insurance, unemployment insurance, workers’ comp, Social Security, pension plans, vacations, or sick days. This also means they’re not required to ensure compliance with federal OSHA (Occupational, Safety and Health Administration) regulations for drivers.84 A study in New Jersey found that 75 percent of truckers (statewide, not Wal-Mart’s alone) were independent contractors, earning just $28,000 per year on average, with zero employer-paid benefits.85 Like Wal-Mart’s store employees, these drivers have to rely on public health care programs, so taxpayers are essentially also subsidizing Wal-Mart’s and other retailers’ transport systems.

Given all of this, it’s hard to take Wal-Mart seriously when it broadcasts its commitment to sustainability. Yes, Wal-Mart has made some real environmental improvements in its operations. Sources that are closer to the company than I am swear there’s a sincere environmental awareness growing among many within the company leadership. Wal-Mart has switched its corporate fleet of cars to hybrids, made more of its packaging biodegradable and recyclable, installed solar panels on some stores, and even committed to eliminate PVC shower curtains and kids toys containing the toxic chemical phthalates.86 The question is whether, in the big picture, these steps even matter. Wal-Mart still has a major problem with scale. It is moving so much non-durable toxic-laden Stuff so fast and so far that all the hybrid cars and solar panels in the world couldn’t negate its enormous footprint.

I mean really: consider Wal-Mart’s boasting that “by reducing the packaging on one of our patio sets we were able to use four hundred fewer shipping containers to deliver them.”87 How many shipping containers must be required to ship the patio furniture around the world if there was an excess of four hundred containers just from tightening up some of the packaging? There’s something wrong with a distribution system that constantly ships everything from T-shirts to patio furniture halfway around the world. In the era of increasing resource scarcity and climate change, this model just doesn’t make sense.

Superstores: Superbad

Wal-Mart is the epitome of the larger phenomenon of the rise of big-box stores. Although maybe you can hardly remember—and certainly kids today can’t imagine—a time when stores like Target, Costco, and Wal-Mart didn’t exist at every turn, they are a relatively new phenomenon that really only took off in the 1980s. Chain stores like Woolworth’s started in the late nineteenth century, followed by stores like Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. By 1929 chains like these controlled 22 percent of the retail market. But by the mid-1950s they’d hardly grown, to less than 24 percent. That was partially because many people boycotted them, especially in the wake of the stock market collapse, believing (correctly) that chains drove down wages and undermined democracy by concentrating power in the hands of a few.88

But then in the 1950s came the explosion of suburban homes and with them the development of suburban shopping malls. Taxpayers paid hundreds of billions of dollars for the interstate highways that made this new style of life possible, while banks favored new suburban developments over established neighborhoods in their lending practices. Then, in 1954, Congress changed the tax code to make it more profitable for developers to create shopping malls, basically making a tax shelter out of shopping mall construction.89 As Stacy Mitchell writes in Big-Box Swindle, 6 million square feet of shopping centers were constructed in 1953; just three years later that figure had increased by 500 percent; and over the next twenty years, eighteen thousand shopping centers were built across the United States.90 And the owners of these shopping centers often preferred to make chain stores their tenants (considered a better bet for a landlord), some actually going so far as to bar independently owned stores.91

Today, cashing in on local municipalities’ eagerness to have one in their community, big-box stores receive local and state subsidies and tax breaks. Local municipalities hope that having a local big-box store will increase economic growth, provide new jobs, and boost tax revenues, but unfortunately that isn’t always borne out. Instead, big-boxes siphon money out of the local economy so those lucky Walton family members (and other chains’ shareholders) can acquire another private jet for their extensive fleet and build a new wing on their nuclear-disaster-ready underground fortress (it’s true).92 Big-box payroll typically accounts for less than ten cents of every dollar spent at a given store,93 and, in a domino effect, their low wages (16 percent less for Wal-Mart workers than the average retail worker in 2008, for example94) help suppress the wages of retail workers everywhere. Meanwhile, big-box chains have massive budgets and even specially trained response teams to counter any attempts of workers to unionize and improve their situations. According to WakeUpWalmart.com, the company has even created “A Manager’s Toolbox to Remaining Union Free.” The toolbox lists warning signs of potential organizing activities such as “frequent meetings at associates’ homes” and “associates who are never seen together start talking or associating with each other.”95

Because of their size, big-box stores and other chains are able to hold prices artificially low for as long as it takes to drive local independently owned enterprises out of business, even if this takes years. Other local economic activity is also hampered: for example, rather than hiring local accountants or graphic designers and placing ads in local newspapers as locally owned smaller stores do, the big-box headquarters handles it. Commercial real estate prices have been shown to drop the minute there’s a plan for a new big-box in town, because people foresee hardships for existing businesses and difficulty finding new investors for the emptied-out storefronts.96

Obviously, because so much of their manufacturing-related work has been outsourced overseas to lower-wage factories in regions with weaker environmental regulations and enforcement, the big-boxes have effectively eliminated thousands if not millions of jobs in American manufacturing. That was the “giant sucking sound” that U.S. 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot claimed NAFTA would create as scores of jobs disappeared from the U.S. economy and relocated to Mexico.97 (More recently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman opined that “the Mexicans... are hearing ‘the giant sucking sound’ in stereo these days—from China in one ear and India in the other.”98)

All of this has fundamentally changed the landscape of this country. I mean that physically, with the total amount of retail space doubling between 1990 and 2005, from 19 to 38 square feet per person, and for every new square foot of store space, another 3 to 4 square feet paved for cars.99 But I also mean it socioeconomically: this country’s middle class, traditionally sustained by manufacturing jobs and small business ownership, has lost one opportunity after another while the rich accumulate unprecedented profits. So even with the nation’s overall economic growth, the gap between rich and poor keeps widening. CEO pay versus worker pay is just one indicator of this: In the 1970s, for example, the head of a large corporation earned 30 times as much as the average worker. By 1997, CEOs earned 116 times as much as the average worker. And by 2007, CEOs were earning nearly 300 times as much as the average worker.100

And in a cruel turn of a self-perpetuating cycle, as ordinary people have less income, the bargains promised by big-box stores are even more inviting, and so consumers support the very entity that is sucking the life out of their local economy and communities.


There’s some hope, though. Local communities have gotten hip to the deception and destruction of big-box development and have been organizing to fight new big-box stores in favor of local businesses, which provide more secure jobs and keep more of the money circulating in the local economy. The highly publicized case of Inglewood, California, going up against Wal-Mart itself was one such victory. In 2003, Wal-Mart planned to build a superstore covering an area the size of seventeen football fields in the town of Inglewood in Los Angeles County. After the city council effectively blocked Wal-Mart’s proposal, the company decided to bypass them and take the issue directly to the voters. To win folks over, Wal-Mart spent $1 million—a huge amount for a city with a population just over 110,000—and even went as far as handing out free meals to city residents. Yet to Wal-Mart’s surprise, in April 2004 Inglewood voters overwhelmingly rejected Wal-Mart’s plan, preventing the store from being built.101 While there were those who had looked forward to better access to bargain shopping, the community as a whole prioritized environmental, economic, and community well-being.

The victories in Inglewood and other communities remind me of one of the seminal events in establishing our independence as a country—the Boston Tea Party. To support local enterprise in the colonies, our plucky foremothers and forefathers boycotted tea from the East India Company, possibly the world’s most powerful transnational corporation at the time. Then they boycotted all British goods (even though it meant a little bit of hardship and the loss of access to some Stuff they were used to) as a step toward independence.

In fact, there are those who compare today’s huge multinational corporations to colonizers. Just like colonial powers, the corporation’s central aim is not to foster local economic development, happiness, and prosperity but to enrich itself. In Africa, for example, colonizers built the railroads not so they would connect local African towns with one another, but as tracks that ran in single lines from the interior to the ports on the coast, so that resources and slaves could be extracted as efficiently as possible. And that’s exactly what the major chains, with the help of international trade policies, have done: they’ve built tracks for the wealth of local communities (whether that wealth comes from natural resources in Africa, toxic goods produced by exploited workers in China, or the sweat of underpaid retail employees in America) to flow in one direction—into their pockets.

The Rule Makers

None of what I’ve described thus far happened in a vacuum. It has all been made possible by the massive development of information technology over the last twenty-five years: the evolution of computers, semiconductors, fiber optics, satellites, etc., which have laid the foundation for the elaborate management systems that have enabled companies to find the cheapest, fastest path to making and distributing products. Then there’s the physical infrastructure of power plants, factories, ports, and roads—especially in rapidly developing countries like China and India.

A final huge piece of this puzzle involves the structure of the global economy, a group of global regulatory institutions, and a set of agreements that have been worked out between countries to promote trade and “growth.” Uncovering the pervasive role of trade agreements and international financial institutions, or IFIs, is crucial. There is no way to comprehend the Story of Stuff without them, because they establish the rules by which not only the global distribution system but the whole of the take-make-waste economic model operates.

To understand how these IFIs came to be, we have to delve briefly into history, especially the financial crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression that lasted through the 1930s and led up to World War II. For decades up to that point, governments had relied on the supposedly free market to take care of business with minimal government involvement. Even during our so-called Progressive Era between the 1890s and 1920s, when early protections like antitrust legislation and food-safety regulations were adopted, big corporate interests, not government, were dominant.102

Then, in response to the Great Depression, national governments worldwide scrambled to protect their own workers and businesses by imposing tariffs on foreign Stuff, which led to a collapse in international trade and worsened unemployment and poverty for people across the globe. Even large increases in government spending for public works didn’t solve the problem. In this international atmosphere of extreme political and economic stress, Adolf Hitler launched World War II, which got the U.S. out of the Depression but trashed the industrial base of Europe and much of Asia. As the war drew to a close in 1944, the Allied powers, led by the United States, decided they needed a way to rearrange global economic relations around the new de facto world currency, the U.S. dollar, while also facilitating investment in the economies freshly destroyed by the war.103

And so two superinfluential international agencies were born at a hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. The “Bretton Woods Institutions”—the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (the nickname of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development)—were later joined by the World Trade Organization, or WTO (which evolved from the 1948 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT). The IMF was created to deal with financial imbalances between countries: its primary role was to keep the world’s currencies stable and exchangeable in order to support international trade and to provide emergency loans to any country whose economy was in such bad shape that it couldn’t participate in global trade. The World Bank was created specifically to loan money to the governments of countries devastated by World War II so they could rebuild their economies and rejoin global trade. Soon, the World Bank shifted its focus to countries and European colonies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The GATT was a complicated treaty set up to reduce national barriers to trade; in 1995 it was replaced by the international organization known as the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has even broader-reaching powers. Note that these are only the three largest of these organizations; there are dozens of additional multilateral banks, government agencies, and trade agreements that replicate the IMF/World Bank/WTO model in regional or sector-specific forms.104

Although some of the original intentions behind these institutions may have been good, their evolution over the past half century has had disastrous results for the great majority of people on the planet, and for the planet itself. Dominated by the biggest players (especially the United States), the IMF, World Bank, and WTO have created and perpetuated huge imbalances in global wealth while trashing the natural environment and destroying communities all the way from Argentina to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between.

While most of us in the United States have few occasions to confirm this harsh truth regarding the negative impacts of IFIs, ordinary folks all over the developing world have extensive hands-on knowledge: these institutions influence their ability to do everything from make a living as farmers, get much-needed medicine, send their kids to school, or escape the grips of poverty.

In Singrauli, India, I met villagers who had been kicked off their land (“involuntary resettlement,” in World Bank speak) in order to make room for a World Bank-funded coal-fired power plant complex. I was struck by the constant background shade of grey caused by the coal ash from the facility. A generation ago, Singrauli was richly forested, with wildlife and clean water and small subsistence farming; today, the coal mining and burning and ash has devastated the air, water, and landscape so intensely that some Indian journalists have dubbed it “the lower circles of Dante’s Inferno.”105 The compensation given to the displaced families was nowhere near enough to make up for their increased distance to fresh water, the loss of farmland, and the destruction of the social fabric due to the relocation.

The problem is not just the actual projects, like highways to nowhere, greenhouse-gas-spewing coal plants, or dioxin-emitting incinerators, but the broader development model that is forced on borrowing countries as well. While the IMF, for example, does loan money to countries in need, these loans too often come with ruthless strings attached, requiring borrowing countries to further deplete their natural resources in order to ramp up exports and to divert funds from public health, education, and other social needs to ensure loan repayment. In other words, they have to lower their already low standard of living in order to meet international debt payments. And if a country refuses these conditions, it finds itself blacklisted from other international lenders, unable to access desperately needed funds.

The World Bank and IMF work hand in hand. Once the IMF requires borrowing countries to export more natural resources, the World Bank is happy to provide the technical expertise and loans needed to extract those resources, using technologies like those described in chapter 1 on extraction. Generally charging interest rates higher than those of local lenders, the World Bank finances roads, ports, power plants, factories, megadumps, incinerators, and dams all over the world. Its projects have been plagued with controversy, from the forced—sometimes violent—displacement of local residents to large-scale destruction of forests, aquifers, and entire ecosystems, as well as systemic corruption. The World Bank’s stated mission is to “to help developing countries and their people... alleviate poverty.”106 A noble goal, sure enough, but the real issue is how the World Bank goes about achieving it. What values and beliefs guide the strategy to meet these goals? For the World Bank, it is pretty clear. The World Bank—like the other IFIs—believes that more economic growth, more globalization, more unhindered capital flow, and more natural resource exploitation will reduce poverty.

In fact, there’s a ton of empirical evidence that proves otherwise. In spite of (actually, partly because of) all these required economic “reforms,” loans, and “development” projects targeting developing countries, there’s still a massive net flow of wealth out of them into the richest countries. This is partly because each time the World Bank or IMF loans a developing country money, some of that money goes right back to the lender countries via the purchase of technologies or international consultants from the lending countries. Then there are interest payments, often at crippling rates, and the payment of the loan principal, which becomes more onerous when developing countries’ currencies decline in value (which happens most of the time). Zambia’s 2004 loan repayments to the IMF alone, for example, amounted to $25 million, more than the education budget for the entire country.107 In 2005-06, Kenya’s budget for debt payments was as much as for water, health, agriculture, roads, transport, and finance combined.108 Overall in 2006, the world’s poorest countries (with annual average incomes of less than $935 per person) paid more than $34 billion in debt service (payments of interest and principal), which works out to $93 million a day. If you include all developing countries, the amount was $573 billion.109 According to the Jubilee Debt campaign, which provides those numbers, although there was some debt cancellation in 2007 and 2008, today’s figures are likely similar; there were also plenty of new loans.110

Finally, there’s the transfer of wealth from the export of valuable natural resources—remember the resource curse I mentioned in the extraction chapter? So the World Bank and IMF have contributed to a situation where most borrowing countries pay way more than they ever receive in international aid.

But why is this our concern? These are international institutions, right? Actually, the United States provides 18 percent of the World Bank’s funding. And the United States controls 18 percent of the voting power at the IMF—in effect a veto power, since an 85 percent majority is required for a decision.111 This means the United States has a disproportionate share of influence over both the IMF and World Bank. And it means we U.S. citizens are involved by providing our tax dollars, as well as by benefiting from interest repayments the World Bank makes on its bonds that are bought by our pension funds, municipalities, and church or university endowments. We’re paying for all these environmentally destructive projects, ruthless economic reforms, and bad loans that are suffocating many developing countries’ economies. So we have both the responsibility and the right to check out what the IMF and World Bank are doing, and to rein them in.

It is simply not possible for developing countries to pay back the crippling debt on these international loans, many of which were made under misleading or coercive terms for poorly planned projects. Or were made with undemocratic and corrupt leaders who diverted the funds for their personal use, or spent them on arms to secure their hold on power. And it is even more impossible to expect poor countries to be able to chart a path of sustainability, of just and healthy economic development, while being held hostage to decades-old debt. If the World Bank and IMF are even remotely interested in improving the life of the world’s poor, these debts need to be canceled. Instead, the Bank and IMF should offer ecological-debt repayments to communities worldwide to compensate for the social and environmental damages these institutions caused with their projects and policies over previous decades.


The Jubilee movement—inspired by the biblical concept of a Jubilee year in which debts are forgiven and equity is restored—is active in many countries around the world, uniting faith-based communities with advocates for human rights, the environment, labor, and economic justice. It calls for a cancellation of international debts and the restoration of healthy relationships between nations. Some progress is being made. There is proposed legislation before the U.S. Congress called the Jubilee Act, which would cancel debt among the poorest countries in the world and promote more transparency and responsibility in future lending. In 2008, this act passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but didn’t make it to the full Senate for a vote.112 Even while waiting for the Jubilee Act to move forward, there are other signs of hope, such as the April 2009 promise by the Obama administration to provide $20 million to cancel Haiti’s absolutely crippling debt payments to the World Bank and its regional ally, the Inter-American Development Bank.113

The last of the big three is the World Trade Organization. The WTO was created in 1995 as the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (or GATT). First aimed at reducing trade tariffs, it later turned to “trade liberalization”—that is, removing obstacles to increased trade. Now, I am not against trade, which has been happening since the beginning of time and has brought many good things. But trade should take place when it supports a thriving environment, good jobs, healthy communities, and cultural diversity. Trade can support all those things when those things are the end, and trade is one (just one) means by which to achieve them. The fundamental problem with the WTO is that it acts as though trade itself is the goal and that therefore trade must be given preference over pesky little things like public health, worker rights, and strong and vibrant local economies.

The trade-trumps-all approach of the WTO is demonstrated in its highly controversial provision which prevents nations from discriminating against any product based on how it was produced. It doesn’t matter if the technology involved in making the product is horribly polluting or unsafe to workers. Any country—driven by its corporate interests—can challenge a law in another country by claiming it’s a “trade barrier.” Such disputes are decided by three-person arbitration panels that meet in secret and are not screened for conflicts of interest.114

In the late 1990s, I worked in Ralph Nader’s office in Washington, D.C. One of my colleagues there, Rob Weissman, a Harvard-trained lawyer and leading critic of the WTO, used to chide me for my obsession with factories and dumps, urging me to join those fighting the WTO instead of, or more accurately in addition to, working on garbage. He pointed out that every law that I worked tirelessly to strengthen, and every victory against a dirty production process could get wiped out, or rendered illegal, by the WTO.

Weissman was right on: many of my local-level campaigns, for example to prevent a certain incinerator or polluting factory, were won as battles but then lost in the overall war as macro-level policies determined a different longer term outcome. Under the WTO, environmental laws, labor standards, human rights legislation, public health policies, protection of native cultures, food self-reliance—all of these can and have been attacked and overturned as impediments to free trade. For example, the WTO overruled the European Union’s law banning beef raised with artificial growth hormones when beef producers outside Europe claimed the public health law constituted a trade barrier.115 Under the WTO, government laws made in the public interest can be overturned just like that. Obviously, many companies that extract resources and produce Stuff love this, since it means fewer obstacles to their business. For those of us who are working to promote higher standards and better practices for how resources are extracted, Stuff is produced, and workers and communities are treated, it’s a huge problem. All our goals become secondary (at best) to more, faster, cheaper trade.

Despite its implicit threat to the well-being of people and the planet, the WTO (and international trade agreements leading to it) somehow managed to keep itself off the radar screen of the American public for half a century. And then 1999 happened. In 1999, some doofus at the WTO decided to hold the annual ministerial conference in Seattle, Washington. What were they thinking? Were they unaware of the city’s demographics and pro-environment politics? That meeting marked a major turning point in public awareness about the WTO. An estimated seventy thousand people from all over the world descended on Seattle116 to make their opposition to the WTO known, with nonviolence, teach-ins, strategy sessions, and marches. The protest was amazing in both its scale and its diversity. Alongside representatives from rich and poor countries alike, environmentalists and labor activists—two communities with a history of misunderstandings and tension between them—joined forces against an international regime that prioritizes trade over the planet, communities, and workers.

Of course I was there: how could I not be when this was going down in the town where I was born? My mother and my childhood neighbors were kind enough to open their doors and guest rooms and couches to my colleagues. It was my four-month-old daughter’s first big protest, and a local Seattle artist made her a little T-shirt with drawing of a baby pacifier and the words “WTO SUCKS.”

I heard speakers from India, the Philippines, Brazil, and Nigeria give firsthand accounts of natural resources and communities sacrificed to the goal of increased and unfettered trade. I got to walk the downtown streets the day before the big protest day and felt the peaceful, hopeful energy of the crowd. The people there were smart and dedicated, spending their days learning about issues of sustainability and justice—by and large good people. There were so many of us that we felt change was truly within our reach.

On the day of the big planned march, rumors spread about police hostility toward the protesters, and I decided to stay home with my baby girl. We watched the coverage on my mother’s little television, and I got regular frontline updates from my colleagues via their cell phones. It was surreal to see tens of thousands of people from all over the world marching past the department store where I bought my prom shoes in high school and the monorail stop where I used to disembark with kids I babysat twenty years earlier.

Watching the events unfold on TV was disturbing. The newscasters didn’t offer substantive background about the WTO. They didn’t note how amazing it was that nearly one hundred thousand people were paying enough attention to the WTO to know what a problem it was and that they had left their jobs and homes to voice peaceful opposition. Instead they showed one clip over and over again all day: a couple of young troublemakers smashing storefront windows in downtown Seattle.117 I was fuming. If they wanted to show faces of the real WTO critics there, why not interview those speakers from other countries who came to tell their stories? Or Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach, who was also there? Lori knows the provisions of the WTO so well that during her lectures, she sometimes invites audience members to yell out some topic, almost like a game show—Health care! Banking regulations! Small fisherfolk!—and she explains exactly how the WTO will affect, and undermine, those sectors. I don’t think she has ever been stumped.

And if the news wanted to show violence to keep up those ratings, there’s plenty of violence caused by the system that the WTO supports! They could have run clips of workers in garment factories being made to work so fast they lost fingers in the machines, or of miners in the Congo being beaten for inadequate results after an endless day’s work. Instead the media grossly misrepresented the day’s events, trivialized the serious concerns that the citizens voiced, and compounded our society’s ignorance of global issues.

Although the inappropriately named “Battle of Seattle” was the biggest WTO protest in the United States to date, such protests are much more common in other countries. In 2001 in India, for example, more than a million farmers protested against the WTO’s plan to force India to give equal preference to food grown by megacorporations in other countries and that grown by small-scale Indian farmers.118 The local farmers feared that the flood of imported food would lead to lower food prices, since corporations can leverage economies of scale. They argued that this would decimate the livelihood of millions of Indians—many of whom were already living on the brink of starvation—and lock the country into a relationship of dependence, when they were perfectly capable of growing food for themselves. Buying foodstuff from overseas would also drain resources to the megacorporations’ home countries, whereas buying from local farmers would keep more money in their community, contributing to a stronger, more resilient local economy.

Unfortunately the Indian farmers were not successful in protecting themselves from the flood of imports priced below market. Many of their worst fears were realized. But they keep fighting because their lives depend on it. In 2005, the Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements, a coalition of farmers from around the country, wrote a letter to the prime minister summarizing their demands in the face of the emergency: “The dumping of these agricultural commodities led to depression in the domestic farmgate prices, which led to a deep agrarian crisis and caused increased cases of farmers’ suicides... We believe that the very structure of WTO rules therefore distorts trade against small farmers, against food sovereignty and against trade justice. That is why we gave a call for the removal of agriculture from WTO... Agriculture in India is not an industry. It is the main source of livelihood for 70% of the population of the country. We therefore demand from the Indian government to quit from WTO. We also demand that agriculture should be out of WTO.”119 As I finalize this book in late 2009, farmers throughout India are continuing to fight with increasing desperation to protect their livelihoods and save their economy from being the latest casualty of the WTO.

Huge protests have also occurred against the WTO in Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere in Asia. In 2003, more than 150,000 human rights, agriculture, environmental, and labor advocates descended on Cancún, Mexico, where the WTO was holding a major international meeting.120 The activists came from literally all over the world to insert their voices into the conversation. Many were desperate. The head of South Korea’s Federation of Farmers and Fishermen, Lee Kyung Hae, was so determined to bring attention to the WTO’s devastating impact on Korean farmers that he fatally stabbed himself in protest. A fellow South Korean farmers’ advocate, Song Nan Sou explained, “His death is not a personal accident but reflects the desperate fighting of 3.5 million Korean farmers.”121

In the United States, in a land of endless choice and immediate gratification, most of us can’t imagine what living on the edge really means. For us, a bad day is having the FedEx delivery delayed or the Internet connection disrupted. But in the rest of the world, millions of miners, farmers, and factory workers literally live on the very edge of survival. These are the people whom trade policies should be designed to benefit the most, yet they are the ones paying the heaviest price for WTO policies. And their voices go unheard by the WTO, which is infamous for being unwelcoming of public participation. It is no wonder these people are increasingly desperate.


In June 2009, the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act was reintroduced into the U.S. Congress with widespread support from both House Democrats and a diverse coalition of labor, consumer, environmental, family farm, and faith-based groups. According to Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division, the TRADE Act sets out what a good trade agreement must and must not include. Better yet, it requires reviews of the WTO and existing trade agreements, including NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), on economic, environmental, social, and human rights grounds and requires the president to submit plans to Congress to remedy the problems. It would also hold future trade agreements to the same higher standards.122 Passing this law would be a huge step forward for environmental and labor rights as well as for improving the United States’ relationships with our trading partners. To help turn this bill into law, please visit www.citizen.org/trade/tradeact.

My Revelation in Haiti

Can’t these institutions change? Why don’t they embrace higher environmental and labor standards, or pursue a development and trade model that promotes equity and environmental conservation?

Over the years, I have come to realize that it is not the institutions themselves that are the real problem (although they are certainly problematic: inefficient, undemocratic, and unaccountable). The real problem is the underlying set of values and assumptions and beliefs—the paradigm—on which these institutions are based. Most of the people running these hugely influential institutions actually believe that their prescriptions work and will ultimately improve life for everyone. At worst, they think it is the dose, rather than the prescription, that is the problem, explains Kevin Gallagher, professor of international relations at Tufts University: “They don’t think the reforms are wrong, but that they haven’t been implemented wholeheartedly enough. If developing country economies adhere to our programs even more, they say, then things will get better.”123

This really sank in for me during my first trip to Haiti years ago. I had gone to Haiti because heavy-metal-laden ash from the city of Philadelphia’s municipal waste incinerator had been exported to Haiti, mislabeled as fertilizer, and dumped in a big open pile on the beach in Gonaïves. This infuriated me. How could a load of waste from the world’s richest country just be dumped on the poorest country in the hemisphere and left there? This incident seemed like a metaphor for how the United States had treated Haiti on so many levels for far too long. So I went to Haiti at the invitation of some Haitians who had contacted me seeking to collaborate to make Philadelphia take back its toxic ash. At that point I knew very little about how larger global systems operated—mostly what I knew about was trash.

The first people I met with were the women from the Disney sweatshop, whom I described in the previous chapter. After they had told me about conditions in the factory, some women shared their stories about moving from rural areas in the Haitian countryside to the city in search of these jobs. I asked them why they stayed in the city, living in slums that had little electricity and no running water or sanitation, and working in such obviously unhealthy environments instead of staying in the countryside with more space and cleaner air. The women said the countryside simply couldn’t sustain them anymore. Their families had given up farming since they couldn’t compete against the omnipresent “Miami rice,” as they called the white rice imported from the United States. “Miami rice” was grown on megafarms in the United States (not actually in Miami!) and delivered to Haiti for much less than the price of the more labor-intensive, more nutritious (and according to the Haitians, tastier) local rice strains. Farming, the women said, is dying in Haiti. They had no choice.

Next I visited farmers and former farmers. The one farmer I remember most clearly lowered his voice at one point and explained that Miami rice and the cancellation of the Haitian government’s subsidies for farmers was all part of a plan by the World Bank and its ally, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to drive Haitians off their land and into the city to sew clothes for rich Americans. Fewer farmers. More garment workers. The destruction of farming as a livelihood, he explained, was necessary to push people to the city, so people would be desperate enough to work all day in miserable sweatshops. When he spoke of it, he whispered and his eyes grew extra intense and I wondered if he was jumping to conclusions too fast, perhaps entertaining a conspiracy theory. I mean, really, how could agencies devoted to alleviating poverty want to have Haitians sewing princess nightgowns instead of growing food for their communities? As I said, this was a long time ago, and I was pretty naïve.

On the drive back to Port-au-Prince, I watched the Haitian countryside roll past, my head pressed against the glass of the van window. As harsh as eking out a living from that depleted countryside would be, it still seemed vastly preferable to the crowded urban slums.

The next day I went to USAID, a government organization that describes itself as “the principal U.S. agency to extend assistance to countries recovering from disaster, trying to escape poverty, and engaging in democratic reforms.”124 I didn’t know much about international development agencies back then, and I eagerly anticipated learning about strategies to restore the rural environment and get those farms back in working order again, to allow those who wanted to farm to be able to earn a sustainable, dignified living while producing food locally. It seemed crazy to me that a once-lush tropical island was abandoning farming and importing food. Local food means less packaging, less transportation, more local jobs, and fresher, healthier food. How could anyone not want that?

The USAID office was in downtown Port-au-Prince. When I went there, it was the first time I had felt air-conditioning, seen men in suits, or been surrounded by white people since arriving in Haiti. For the first time since I had been in the country, I worried my dress and sandals weren’t nice enough for the setting.

The USAID representative began explaining his agency’s vision for “developing” Haiti. To my utter amazement, he laid out the same plan as the whispering farmer had. But he wasn’t saying it while leaning closer, in hushed tones, with wild eyes. He sat up straight and tall and announced that USAID did not feel it was “efficient” for Haitians to produce food. Instead, he felt, they should participate in the global economy, leveraging their best resources, which apparently meant many thousands of people so near starvation that they would be willing to sew Sleeping Beauty pajamas from morning to night, endure physical and sexual threats, live in slums, only to be able to feed their kids half a meal a day.

He flat out proclaimed that local food sufficiency was not desirable or needed. He explained that a better concept is “food security,” which means that a population didn’t need to grow its own food but should instead import food, in this case from the United States. Since U.S. farmers (heavily subsidized, I’d like to point out) can grow rice more “efficiently” than can small Haitian farmers, USAID preferred that the rice from the United States be sent to Haiti and Haitians leave their farms to work in the garment factories—a job that, he felt, was less suited to the U.S. population.

I blurted out that “efficiency” was not the only criteria. A farmer’s relationship to the land, healthy and dignified work, a parent’s ability to spend time with his or her kids after school, a community staying intact generation after generation—all these things had value, and a real development plan would prioritize them. “Well,” he said, “if a Haitian really wants to farm, there is room for a handful of them to grow things like organic mangoes for the high-end export market.” I almost fell off my chair. I realized that the ideas that the Haitian farmer had shared were no conspiracy theory. A conspiracy requires some attempt at secrecy. But here was USAID just laying out its grand plan for the people of Haiti—not as self-determinate people, but as a market for our surplus rice and a supplier of cheap seamstresses, with an occasional organic mango for sale at Dean & DeLuca. It wasn’t a secret plan; it was a plan they openly admitted and justified.

In early 2008, a front page article in the New York Times reminded me of that eye-opening visit to Haiti. The USAID plan has been effective: by 2008 Haiti was importing 80 percent of its rice. This made it very vulnerable to fluctuations in global rice supply and price. The combination of rising fuel costs, a severe drought, and in some places the diversion of water to more lucrative crops had lowered worldwide rice production. As a result, global rice prices tripled over a few months in early 2008, leaving thousands of Haitians simply unable to afford this staple food. The newspaper ran haunting pictures of Haitians who had resorted to eating dirt pies, held together with bits of lard or butter, in order to have some substance in their stomachs.125

I thought of that USAID man and burned with anger. Had his agency devoted its resources to supporting farmers in developing sustainable farming practices, rather than investing in infrastructure and polices favoring garment factories and export processing, a drought in Australia would not have made people starve in Haiti, literally a half a planet away. And this, in a nutshell, is the legacy of the global trade and “development” institutions.

The Local Alternative

Once again, at this stage in the Story of Stuff, we’re running into limits. A major limit comes with the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels and the mandate to cut carbon emissions, both of which will hobble the whole system of global logistics, transport, and freight that is currently in place. Another limit comes as the developing countries get fed up with providing the resources and cheap labor that support our bloated consumer lifestyle, while they struggle to meet basic human needs. Increasingly, they’re rejecting this imposed division of labor and demanding to be able to chart their own development paths.

Perhaps the highest profile example of a country refusing to play by IFI rules was the case of the so-called Water Wars in Bolivia. The World Bank and IMF require borrowing countries to open their markets to foreign companies and privatize state-owned enterprises, including utilities. Bolivia complied and in 1999 privatized the water service in its third largest city, Cochabamba, entering into a 40 year contract with an international consortium of corporations led by U.S.-based Bechtel. Because privatization of utilities often results in extreme rate hikes and decreased services for the poor, citizens of Cochabamba worried what this would mean for their access to water. They had ample cause for concern, as it turned out.

By 2000, water rates had increased up to 200%. In a city with a minimum wage of less than $100 a month, many people were paying a quarter of their monthly income on water. Even rain that fell into the residents’ rainwater harvesting systems was considered the private property of Bechtel. Peasants who needed the water for irrigation, low income residents, students, workers and many others joined widespread protests demanding the removal of the foreign lead consortium. At first, the government refused, worried about the signal that such a move would send foreign investors, but when the public protests escalated, eventually resulting in 175 injuries, 2 people being blinded, and a police shooting of an unarmed 17 year old caught on film, it relented, revoking the contract and returning water management to the public utility which promised to manage water as a social good, not a commodity.126

I’d also say that even here in the land of Wal-Mart and Amazon, consumers are getting tired of the frenetic pace of things. In a sense it is impressive that companies can now make, design, ship, and sell a T-shirt in a couple of weeks, when it used to take months. But to what end? Trendy clothes and gadgets don’t actually make life better. In fact, virtually everyone I know is tired and just longs to slow down. At a parent meeting at my daughter’s school recently, the meeting facilitator asked, “Who here is not in a rush most of the time?” Not one person raised their hand.

Fortunately, there are ways to do things better, and people are working on all fronts, from increasing transparency in the supply chain (like Dara O’Rourke’s wonderful GoodGuide), to protesting and withdrawing investments from the busted system dictated by the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, to reducing the size of supply chains by promoting “local economies.”

Maybe you’ve heard about the local food movement, with restaurants and markets touting the low number of miles that food had to travel there and people calling themselves “locavores.” Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon, authors of Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet, point out that a local diet is about “getting to know the seasons (and) understanding where our food comes from, and at what risk to our health and to the environment.”127 More and more American consumers are choosing to support local farmers and food suppliers because the food is fresher, healthier, and tastier.

Many of them also realize they’re supporting the wealth and sustainability of their own communities, so there’s a moral, even patriotic implication to their choices. And a social one. Bill McKibben, one of today’s great environmental writers, applauds farmers markets in his book Deep Economy. They are the fastest-growing part of the U.S. food industry, he writes, not just because they provide good, fresh, delicious food. It is also because they are more fun. They rebuild community and the social fabric that has been so eroded by the hectic globalized economy. McKibben claims that on average, people have ten times more social interactions at a farmers market than a grocery store.128 I believe it! In Berkeley, my local farmers market is a few blocks away. It’s small, with a modest selection, with all local and organic food. I like going there. I invariably run into neighbors. It feels so, well, European—the idea of a leisurely walk to a market, putting my fresh vegetables and bread in my cloth bag, chatting with friends, and strolling home. It adds to, rather than undermines, the quality of my day. I can’t say the same about a trip to one of those gigantic megastores.

There’s a modest but growing movement to support local producers of Stuff other than food, too. In the United States, a nationally active group called the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) unites businesses working to promote local economies and community selfreliance: not just a local food system, but local energy (think solar cells and wind turbines), local clothing manufacturing, and green buildings from local materials.129 In this model, a global economy still exists, but as a network of locally sustainable economies that trade in products they can’t produce themselves. Trade—national or international—isn’t the goal, but a means to promote well-being, good jobs, a healthy environment.

Judy Wicks, one of the founders of the local food movement and of BALLE, even makes a connection between local self-reliance and security: “Wars are often fought over access to basic needs like energy, food, and water. Helping every region achieve food security, energy security, and water security builds the foundation for world peace. Self-reliant societies are less likely to start wars than those dependent on long-distance shipments of oil, water or food.”130

Internationally, there’s a growing group of more than one hundred communities that have declared themselves “Transition Towns”—many in Great Britain but a handful in the United States (including Boulder County, Colorado; Sandpoint, Idaho; and Berea, Kentucky) and elsewhere—that are working toward reducing energy consumption and increasing local energy production, food self-reliance, and industrial ecology, in which the waste of one factory or business is used as the raw materials of the next. According to the official guide to Transition Towns, one of the central ideas is that locally reliant life without fossil fuel dependence will be more enjoyable and fulfilling: “The coming post-cheap oil era [can be viewed] as an opportunity rather than a threat, and [we can] design the future low carbon age to be thriving, resilient and abundant—somewhere much better to live than our current alienated consumer culture based on greed, war and the myth of perpetual growth.”131

Clearly, both good sense and ecological limits necessitate a shift toward local distribution systems and local economies. Buying, selling, transporting, and sharing Stuff locally as much as possible will help conserve resources and build community—two things we desperately need to prioritize.

That said, there is a dilemma when we consider the system at the global level. For centuries there’s been a global division of labor in which some countries specialize in providing resources and labor, while other countries specialize in consuming those resources and the goods of that labor. This was true as far back as colonial Europe’s heyday, and it’s still true now. One-third of U.S. imports come from poorer nations, a number that includes things we extract or grow or assemble there.132 Globally, many millions of workers labor in export industries. In the average U.S. home, the majority of our toys, clothes, electronics, and household appliances come from massive factories all over China. I remember when my daughter was just learning her letters. She was playing in her room and came downstairs to ask me, “Momma, what does C-H-I-N-A spell?” “China,” I told her (she knew what the word meant—she had friends from there). “So,” she asked next, “why is it written on everything?”

So, while moving to more localized economies is a good thing, we have to deal with the legacy of several hundred years of this colonial-style division of labor. It simply isn’t fair for us to suddenly say, “OK, we changed our mind. We’re pulling out of the globalized Stuff distribution system. Good luck. Ciao.”

At the heart of a true solution is solidarity, which writer Barbara Ehrenreich elegantly defines as “love between people who may never meet each other, but share a vision of justice and democracy and are willing to support each other in the struggle to achieve it.”133 International solidarity mandates that while we begin to extract ourselves from the destructive side of the global economy and invest in rebuilding healthy local economies, we also support the workers and communities in developing countries as they transition into (or sometimes, return to) local sustainability themselves. And we must have patience for the fact that their transition into a development model that works for them on their terms, may take more time than our transition. And since unequal consumption of global resources (like water and medicines and fossil fuels) is also limiting their options, we in the regions of the world that have been consuming more than our fair share will need to use less, figure out a way to repay our debts for having used more until now, and share equitably in the future.