EXAMPLES OF PROMISING POLICIES, REFORMS, AND LAWS - 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)



While each community and country requires a custom approach, there is a delicious smorgasbord of possible policies, regulations, laws, and programs that can improve humanity’s well-being and the state of the planet.

Some of these are already under way and just need to be scaled up. Some could be implemented right away, some over the short term, some more gradually. Some are straightforward; others are going to take some serious thought and planning in order to be implemented compassionately and justly.

This is not a comprehensive list, just a few of the possibilities I’m most excited about, presented in an order that matches up with the five stages in the Story of Stuff.


1. Strengthen and implement government-led international agreements and monitoring systems (not voluntary industry-led codes of conduct) on environmental sustainability and human rights issues for all mining operations—gold, diamonds, coal, coltan, everything. The Kimberley Process needs to be strengthened and enforced to be effective, and additional systems are needed to cover other types of mining. Many organizations are working on reforming mining practices; check out Earthworks in the United States, Minerals Policy Institute in Australia, and Mines, Minerals and People in India.

2. Stop logging in the planet’s endangered remaining forests, from Canada’s boreal forest to Indonesia’s rainforest. Enact and enforce strict environmental and human rights standards for logging in other forests, prioritizing the protection of natural forests required to restore climate stability. Strengthen the Forest Stewardship Council certification program so it ensures protection of endangered forests, the rights of forest-dwelling peoples, and ecological values of the forests.

3. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the level needed to stabilize the climate, we simply must wean ourselves from fossil fuels and massively reduce carbon emissions. As activists from Ecuador to Nigeria to Appalachia, we need to say, “Keep the oil in the soil, keep the coal in the hole.” Policies that promote this path could include:

· Redirecting government subsidies for extractive energy industries toward the development of clean, renewable energy options.

· Redirecting subsidies for gas guzzler vehicles and highways toward promoting public transportation and zoning laws that discourage sprawl and create sidewalks, bike lanes, and public transportation, so people can reach the places they need to go without driving.

· Establishing strict guidelines on fuel efficiency for cars and energy efficiency for buildings. Fuel efficiency and energy standards should be set and enforced by the government and should be based on sound science, free from industry influence. The Obama administration has recently announced a goal of an average of 35.5 miles per gallon for U.S. vehicles by 2016. Considering that some current cars get more than 50 mpg, with the technology available to achieve even higher fuel efficiency, why stop at a measly 35.5 mpg? Likewise, buildings can be required to be vastly more energy efficient, saving energy on both cooling and heating.

· In the United States, upgrading the obsolete General Mining Act of 1872 to protect water sources, require reclamation, and deny mining claims that conflict with the protection of other resources. The Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization Earthworks coordinates a campaign to overhaul this ancient law as well as address other environmental and social issues related to mining in the United States and internationally.

· Banning mountaintop removal mining, in which entire mountaintops are blown up to access the coal inside. To see what this looks like and to get involved, visit www.ilovemountains.org.

· Ceasing development of Canada’s tar sands. Tar sands consist of heavy crude oil mixed with sand, clay, and bitumen. Extracting the oil entails burning natural gas to generate enough heat and steam to melt it out of the sand and uses up to five barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced. Rainforest Action Network (RAN) says that tar sands oil is the worst type for the climate, producing three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced oil because of the energy required to extract and process it. RAN is organizing to redirect the $70 to $100 billion the United States plans to invest in tar sands infrastructure into research and development of sustainable energy alternatives such as electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and solar and wind energy.


1. Reform chemicals policy, focusing on prevention rather than futile attempts to regulate hazardous chemicals after they’ve dispersed into our products, environment, and bodies. Ban the supertoxic chemicals, including chemicals that build up in our bodies (known as persistent bioaccumulative toxins, or PBTs) and toxic metals like lead and mercury. We in the United States have an opportunity to help pass the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, the first effort to protect the public health through comprehensive chemical policy reform in more than thirty years. Sign up to join the campaign at www.saferchemicals.org.

2. Strengthen unions by protecting the right to organize and choosing unionized businesses for everything from clothing to hotels. Support worker cooperatives too; co-ops build democratic engagement and ensure that profits are kept in the local economy and shared more fairly.

3. Tax pollution at levels high enough to make investments in prevention vastly cheaper. Because the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has reached such crisis levels and we must reduce it to 350 ppm (see www.350.org for more information), taxes aren’t enough for this particular pollutant. For carbon, we have to go to the main source of the problems—the biggest CO2 point emitters—and force them to change their energy consumption systems, sometimes quite radically. Many of the suggestions under the extraction section, above, will help achieve this.


1. Ensure that sustainability and equity are the top goals of all trade agreements. In the United States, support the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment Act of 2009 (the TRADE Act, H.R. 3012), which would significantly improve destructive trade policies like those of NAFTA and the WTO. To learn more and get involved, visit www.citizen.org/trade/tradeact/.

2. Give preference to locally made products with tools like a gradual tariff on goods that is based on how far they’ve traveled. Support local business and locally made products to reduce transportation and support local economies. The goal is not to prohibit all long-distance trade but to increasingly strengthen local production and distribution to create self-reliant communities while also securing a just transition in those communities with export-dependent economies. For those products that are shipped long distances, prioritize rail transport over the more polluting planes and trucks.

3. Promote transparency and democracy in supply chains so everyone—workers, host communities, customers, and businesses along the chain—have access to information and a voice in decision making. Laws to support this would require that companies disclose all their suppliers (as both Dell and Hewlett-Packard now do), ensure worker rights and environmental sustainability along their supply chain, and make this information available to the public.


1. Decommercialize our culture. Reclaim our mental and physical landscape from commercial advertisers. Ban billboards and other intrusive advertising. Prohibit commercial advertising to children and in public places. Get commercial advertising out of textbooks, classrooms, and all educational facilities. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood conducts research and advocates for protective policies; to get involved visit www.commercialexploitation.org. Commercial Alert (www.commercialalert.org) runs numerous campaigns to decommercialize our schools, media, and communities.

2. Ensure public investment in commons like libraries, athletic facilities, and parks so that residents can meet their needs and enjoy leisure time without buying Stuff. Attend city council meetings to voice your opinion about budget priorities, or better yet, run for office yourself!

3. Adopt a progressive tax on resource consumption, allowing free use for basic needs while taxing higher-quantity use. For example, water to drink is free; water to wash your SUV or water your desert lawn is really expensive. A vibrant and often-heated discussion is happening on the international level as to what constitutes basic needs.


1. Adopt extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws that hold producers responsible for the end-of-life management of their products, motivating better design at the front end and decreasing waste at the back end. Examples of EPR already in action include bottle bills, Germany’s Green Dot program, and the computer take-back legislation in many U.S. states. To learn how to promote EPR in your community, visit www.productaction.org, www.productpolicy.org, and www.productstewardship.us.

2. Implement significant taxes to discourage wasteful packaging and products, such as single-use beverage containers and disposable plastic bags. Ban outright those materials that are inherently toxic, such as consumer products containing mercury or PVC. Germany’s Green Dot program, national bottle bills, and disposable bag taxes and bans in numerous countries demonstrate the waste reduction potential of these tools.

3. Develop a national composting infrastructure to ensure that organic waste is kept out of landfills and that composting biomaterials moves from ideal to reality. This should include support for decentralized (backyard or community level) composting where possible, supplemented by municipal composting operations.

4. Prohibit all waste incineration. It’s simply not needed; technically viable and less polluting nonincineration alternatives exist for medical, municipal, and hazardous wastes. Instead, adopt a zero waste goal and invest in waste prevention, reuse, and recycling programs that conserve resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create jobs. Prohibit all scams aiming to give renewable energy credits or carbon offset credits to waste incinerators and landfill gas burning! To get involved, contact the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives at www.no-burn.org.

5. For municipal wastes, implement pay-as-you-throw systems at the local level in which households and businesses pay more for waste disposal the more they throw away. For hazardous wastes, focus on prevention, as the wonderful Toxics Use Reduction Institute (www.turi.org) has demonstrated is possible.

Other Good Ideas

Taxes and Banking

1. Tax resource use rather than labor; this motivates employers to conserve resources and hire more people.

2. Eliminate government subsidies for environmentally destructive activities and products, from mining to SUVs.

3. Cancel debts for poor countries, many of which were obtained under corrupt conditions to build projects benefiting the donor country.

Corporate Accountability

1. End the guarantees of limited liability for corporate wrongdoing and constitutional protections of corporations as individuals that are currently conferred upon them, via their corporate charters, under U.S. corporate law.

2. Institute limits on executive salaries and raise minimum wages to reduce the obscene gap between rich and poor in the United States. A good start would be immediately restricting the compensation of top earners to one to two hundred times as much as the company’s lowest-paid employee (still far higher than in other countries), with progressive restrictions each year to further shrink the income gap to a much healthier and fair ratio.

3. Strengthen corporate accountability domestically and internationally by improving rules on transparency and public involvement in decision making. In the United States, protect the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) which allows foreign nationals to bring legal cases against U.S. companies for human rights or environmental abuses they cause beyond U.S. borders. Business organizations that advocate for corporate rights and free trade, including the National Foreign Trade Council and USA* Engage, are lobbying the U.S. government to weaken or repeal ATCA. To support this important law, contact the Center for Constitutional Rights (www.ccrjustice.org), EarthRights International (www.earthrights.org), and Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org).

International Cooperation and Solidarity

1. Be a part of the solution, not the problem. Insist that the U.S. Government cooperate in international environmental fora and agreements. Across the board, from the Basel Convention, which deals with international waste trafficking, to the critically important UN climate convention, the U.S. delegation routinely blocks progress toward binding environmental agreements. In order to achieve real solutions to our global environmental threats and to begin a new era of U.S. environmental leadership and cooperation after years of embarrassing obstructionism, our government simply must start enthusiastically promoting environmental solutions in international settings. There’s no time to stall—especially on the climate front. Write to your elected representatives urging strong action to reduce carbon emissions. Then, since the climate crisis calls for more than letter writing, visit www.350.org, www.1Sky.org, and Climate Justice Now (www.climate-justice-now.org) for further action ideas.

2. Join international solidarity campaigns led by communities, trade unions, and environmentalists who ask for support in their work against corporations engaged in destructive extraction, production, or disposal practices, especially when those corporations are from our home countries. Such campaigns—like sanctions against apartheid in South Africa and the Burmese junta or the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal—are a vital tool for promoting corporate accountability, improving industrial operations, increasing local involvement in decision making, supporting broader eco-social improvement, and strengthening international solidarity.