RECOMMENDED INDIVIDUAL ACTIONS - 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)



I always resist offering ten easy things individuals can do that will save the planet, because as I’ve explained, there are no ten easy things that will save the planet. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t bother with being responsible and smart in our actions at the individual and household level. There are things we can do to lessen environmental health impacts on our families and workers. These actions can also reduce our ecological footprint a bit. So, yes, we should engage in these actions, as long as we don’t let them either lull us into a false sense of accomplishment or let the effort of maintaining this constant, uptight, rigorous green screen on our lifestyle exhaust us. In other words, as long as taking these actions doesn’t stand in the way of your engaging in the broader political arena for real change, knock yourself out.

There’s an abundance of guides on how to live a greener life. This book is not one of them. Yet, since so many Story of Stuff viewers have asked for specific suggestions, I’ll share what I do. This isn’t a comprehensive list, and it’s not in any particular order, but it’s a good place to start and includes suggestions for additional resources.


1. Avoid products that leach toxics into our food, bodies, or homes. If you’re not sure if a product contains these hazardous chemicals, call the customer service number on the package. If they can’t confirm it’s toxic free, don’t buy it. Check for information on the toxic chemicals present in thousands of specific products. And if you want to study the latest science on these toxic chemicals, check out the invaluable resources at Environmental Health News:

Some prime offenders:

· Teflon nonstick pans: the nonstick Stuff is polytetrafluoroethylene which, when heated—as pans often are—releases toxic gasses linked to cancer, organ failure, reproductive damage, and other harmful health effects.

· PVC toys, PVC shower curtains, PVC food wrap, PVC anything—PVC is the most hazardous plastic at all stages of its lifecycle: production, use, and disposal. Don’t bring it into your home. To learn more about PVC, visit

· Mattresses, pillows, couches, or other furniture treated with polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), a supertoxic chemical linked to liver, thyroid, and neurodevelopmental toxicity. If the label says “treated for flame resistance,” beware. To learn more about flame retardants, see and The Washington Toxics Coalition’s Green Guide on PBDEs explains how to avoid toxic flame retardants in consumer products and is available online at

2. Reduce your waste. Even though household waste is a fraction of the volume of industrial waste, it’s a no-brainer to do what we can to reduce it. It’s easy, it conserves resources, and each bag of trash prevented from being dumped in a landfill or, even worse, burned in an incinerator, is a good thing. Here are some places to start:

· Avoid single-use bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, cans: these items, designed to be used for seconds, are grossly wasteful and easy to virtually eliminate with a modicum of advance planning. Don’t beat yourself up when you are in a jam and have to use one, but try to make it the exception.

· Compost: Get a separate bin in your kitchen for food scraps and compost these in a municipal composting program or use any number of home composting techniques. It’s easy, it keeps organics out of the landfill, it prevents your kitchen garbage bag from stinking, and it provides a great natural fertilizer for soil (thus avoiding nasty chemical fertilizers) for gardens and house plants. There are many composting guides for rural, suburban, and urban settings available online. I personally prefer composting with worms—see to learn how.

3. Go organic in your food, your garden, your cleaning products. Pesticides and toxic chemicals have no place in our food, our yards, and our homes. Remember, pesticides are designed to kill; that’s what they are for. They’re linked to a wide range of health problems from cancer to neurological and reproductive problems, and they’re building up in our environment and bodies. Avoid chlorine bleach and use nontoxic cleaners. The fancy-packaged ones cost more, and cheap and easy substitutes can be made from inexpensive ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice. How hard is that? If you don’t know how to make homemade nontoxic cleaners, ask your grandma or visit one of the many websites with recipes. My favorite is Women’s Voices for the Earth:

4. Power down: Drive less. Fly less. Get a clothesline. Get a bike. Turn down the heat and put on a sweater. Do a home energy audit to find energy leaks and fix them. No explanation needed here, I hope.

5. Unplug your TV: Why sit and stare at a box beaming messages indoctrinating us into consumer culture for hours a day when there are so many more enjoyable alternatives available? I realized this a few years ago, when at the end of TV Turnoff Week (a national program in which kids pledge to resist TV for a week), my daughter turned to me and said, “I had so much fun this week. I wish every week was TV Turnoff Week.” And so it was.

6. Invest in the economy you want: When you’re shopping, investing, choosing a bank, paying someone who helped you around the house—really doing anything with your money—think about whether your hard-earned dollars are supporting the kind of economy you want or the one you want to escape from. Buying locally produced, union made, or fair trade certified are all good things to consider. And remember, buying secondhand, or not buying at all, is often the best option.

At School, Work, Church

Of course, all those individual and householder action ideas apply to any setting in which you spend part of your days, such as school, work, or church. In these places, you have the automatic benefit of already being part of a group, which means your potential influence and impact is magnitudes greater. Some additional ideas for greening these settings are:

· Get your institution to adopt a sustainability policy that confirms its commitment to environmental and social sustainability. Ensure the policy is visibly supported. Include it in outreach material, orientation packets for new students, new members, or new hires, and other publications so that it becomes part of the institution’s culture. Then, reach out to other organizations in your sector and invite them to join you. For guidance in working with K-12 schools, contact the Green Schools Initiative at; for working with faith-based institutions, contact GreenFaith at

· Leverage your procurement dollars. Universities, businesses, and organizations of all sorts generally buy more Stuff than individuals do, so they can demand more of their suppliers. Requiring printers to use recycled paper, caterers to serve organic food, suppliers to minimize packaging, or janitorial services to avoid toxic cleansers can help, slowly, shift these business sectors to better practices.

Why do any or all of these things, even when we know they aren’t enough to turn things around? The value of individual action includes:

· It demonstrates potential and alternative ways to live. Each time we visibly choose quality of life over quantity of Stuff, each time we ignore those consumer messages telling us we must have the latest gadget, we demonstrate the possibility of another way. I have solar panels on my roof. After reducing my energy use with things like using a clothesline and installing insulated curtains, the panels produce enough power for my whole house and enough extra to power the small used electric vehicle that gets my daughter and me around town. I know that the cost of solar panels and a solar-powered electric vehicle are beyond the reach of many. And I know that, really, they don’t make a difference in my country’s massive CO2 emissions. But every time someone stops me to ask me about the car, and I tell them that I don’t have to go to gas stations anymore, it spreads a sense of possibility. It’s chipping away at the myth that our current industrial model is inevitable.

· Conscious consuming includes buying the least toxic, least exploitative products available or sometimes not buying something at all. Avoiding toxic-containing consumer products reduces exposure to toxics for ourselves and our families and, if it gets enough traction, sends messages upstream to producers to phase toxics out, thus benefiting workers, host communities, and the broader environment. Buying locally keeps your money in the local economy, supports local jobs, and reduces miles traveled for your Stuff—all good for the planet and communities.

· The individual actions we take to reduce our impact help us find the flaws in our system that need to be changed. I think of them as metal detectors leading us straight to what’s wrong. Where the onus is on us individuals to do the right thing, these are the places in the system that need to be changed. Why does taking public transportation cost more than the bridge toll if I drive to San Francisco? Systems flaw! Clearly we need to increase public investment and subsidies to expand mass transit. Why do I have to study GoodGuide for hours to figure out which shampoo, sunscreen, and lotions don’t have carcinogens and reproductive toxics? Systems flaw! Instead, let’s ban toxics in body care products so that everyone knows they are buying toxic free without investing hours of research.

· Integrity: I believe that people are good. We want to do the right thing; we care about the planet, our global neighbors, and our grandchildren. It doesn’t feel good to know that so many of our daily choices erode the planet’s health, perpetuate inequality, and are downright toxic. Making these small choices to lessen our impact helps bring greater integrity to our values and our actions, which in turn makes us feel better about ourselves. If these small steps are lulling us into inaction in the larger picture, that’s obviously not beneficial, but if we can harness that greater sense of personal integrity and that newly freed time to making real change, that is certainly a good thing.